Hume vs. Kant: Moral Philosophy

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From the origin of Western philosophical thought, there has been an interest in moral laws. As Hume points out in the Treatise, "morality is a subject that interests us above all others" (David Hume "A Treatise of Human Nature'). Originally, thoughts of how to live were centered on the issue of having the most satisfying life, with "virtue governing one's relations to others" (J.B. Schneewind 'Modern Moral Philosophy'). However, the view that there is one way to live that is best for everyone and the view that morality is determined by God, came to be questioned, and it is this that led to the emergence of Modern moral philosophy.

The moral debates continued to see good as merely that which gives happiness or pleasure. "…it was assumed that what we ought to do is always a function of what it would be good to bring about: action can only be right because it produces good (J.B. Schneewind 'Modern Moral Philosophy'). It was the breaking away from this idea that was perhaps the most important aspect of the works of both Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and David Hume (1711-1776).

Hume's moral theory arose out of his belief that reason alone can never cause action. Desire or feelings cause action. Because reason alone can never cause action, morality is rooted in our feelings. Virtue arises from acting on a desire to help others. Hume's moral theory is therefore a virtue-centered morality rather than the natural-law morality, which saw morality as coming from God.

Kant's notion of morality arose from his notion of a moral law; a law applicable to all people at all times, that imposes absolute duties on us. According to Kant, you "ought to act according to the maxim that is qualified for universal law giving; that is, you ought to act so that the maxim of your action may become a universal law" (Immanuel Kant 'Lectures of Mr. Kant on the Metaphysics of Morals'). Kant, unlike Hume, saw it as possible to act on reason alone, and whether or not a person acted morally depended on whether he/she had acted on reason alone.

The essential difference between Kant and Hume that affected their whole thinking on the matter of morality was each one's belief about the autonomy of the will. Kant saw the will as fully autonomous and therefore needing no external sources for motivation, thus making it possible to act out of reason alone.

This ...

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... never motivate, and so conclude that morality doesn't exist in reality.

In conclusion, we can see that both the two theories have a number of things in common as well as some important differences. Both made a significant break with past moral theorists in putting forward a morality that does not according to Kant "need…the idea of another being above man, for a man to recognize his duty" (quoted in 'The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers' Ed. J.O. Urmson). Whereas past moral theories had seen duties as laid down by God, Hume and Kant saw morality as rooted in humans themselves.

However from here the theories diverge. Hume sees moral judgements as being caused by sentiments of pain or pleasure within an agent as reason alone can never motivate, whereas Kant see the only moral actions as being those caused by reason alone, or the categorical imperative. I think that both theories have a problem with coming up with absolute moral laws - Hume's theory because absolute morality would appear to be impossible if morality is based on an individual's sentiment, and Kant's theory because it cannot prove the existence of the categorical imperative.
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