A Dissent from Hume

As part of a discussion on another subject in the company of a bunch of Villains (that post and its extensive discussion are well worth reading in their own right), Grim pointed out a David Hume claim known today as Hume's Guillotine, or the is-ought problem.  The link, provided by Grim, presents a good summary of the question; it's also laid out, of course, in Part III, Section 1, "Moral Distinctions Not Derived from Reason," of Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature.  Grim asked what I thought of the matter.

The short answer is that Hume was wrong.

This post attempts to show how.

The salient parts of Hume's argument, as concerns this post, are these:

He states his problem:

Now as perceptions resolve themselves into two kinds, viz. impressions and ideas, this distinction gives rise to a question, with which we shall open up our present enquiry concerning morals. WHETHER IT IS BY MEANS OF OUR IDEAS OR IMPRESSIONS WE DISTINGUISH BETWIXT VICE AND VIRTUE, AND PRONOUNCE AN ACTION BLAMEABLE OR PRAISEWORTHY? … In order, therefore, to judge of these systems, we need only consider, whether it be possible, from reason alone, to distinguish betwixt moral good and evil, or whether there must concur some other principles to enable us to make that distinction.

Hume then makes this claim:

Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections [through opinions of injustice or through a sense of obligation], it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence.  Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions.  Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular.  The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.

Hume notes, of Reason:

Reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood.  Truth or falsehood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to real existence and matter of fact.  Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason.

with this about morals:

Now it is evident our passions, volitions, and actions, are not susceptible of any such agreement or disagreement; being original facts and realities, compleat in themselves, and implying no reference to other passions, volitions, and actions.  It is impossible, therefore, they can be pronounced true or false, and be either contrary or conformable to reason.

An administrivium: Hume makes a distinction between Reason and moral, identifying the moral as a passion.  For this post, I'll write about rational reason(ing) for Reason and moral reason(ing) for the moral.

Hume's proposition, itself, flows from a false dichotomy.  Our reasoning and moral capacities are gifts from God—indeed, they are the same gift.  The split between them is a wholly human-originated partition, which we generate strictly for the purpose of better understanding the gift.  Thus, rational and moral reasoning begin (its) existence in us, not just inextricably intertwined, but as one and the same.  We can move between them as easily as we can move from our front yard to our back. 

With regard to a part of the second above, concerning the claimed inability for rational reasoning to motivate behavior, this also is wrong.  Consider a game of poker (which, when I was actively playing it had no relation with gambling whatsoever).  A coldly objective—rationally reasoned—assessment of my hand, of the hands of my fellow players, of their betting histories, and so on, takes me to executing a behavior: fold, call, or bet, with a subset under betting of adjusting the size of these bets.  Each of these behaviors is originally motivated by a reasoned assessment the data at hand; moral reasoning has not entered into it at all.  A couple more examples: a man has a pistol and confronts a home invader who holds a weapon to the man's wife, threatening to her unless the man complies with a demand.  This is a highly emotionally charged situation, yet the man can—and a trained man does—observe the factors, sees the wife does not cover very much of the home invader, the range is short, the invader's weapon is not an immediately lethal one (a knife, perhaps, or the finger is not on the trigger), assesses his own marksmanship, and makes a decision to take his shot—or not.  Rational reasoning has determined the shot; rational reasoning has motivated the action of shooting or holding fire.  So it is in another wholly unemotional—dispassionate—activity, like driving: an action of taking this route, or that one, based on the purpose of the trip and the relative efficiencies of the two routes.  Rational reasoning determines the action of the choosing of the route and spurs the driver to act on the choice.

In the fourth above, concerning morals, his claim is internally contradictory.  If we can say that a passion,  a moral, is originally true, originally a fact, then we have...in fact…identified it so.  While we have not identified a falsifiable alternative, we have identified a truth, a fact.  This, comports with rational reasoning: a truth has been discovered.  In this case of origin, that a falsehood is not present to be discovered in no way invalidates the rationally reasoned discovery of the original truth.  A agreement or disagreement (the third above) is simply the agreement/disagreement that this discovery is an original fact.  Of course, a first principle—an original fact—cannot be proved from within its own logical system, but if Hume is correct, rational reasoning is separate from moral reasoning, and it is this separate logical system that has discovered the original fact—from without that other system.

Moreover, if the moral is always, of origin, true—a true fact, as it were—and rational reasoning can distinguish between the true and the false, then it is eminently possible for rational reasoning to recognize the moral, when it recognizes a particular truth.  Nor does rational reasoning need to be a (the) source of good or evil, as Hume decries it for not being: it need only be able to recognize the two and distinguish between them—as it does with any truth or falsehood.

Hume also proceeds from a minor false dichotomy: that it is "possible, from reason alone..." or "…whether there must concur some other principles…."  Yet this is not an either/or proposition; both can be in play.  Moral vice and virtue—morality—can be discerned through rational reasoning, but doing so does not preclude the same distinction by moral reasoning: that is, a virtuous end can be developed by rational reason, and that same virtuous end can be developed by moral reason.  In short, we can, from rational reason alone, distinguish betwixt moral good and evil, and we can make the same distinction from moral reasoning, also.  And, just to dot the i and cross the t, rational reasoning remains fully capable of discerning non-moral truths and falsehoods, as well.  A couple of examples from our Founding will illustrate.

A rational reasoning argument for an economic exchange between free men that improves both men's well-being might go something like this.  Each man has something of value that the other wants.  The two freely and of their own volition agree on a medium of exchange and a value of the objects desired, and they execute the exchange.  As a result of that exchange, both men are better off: both have gained something of value that they did not have before, and neither has not given up anything of greater value in order to realize the gain.  But this is a free market. 

A moral reasoning argument for an economic exchange between free men (keeping in mind the free will He has imbued in us), equal in the eyes of God, might go something like this.  Each man has something of value that the other wants.  The two freely agree on a medium of exchange and a value of the objects desired, and they execute the exchange.  Neither man has gained dominion over the other as a result of the exchange, and neither man has used dominion to force the other into an exchange to which he would not otherwise have agreed.  As a result of that exchange, both men are better off: both have gained something of value that they did not have before, and neither has not given up anything of greater value in order to realize the gain.  But this is a free market.  And in both free markets, the increased well-being of the two men has facilitated their ability to satisfy other moral obligations: they have, for instance, more wherewithal with which to help those less fortunate than they. 

The other example concerns a type of government.  A rational reasoning argument for a government suited to preserving the freedom of men, vis., the freedom of exchange economy described above might go something like this.  What sort of government will best preserve that sort of free market economy?  One such is a government that leaves the people sovereign over that government, easily able to draw the government back when it becomes too overreaching.  This would include, especially for large populations, an electively-oriented representative sort of government at a local level, and groupings of these local governments into a larger, still electively-oriented, representative government at a national level, where the power of the sovereign people is preserved, and so is the power of their more-or-less local governing jurisdictions.  With another little fillip: divide the government into equal, competing sections so as to make it yet harder for that national government to accrete power to itself.  But this is, roughly, a republican government.

A moral reasoning argument for a government suited to preventing some men from gaining dominion over the rest—and so of preserving the morally-derived free economy described above—might go something like this.  What sort of government preserves the essential equality of men before God?  One sort is a government that leaves the people sovereign over that government, and so directly responsible for their own behavior, rather than surrendering that obligation to another—rather than ceding dominion to the men populating that government.  This would include, especially for large populations, an electively-oriented representative sort of government at a local level, and groupings of these local governments into a larger, still electively-oriented, representative government at a national level, where the power of the sovereign people is preserved, and so is the power of their more-or-less local governing jurisdictions.  With another little fillip: divide the government into equal, competing sections so as to make it yet harder for that national government to gain dominion.  The men of the governments at any level are thus prevented from gaining dominion over those whom they purport to represent.  But this is, roughly, a republican government.

With these two examples, we see that rational reasoning and moral reasoning arrive at the same Reason and moral truths.  Having achieved the crossover between Reason and moral at both endpoints, it's easy to see that the crossover can occur at any other place in the chain, as well.

Eric Hines 


Grim said...

Let me see if I have accurately understood your argument by rephrasing it, to see if I capture the spirit of it correctly. Even if we start with our feelings -- it makes me angry that X -- the fact that X makes me angry is true, and thus available to reason. I can reason from there to why X makes me angry, and to what would make it right.

I would add a further point about this, which is that 'what ought to be' is very much rooted in 'what is.' If we have a duty of charity to feed the starving, it can only be because 'what is' includes facts about human beings: that they need to be fed, for example. That duty could not exist if the facts underpinning it did not exist.

Now, tell me if I have your position correct; and let me pose a counterargument.

It is often the case that one must do terrible things in the interest of justice. Let us say an army of bandits comes to sack a walled city. They are known for being ruthless to anyone who resists, but do not harm anyone who submits -- aside, of course, from stealing everything they own. That is a fact; and so is the fact that I am angry about it. It strikes me as unjust that these strong should so oppress the weak (perhaps because it violates their equality before God, as your argument might say).

So, I decide to defend the city. During the course of the ensuing siege, however, many of the people die of starvation and disease. If I had not resisted, the bandits would have taken their goods but left them alive and healthy.

You can make the case stronger: think of the example of Masada. The Romans wanted a submission; by the end of the resistance, they wanted to make an example. To resist the example, the people of the town killed themselves and their children.

It seems as though I might have reasoned from the facts that it was wiser to let the bandits (or the Romans) have their way. However, outside from a few academics, human moral reasoning doesn't work that way. We recognize the mythic heroism in Masada, and in the case of the warrior who stands up to defend the people against raiders.

Rooting this in the equality of men before God has the additional problem that the existence of this equality is not a fact of the same type as the starvation or the banditry (or even my anger about it). The assertion of such an equality is highly mythic: it is certainly not a fact in evidence, but a question of how we believe the world ought to be structured.

Where does that come from? In a sense, it must also be from 'what is,' whether it has to do with brain structures that, in human animals, value in-group equality; or from a higher structure, which gives meaning to ideas like Justice and the Good. Either way, those things must exist to be part of the equation: but it isn't clear that they exist in the same way as the facts that Hume is talking about.

(And if it were just brain structures, why is it more reasonable to align our society with what makes our brain structures feel good, vice doing what works most practically in the world? What value the one 'is' over the other? We have to be able to do so to make a choice between them, so obviously we can do so: although I suppose a hard-atheist biologist might say that we can't, but are biologically required to favor resistance to submission to the wicked. In that case you get your ought from an is in a pure way, but without reason being involved at all.)

E Hines said...

You have, I think, the general thrust of my argument. I have a feeling there's something missing, and when I can articulate that, I'll speak up.

Some comments. Your example of the bandits fits pretty well with one stereotype of Genghis and his Mongols' behavior toward cities he wanted. Aside from that, though, your counter example is too limited, considering as it does only the immediate repercussions. Rational reason could argue that submission is, indeed, the better course--even the moral course--in the short run. But that same reason, as well as moral reason, would see that this simply condemns the victim populations to such depravities in perpetuity. Thus, the better solution, both rationally and morally, would be to resist, even if it meant widespread death in the short short run, this being the only route to long-run freedom and salvation. The myths that arise from such a thing might be more stirring, but the rational reason arrives at the same long-run answer as the moral reason, as told by the myth.

Aside from that, it isn't necessary that rational reason be shown capable of reaching every morally reasoned solution (although I assert that it can; this, though, would take an exhaustive enumeration worthy of a Hume-length book), in order to satisfy my task. For that, it's only necessary that rational reason can do so sometimes.

The assertion of such an equality is highly mythic.... But since myths are just fictitious stories.... [g]

I understand your point; my more serious response is this. At some level of generality, everything flows from a first principle, whether it's from Hume's Reason-moral dichotomy or my GUT Reason/moral. But my argument is not with first principles, per se, but with Hume's version, in which he held that rational reason cannot ever reach a moral truth.

Rooting this in the equality of men before God.... The part that was missing. In my examples showing rational reason reaching the same solution as moral reason, I only rooted the moral reason chain in equality before God. I rooted the rational reason chain in a deliberately vague "free men." My freedom here was simply that they were free to reach their own agreements on their own terms. Thus, arguing from separate beginnings (in Hume's construction), the two chains arrived at the same answer, demonstrating Hume's error.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

It seems to me that your argument that rational reasoning can motivate behavior is weak.

In your two examples, reason merely provides the method to achieve something desired; the motivation is 'to win' or 'to save his wife' and reason merely provides the best method for doing something the actor has already decided to do.

I would argue that all motivation comes, at its root, from emotion. Reason is merely a tool that helps us get what we want.

Grim said...


That is currently the standard reading of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Desire fixes the ends; reason finds the means.

There's an exception, though: sometimes reason can fix ends, if it can show us that we ought to value X if we value Y. Thus, because we value our children, we ought to value self-sacrifice on their behalf. Self-sacrifice (almost by definition) isn't based on our desires; it's a rational end, although the end from which it is rationally reached is desire-based.

E Hines said...

There are lots of pathways for satisfying a motive; reason identifies one or more and moves the actor to use one (or more) of them.

Eric Hines

E Hines said...

Further: the point of the poker example was to demonstrate that reason can motivate a behavior outside the framework of a moral motive, in contrast to the wife-as-hostage example, which showed that reason can (also) motivate a behavior within the framework of a (hopefully) moral motive.

Thus, Reason-as-impetus has universal capacity.

Eric Hines

Tom said...


I don't think that's an exception. The original motive is to do what is best for one's children, even to the point of valuing them above oneself. When the situation calls for it, self-sacrifice is in fact what is best for us; we would think less of ourselves, we would be diminished, if we did not sacrifice for them. Reason is what tells us self-sacrifice is the right way to accomplish our goal in the current situation, but the impetus that causes us to sacrifice ourselves is emotion. If I don't care about my children, even though reason tells me I should, I won't sacrifice myself for them.

To address the argument from a different angle, in your example you still begin with an emotion. If reason says, if I value Y I must also value X, then the root is still the emotion that causes us to value Y. If you stop valuing Y, any value you attach to X will disappear as well.

I'm still not convinced that reason can provide any motive. All it can do is, given a motive to accomplish something, give us the best way to do that. This is true in the poker example as well as the hostage example. You have to want something first before reason comes into play, and if your desire changes, your reason will change accordingly.

This also correlates to the nature of reason. It can't provide that first premise; you always start with something and then reason can be a great tool. Without that first premise, though, reason is an engine with no fuel.

Tom said...

By the way, I'm looking for a good introduction to Aristotle. I've read 'A Very Short Introduction to Aristotle' and have studied a very small number of his writings more in depth in courses I've taken, but I'd like to have a good, solid introduction to his work. Any suggestions?

Grim said...

Given that he may be the single-most studied philosopher in history, that's a surprisingly tall order. Aristotle wrote about everything, from astronomy and physics to ethics and politics, rhetoric and the reproduction of animals. It's quite difficult to get it all under your belt.

Yet if you don't do that, you'll be missing the real power of his philosophy. His ethics (for example) are compelling on their own, but all the more when you see how they fit in with the totality of his work.

I suggest you take the medieval approach to reading him. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good introduction to the material, and I'll be more than happy to talk you through each part as you go. Feel free to ask me about any of it that interests you.

Roughly, the medieval approach for students is:

1) Start by understanding his logical system. Getting a grasp on just what he means by "substance" and "attribute," and just what his categories are and how they work together, is very helpful.

2) Then read the Physics; the relevant article is here. This is a quite difficult work, and almost no one reads it today, but it's fundamental -- and, in fact, asks some very good questions about the nature of reality that our modern physics often elide past rather than engage.

3) Then read De Anima (see here and here. Once you've understood how he thinks the world has to work, from the earlier pieces, this work will help you understand how he thinks human beings relate to the world and understand it.

4) Then read the Metaphysics, a very good introduction to which is forthcoming; I helped to proof it last fall. Once it's published, I'll be happy to give you the link. This will explain what Aristotle thinks about the ultimate ends behind reality. If the Physics explains how things are, this work explains why things are as they are.

5) Finally, engage the Ethics and Politics. These should be read together, because the purpose of politics is to provide a state that supports an ethical life -- a life, in Aristotle's terms, in which the pursuit of happiness is most possible.

What he means by "happiness" may be surprising, but he's right about it.

Tom said...


I also disagree with you about the nature of self-sacrifice. You wrote, "Self-sacrifice (almost by definition) isn't based on our desires ..."

However, I believe we only sacrifice ourselves for a greater good. What we sacrifice is, to us, always a lesser pleasure.

For example, a father may sacrifice a life goal (e.g., getting a college degree) in order to gain the greater pleasures of, one, confirming his self-image as a good father, and two, accomplishing the long-term goal and much greater pleasure of raising a child to be a good adult.

Let's also look at a more extreme example. One might ask how a soldier who sacrifices his life for his comrades is getting a greater good for his sacrifice. He's dead, after all, so he won't get anything for that loss, right?

This objection rests on two premises that I find faulty. First, it assumes that everything ends when life ends. However, there may be a Heaven where virtue is greatly rewarded. I admit this is a weak response which leaves us with the unsatisfying answer that the soldier sacrifices a known good for an uncertain future good. However, for deeply religious soldiers (and religious martyrs in general), the uncertainty is gone (whether rightly or not), so there we do have someone sacrificing himself for a greater, post-death good. Again, that's the weaker argument and I'll not rely on it.

The second premise is that pleasure is always a positive. This isn't true; 'pleasure' can also be negative in the form of pain. Avoiding pain is the same as seeking pleasure. This fits into my argument very simply: The soldier who sacrifices his life, and all its pleasures, does so to avoid the pain of believing himself a coward, of knowing he could have saved his comrades lives but having chosen not to do so. Their ghosts would have haunted him, in one way or another, and ruined any future pleasure in living.

We don't know if there is a Heaven, but I believe it's certain there is a Hell, and I believe one sure road to a living Hell is choosing to compromise our core identity. The choice of self-sacrifice is motivated by the desire to achieve greater ends, to fulfill greater desires, than other courses of action can accomplish in the given context.

Tom said...

Thank you for the recommendations, and especially for the offer to help me through it.

It will obviously take time, but I think understanding Aristotle is necessary.

Grim said...

However, I believe we only sacrifice ourselves for a greater good. What we sacrifice is, to us, always a lesser pleasure.

I don't know if that's true as you've proposed it her: that what we are sacrificing is a lesser pleasure. That's different from saying that it is something we desire less.

I may find great pleasure in avoiding the war and lounging in drinking halls and bawdy houses, but I find more honor -- though far less pleasure -- in joining the war and suffering, perhaps dying, with my comrades.

So, I desire honor more than pleasure. Good! That's a correct ordering of desires.

What makes it a correct order, though? To speak of order is to speak of reason. That's where you're going to hit your problem with this approach.

By the way, this argument has a Christian theological mirror. It's the division over whether God is Logos, or God is Love. If you read God as Love, as the Franciscans do, you can make an argument like the one you're making; but you've got to figure out how to answer the problem of ordering desires correctly, and why that isn't an exercise of reason instead.

If you join the Dominicans (and others) in asserting that God is Reason, then you don't have that problem; but you have other problems.

And you're welcome. It's my pleasure.

Tom said...

I'm having a semantic problem here. For me, as I am using it, I would say honor gives you greater pleasure than partying, so your choice is still one of choosing the greater pleasure. I don't know if I am using 'pleasure' properly here, but I think you can understand my meaning.

The ordering of desires is indeed the problem. I'm still working through this, but my tentative answer is aesthetic: We can know which desire to follow by asking which is more beautiful to us. Reason doesn't seem, at this point in my work, to enter into it.

Now, once we determine our greatest (i.e., most beautiful) desire, then reason goes gangbusters on helping us achieve it. I am certainly not opposed to reason; I lament every day that I am not more skilled at it.

E Hines said...

I would say honor gives you greater pleasure than partying, so your choice is still one of choosing the greater pleasure.

Speaking from the august heights of my 40-year-old MS in Psychology, you're right: there is more psychological reward to honor, regardless of the physical pain that may be involved in satisfying it.

This is a foundation, apparently, of masochism, too: there is more psychological reward from experiencing the pain than there is in avoiding it. Note, though, that I am not ascribing any masochistic tendencies to those who value honor above all else, nor do psychologists; I'm just referring to an earlier comment about avoiding pain.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

It's more than a semantic issue, Tom. It's a substantial issue: it's the difference between Aristotelian ethics and hedonism (of which the modern form is called "utilitarianism").

The reduction of all morality and ethics to "the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain" has a long history. You'll find support for your position in John Stuart Mill, for example; including the idea that honor can be a kind of pleasure (he objected to people who asserted that his ethics pointed to low desires rather than high things by saying that only people who took no pleasure in higher things would think so).

Now I'll warn you that utilitarian ethical systems usually prove to be incoherent: they turn on the idea that the right thing to do is that which produces the most pleasure and the least pain. However, that conditions 'the right thing' on something I can't actually know: I can't know what the actual consequences of any action will be, and therefore I can't judge whether an action will produce more or less actual pleasure or actual pain. Thus, I can't know the right thing to do.

Your aesthetic concept is one I was toying with myself a couple of years ago, and it seems better initially: I can judge what action is more beautiful, even if I can't judge whether its results will be more or less beautiful. Nevertheless, I finally decided that it couldn't work with only desire as the basis of morality or ethics.

The reason is that there is a fundamental connection between the True and the Beautiful. We have already said that there is a truth about the order of beauty; and thus beauty has a rational component (or, you may prefer, a relationship to the rational).

We can also say that truth has a relationship to beauty: the truth carries its own beauty. (This is why Mr. Hines is mistaken about mythology: a true myth is even more beautiful than a false myth, precisely because it is true. Thus, it is even more powerful than the most beautiful false myth.)

The unity of the True and the Beautiful is what Plato sometimes calls the Form of the Good. This is why I have settled on a neoplatonic understanding. You may prefer another scheme to the neoplatonic one, but I don't think the fundamental connection of truth and beauty is escapable.

Tom said...

Well, I am on the edge of my understanding here, so my argument is bound to be wobbly.

I don't have the vocabulary right now to describe what I mean. If I look at it a different way, instead of 'pleasure', maybe we could say satisfaction, or fulfillment, or something like that. In some way, there is a psychological reward for virtue, and a psychological punishment for vice, even though exercising the virtue may be painful and the vice pleasurable.

For me (again, out on the edge here), this can be linked to natural law. We are happiest, even in pain and suffering, when following the natural law, and most miserable when violating it, even if in the midst of carnal pleasure.

As for truth and beauty, there is no reason that reason must enter into it, is there? Things that follow the Golden Ratio, for example, were beautiful to the eye long before mathematicians worked out the numbers. Truth can be reached intuitively as well as rationally, can't it?

E Hines said...

...a true myth is even more beautiful than a false myth....

But this can be said of any story.

Truth can be reached intuitively as well as rationally, can't it?

But this doesn't rule out reaching Truth through Reason; it only applies another path. And there is a school of psychology that suggests that tuition can be rational; it's just subconscious--a part of what psychologists used to call covert behavior.

Eric Hines

Tom said...


Something that intrigued me was your claim that "... rational and moral reasoning begin (its) existence in us, not just inextricably intertwined, but as one and the same."

I agree that reasoning and moral capacities are both gifts from God, but what exactly is moral reasoning in this situation, and why do you claim these two things begin as the same thing?

Tom said...


On your last comment to me, I agree with the first part. About intuition being subconscious reason, I don't know. It doesn't seem like reason to me if it isn't conscious, but I haven't thought about it yet.

Grim said...

Mr. Hines:

Yes, precisely. And it is when that beautiful, true story is working to inspire us to shape our lives in its patterns that it is functioning as a myth.


Are you asking me if reason has to enter into the Golden Ratio? The word "ratio" is from the same Latin word that underlines the word "reason."

There is something about the ratio itself that is beautiful. But the ratio is an order, and things with an order are accessible to reason.

Actually, you'll find that Aristotelian natural law makes a lot out of this fact. They'd be happy to agree with you (as would Aristotle) that much of what defines what is a virtue for you comes from your nature. If you were a horse or a dog, you would have different virtues; and what constitutes justice for a horse is also different from what constitutes justice for a man.

However, in every case, we can see that there is an order arising from each thing's nature. Understanding this order allows us to determine what is essential about that nature. It is when we have grasped the essential nature of a thing -- that is, its form -- that we have understood what it is.

Aristotle thought this was just as true for natural kinds of things as for artifacts. It's not just the clock that has a purpose -- a final cause, in Aristotle's terms -- but the man as well.

E Hines said...

...what exactly is moral reasoning in this situation, and why do you claim these two things begin as the same thing?

My claim that they're the same gift has no underpinning--it's a quasi-first principle for me, flowing from the premise that there's no a priori or necessary...reason...for the two to be separate, except as we humans create the separation as an artificial construct in an attempt to understand what we have.

And since I can't articulate how they're the same, I can't say how moral reasoning and rational reasoning are different from each other beyond the evident appearance that they use different tools to achieve their end--which is to discern a truth from a falsity, or at the origin, to recognize a truth.

The tools of logic are different in the same (very loose analogy) way that the logic and tools of one mathematical system are different from those of another.

It doesn't seem like reason to me if it isn't conscious....

But lots of systems are hidden from our consciousness that still operate lawfully--logically--with reason. At one end (again, very loose analogy) God's ways are hidden from us, but those ways operate lawfully. At the other end, when you see 2+2, you automatically visualize a 4. You don't grunt through the logic of the additions, or the countings, that take you from one side of that equation to the other. (I could recount a tale from one of my calculus courses that has me writing down one side of an equation I'd not seen before and writing down the answer, and then struggling to write down the intervening steps, to eliminate the question of memorization, but you get my point.)

...that beautiful, true story is working to inspire us....

But a well told fictional story can do the same. Chaucer, for instance, or Shakespeare, or JF Cooper told inspiring tales that were wholly fictitious. But the lessons in them inspired. And for a different form of fiction and inspiration, Thomas Paine was no slouch. Many of his propaganda tracts live for the ages, too.

Eric Hines

Tom said...


Mostly I was thinking out loud, well, figuratively speaking. This discussion is another data point suggesting I need to get into that study of Aristotle.

Speaking of which, before I start that I'm working my way through the book The Trivium, which should be helpful if we're taking the medieval route.


Thanks for your answer. I like the idea; I'll have to think about it some.

One small point, though, is that while the workings of God are hidden from us, He is conscious of them, so that doesn't provide a counterexample to my idea that reason must be conscious. Of course, I haven't reasoned it out, so there we are.

As for the rest, it's an interesting idea I'll keep in mind. Intuition is one of those things I intend to read more about, some day ...

E Hines said...

...while the workings of God are hidden from us, He is conscious of them, so that doesn't provide a counterexample to my idea that reason must be conscious.

That's true from that perspective, but I took your original context to mean isn't conscious to us.

Eric Hines

Tom said...

Oh, no. I wasn't clear, but I meant that I think the actor must be conscious of the process.

douglas said...

Let me see if I can jump in here and not sound like a complete fool. I see a structural issue here that I think needs clarification- What reason is seems clear to me, what morality (moral reasoning) is seems blurry in that it seems to me to be used differently by Hume than in the discussion here. Here we seem to be referring to emotion, passion as the same thing as moral reasoning, yet to my ears, Hume is referring to the passions (emotions) as the 'other' to reason in attempting to determine moral truth- morality is the model of truth we hold in our minds eye- not the means of getting to truth. We make decisions about what actions to take to be closer to our morality- our understanding of truth- through reason and/or passion(emotion). Now perhaps I misunderstood parts of the discussion here, but this at least establishes where I'm at, and I think where Hume is, and so far I'm in agreeance with him, though I would depart from him further down the line.

I also agree that reason can lead us to the truth, as can emotion, as posited in the post. That said, we all know that one can reason one's self to a place quite far from morality, and just as easily, one can follow emotions or passions and find one's self equally far afield from the truth. How can this be? Curiously, passion and reason can work together and take us perhaps even further into the darkness and away from the truth, yet we might be fooled into thinking that we're quite close to the morality we see in our minds eye- as it may be a erroneous model of the 'truth'. How do we even begin to point our reasoning toward the truth? How do we train our passions to be directed in the interest of the good? What is the good? What is truth? This would seem to make clear that first, we must acknowledge the externality of a truth or good- that what is good is not defined even by what is good for us as our passion or reason might project as good. Here I think it useful to consider examples of reason or passion taking us in the wrong direction- the person driven by selfish motives who blithely puts others beneath their desires and sees the satisfaction of their hedonistic tendencies to be their morality- their model of the truth. They can arrive at quite proper reasonable arguments for taking the actions they do to get their, or simply follow their most basic passions and arrive their just the same, and we would confidently stand here and discuss their moral failing, but in their view, all is good. Morality has been achieved, they are closer to the center of their model of morality. That their center is not near ours may make little difference to them, though to us, it may be quite important.

As Grim has often pointed out here, we must train ourselves rigorously in what is good so that we might respond with our passion in the correct way when the time comes that action must be taken when there is no time to reason it. These two tools- reason and passion- may both be essential, yet insufficient to bring us closer to truth. It seems also that they, being so different in many ways and yet both so critical to getting closer to the truth, may be the two legs of the man, or the two sexes in a marriage- each essential, each having insights to the truth that the other has less access to, working best when in synch and moving harmoniously toward a common goal. Too often we seek linear understandings of things that are more field like or even cloud like. Or maybe cake batter is a better analogy- if any of the ingredients is missing or in poor proportion, there will be a definite diminishment of the quality of the cake when baked.

Or I might be completely out of touch with this discussion.

By the way, Grim- I'd like to suggest, in light of your offer to Tom about Aristotle, perhaps a series of posts akin to Grim's book club, but a primer in the medieval fashion about Aristotle would be fun. I certainly would be excited about it.