Hume’s Account of Moral Distinctions

When:6 Oct 2015, 12:30pm - 2pm
Venue:Morven Brown 310 (map ref C20)
Who:Dejan Simkovic (University of Notre Dame)
Dejan Simkovic

Philosophy Seminar


In this talk, I introduce a new interpretation of Hume’s understanding of the roles that reasoning and sentiments play in the apprehension of moral distinctions — that is, in the process whereby we become aware of how strictly opposite individual moral qualities like good and evil stand in relation to one another. I argue that moral distinctions are intuitively apprehended relations between moral ideas. To reveal this long neglected aspect of Hume’s account of moral distinctions, we must disentangle the meanings he attached to terms he used to refer to individual moral qualities on one hand, and ‘moral distinctions’ and ‘moral distinguishing’ on the other, all of which he used with a degree of looseness. This analysis of Hume’s language enables us to establish that Hume’s sentimentalist account of the origin of the apprehension of distinct instances of moral qualities is related to, but nevertheless separate from, his account of the origin of the activity of distinguishing between two such tokens. While the apprehension of moral distinctions depends upon the agent’s having a distinctively moral sentiment in the “breast” (THN, 468-69), it also requires input from the imagination and intuitive understanding. Thus despite Hume’s sentimentalism about the detection of individual moral qualities — that is, his commitment to the claim that we perceive moral qualities like virtue and vice through feeling moral sentiments only (which must not be confused with his account of the complex process of moral evaluation) — his explanation of the apprehension of moral distinctions appears to be hybrid in nature, partly rationalist and partly sentimentalist. This argument allows us to fill a lacuna in scholarship on Hume’s moral epistemology, which has viewed Hume’s account of moral distinctions either as essentially sentimentalist in nature or as not clear enough to allow a coherent interpretation.

About Dean Simkovic

Dejan Simkovic is Associate Lecturer in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He received his PhD from the University of Sydney in 2015 with a dissertation on Hume’s ethics.

Light lunch will be served.

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