Hume’s Critique of the Rationalists

  • R. David Broiles


Thus far we have been considering Hume’s answer to the question “whether tis by means of our ideas or impressions we distinguish between vice and virtue, and pronounce an action blameable or praiseworthy?” (456) And Hume’s answer is that moral distinctions are not derived from reason. Thus, in the Treatise of Morals we are studying impressions and not ideas. Now the conclusion of my examination of Hume’s arguments to establish this point was that Hume did not successfully defend his position. Further, I pointed out that the fundamental argument in Hume’s ethics rested on certain basic misconceptions about the uses of reason and the types of reasons we seek when we are concerned with making moral decisions and justifying them. We saw that Hume had an unduly narrow conception of reason when he restricted it solely to the means-end type of justification. Secondly, we saw that he further failed to distinguish exciting or explanatory reasons from justifying reasons, collapsing both into the former. The failure to make this distinction gave rise to Hume’s incorrect conception of motives as causes of actions and as the sole objects of praise or blame. The only reason why an agent has an obligation to do a certain act is because he has a motive to do actions of that sort. And this is, I tried to show, a fundamental misconception in Hume’s Treatise of Morals and underlies his argument for the conclusion that we are dealing with impressions and not ideas in the study of morality, i.e., that it is not by reason that we know an act to be right or wrong, but rather by an impression or feeling.


Moral Obligation External Object Moral Decision Moral Sense Causal Reason 
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Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1964

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. David Broiles
    • 1
  1. 1.The University of GeorgiaUSA

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