Before discussing the basis of the contrast between David Hume’s concept and that of Socrates it is important to first of all note that the two philosophers existed indifferent epochs in the history of Philosophy. Socrates, c.a 470-399 BC was an active philosopher in what is called the anthropocentric period1. That is 450-400 BC. During this period the major themes in Philosophy focused on the ‘internal’, that is, knowledge and ethics. Born a poor man, a son of a stone cutter, Socrates, is said to have become a stone mason but left his job in order to find out about life, about himself and about goodness2.
David Hume on the other hand was born in Edinburgh in 1711 AD. He lived during the Enlightenment. In this era, the major philosophical concerns were whether knowledge is attainable through reason or through experience/sense perception. That is, rationalism and empiricist schools of thought.
In this paper, I set forth to explain the conceptions of morality by both Socrates and David Hume with the aim of bringing out the basis of their contrasting views on morality. In the second part, I will outline the implications of Hume’s account of morality on the moral sphere. I will begin with Socrates, then Hume in outlining their views.
To begin with, one of the problems Socrates dealt with was the Problem of Morality, in which he held that time for following traditional customs without question is past. Moreover, he held that time for following customs without question is past. Moreover, he reflected on the element which was the decisive factor in the culture of his time, that is, practical and social significance which knowledge and science had achieved3. According to Xenophon’s exposition, to Socrates, the good must have coincided everywhere with the profitable or useful; virtue would be the knowledge of what was suited or useful in each particular instance4. That is, virtue and knowledge form a unity. The person who truly knows what is right will also do what is right. This person who truly knows what is right will also do what is right. This person will also be happy. Moreover, to Socrates, to will a thing and regard a thing as good, profitable and useful is the same thing.
According to Socrates, all ethically wrong actions proceed from a wrong view-a view clouded by desires. Therefore, anyone who thus does not ‘know’ what he is doing and hence acts involuntarily. This implies that the wise man is free and the wicked is not free. To Socrates therefore, sin is an error; resulting from a mistaken judgment regarding the bad. He also held that man can also be taught what the good is, as virtue is knowledge5.
Socrates, gave morality an epistemological foundation, that is, to do good, we must know what the good is. To him, the good is universal concept. Doing good requires that we know what these ethical universal concepts represent. Conceptual analysis of universal concepts, such as good, virtue, is important for ethical behavior. An action can then be evaluated by comparing it with the universal ethical concepts. The universal aspect of these concepts helps secure both a true universal knowledge and an objective morality valid for all people. Virtue is in a way knowledge and can in certain sense be learned and equally, knowledge of the right leads necessarily to right actions.
For Socrates, to be happy, seems to be closely related to being at peace with one self, and having a good conscience and self-respect. Happiness is thus related to human integrity and identity. The person who excels as a whole human being is happy. Happiness, integrity, and virtue are therefore related, just as happiness, and virtue are connected with insight into the right and right actions6.
What does Hume say on morality? Hume doesn’t provide a clear view on issues. More accurately, his view is that no view can be defended-including that one. Hume is the great champion of rational understanding, and the enemy of superstition7. Hume, as an empiricist, denies that no view can be defended-including that one. Hume is the great champion of rational understanding, and the enemy of superstition. Hume, as an empiricist, denies that the notion of natural rights represents knowledge: values and norms are not expressions of knowledge, but of feelings, and feelings can neither be true nor false. According to Hume, moral terms are important: people use them to attempt to control their own behavior and that of other people, when they say this is right, that this noble, this is wrong, that is wicked8. According to Hume, reason, which is or rational understanding, can only ever tell us how things are in the world, that is, it tells us what is true, and what isn’t. ‘Reason’, Hume says, ‘is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions’. It is our desires that tell us what to do: the job of reason, of science, of knowledge, is to tell us how things are in the world, in order for us to know how to get whatever it is that we (non-rationally) want.
Hume claims morality is not a matter of reason. He says that, no matter how well you might come to understand the way the world is, you will never by such reasoning discover anything at all about morality. Moreover, goodness and badness, vice and virtue, are not things, we find in the world, but things we put into it, they are not parts of nature, but parts of our reaction to it.
To Hume, goodness does not reside in action but in our feelings about them; it is not an objective feature of the act or of the person, but a subjective feature of the feelings it inspires in the people who observe it. Morality is, as beauty is often said, to be in the eyes of the beholder. The normative –goals, values, norms-can be neither true nor false. The question of whether a statement is true or false is determined by an experientially based on reason, as in the empirical sciences. This experientially based ‘reason’, cannot evaluate goals, values, or norms. Norms and values are grounded in feelings, not in reason9.
So, what is the basis for these contrasting views?
From Socrates, we deduce the fact that virtues can be taught while Hume, on the other hand holds the view that virtues are interpretations of people who observe them. Careful investigation of the differing views, in my view points us to contrasting epistemological positions.
Whereas, Socrates held the view that, the person who truly knows what is rightly will also do what is right, Hume, in his philosophy on the other hand holds the view that virtues are interpretations of people who observe them. Careful investigation of the differing views, in my view points us to contrasting epistemological positions.
1 Gunnar Skirrbeck and Nils Gilje A History of Western Thought pp. 40-41.
2 F.G Pearce; An Outline History of Civilization, pp. 41-42.
3 Wilhelm Windelband; A History of Philosophy; pp.77-80.
4 Ibid, pp.77-80
5 Bertrand Russell; The Rise Of Greek Civilization
6 Gunnar Skirbekk and Nils Gilje, A History Of Western Thought, pg.43
7 Ibid, pg. 43
8 Richard Francks, Modern Philosophy; The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, pp. 240-241.
9 Ibid, pp. 240-241.
- Quote paper
- Mbogo Wa Wambui (Author), 2010, Socrates and Hume's Conception of Morality, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/703504