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Passion and Moral Judgement

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Passion as the Criterion for Moral Judgment

Ethics is the study of human conduct or in other words the study of moral behavior. All humans use ethics in their daily actions and decisions, but not many have the opportunity to probe into the core of ethics. When Socrates said in 399 B.C., "The unexplained life is not worth living" he was encouraging man to examine his way of life and ways of moral decision making. Ethics not only aims to discover the rules that should govern a moral life, but the goods one should aim to acquire in their life time. Ethics aims to explain why and how man acts the way he does and to shape the way man lives and acts,. Some philosophers say that reason is the criterion for making moral judgments, others say that duty and obligation rule moral decisions. Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume gave a different outlook on what makes man act the way he does. Hume takes an almost Epicurean stance and proclaims that man's passions overrule reason and direct man's moral actions and judgments. Moral judgments are manifestations of human sentiments and passions.

Hume states that the passions are the only way to understand morality. The nature of moral values is to be discovered through the passions. Hume rejects that reason is the criterion for moral judgments, and bases most of his "Treatise of Human Nature" on refuting reason as the basis for moral actions.

Hume strongly opposes the idea that moral judgments are the conclusion of reason. The role of reason in relation to moral judgments is to be only in relation to the passions. Reason must be slave to man's passions. Reason is to help man find his moral obligations and duties, but reason does not produce or act on obligation or moral duty; man's passions motivate one to act.

Passion is the criterion for all moral judgments because there are no absolute moral values. Moral values differ from one person to the next because they are based on human experience. Passions, along with moral judgments, exist for each man. One cannot tell another that what they feel is wrong or unreasonable. It is a personal experience and no one can judge one's sentiments or feelings. Since reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood, reason cannot be the basis for moral judgments. Moral judgments differ from man to man; why else would there be so much crime and wrongdoing in this society? Actions may be to blame in certain situations, but they cannot be called reasonable or unreasonable. If reason rules moral actions there would be no wrong in society because all people would follow the same moral code of conduct, but because man acts from his experience, passions, and sentiments not all men follow the same rules.

Many philosophers disagree with Hume's idea of passions guiding human moral judgments. Among Hume's strongest opposition would be the ancient philosophers Socrates and Plato. Both men believed that reason was the basis for moral judgments. Socrates' thesis on reason was that only reason could lead man to truth and understanding. For Socrates rationality was the basis for morality. Plato believed that only through reason could man arrive at true knowledge. He thought that reason is an integral part of morals and its role is to gain knowledge and wisdom to fulfill the soul. Plato believed that human nature is reason and hence reason is good because human nature is good. Humans of today have proved Plato wrong; not all human nature is good. Plato also stated that, "Opinion without knowledge is always a shabby sort of thing. One who holds a true belief without intelligence is just like a blind man who happens to take the right road." Plato held intellectual knowledge and reason with the highest regards. He also believed that there is a fight between passion and reason, but Hume rejects that notion and says that the passions and reason can never oppose each other because a passion can never be called unreasonable. A passion can never be called unreasonable because it is a human sentiment that no one has the right or authority to judge or condemn.

Hume gives two good arguments as to why the criterion of moral judgment is not reason. In his first example he uses an example of a parent tree giving birth to a sampling which then grows and kill the parent tree. Hume ponders why this instance is considered normal for the tree, but in the case of man it would not be considered moral. Hume compares this situation to ingratitude towards parents in human nature.

The question arises among philosophers, whether the guilt of moral deformity of this action be discovered by demonstrative reasoning, or be felt by an internal sense, and by means of some sentiment, which the reflecting on such an action naturally occasions. This question will soon be decided against the former opinion(reason), if we can show the same relations in other objects, without the notion of any guilt or iniquity attending them.(Johnson 183). Ingratitude

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