Hume’s subjective morality: Making value judgements about value judgements

One theme of this blog has been my arguments — as a disciple of Hume — that morality is subjective, thus rejecting that idea that moral claims can be assigned truth values and that they are independent of human judgement on the matter. (For example, see my posts: Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense and Science can answer morality questions.)

This idea, though, often meets strong intuitive resistance. A common complaint is that, if moral claims are “merely” people’s opinions, then one cannot say that the morals of a virtuous man, living a blameless life and esteemed by his fellows, are any better than those of a delinquent mass murderer.

The suggestion is that, if morals are human sentiments, rather than being objective statements of fact, then we must value everyone’s sentiments and morals equally.

This, however, is a non-sequitur. There is nothing to stop us making value judgements about value judgements. Indeed we commonly do so. There is nothing at all preventing us from respecting and lauding someone we regard as a moral paragon, or from deprecating someone we regard as a delinquent.

Stated like this the point is perhaps obvious, yet many objections to the idea that morality is subjective amount to the idea that one needs permission to make value judgements, permission that can only come from a reference to an objective standard, and that in the absence of such a standard one must regard everyone’s opinion as “equally valid”.

David Hume

As with many things, the first philosopher to expound on (what I assert is) the correct way of thinking about such things was David Hume. Hume regarded moral judgements as closely akin to aesthetic judgments, with both being subjective values that are in the eye of the beholder, rather than reflecting any objective standard.

In his essay Of the Standard of Taste, however, Hume argued that this does not mean valuing everyone’s judgement equally. He declared:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.

He then notes, however, that people often do not think like this:

But though this axiom, by passing into a proverb, seems to have attained the sanction of common sense; there is certainly a species of common sense which opposes it, at least serves to modify and restrain it. Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Mount Teide or a pond as extensive as the ocean. Though there may be found persons, who give the preference to the former authors; no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous. The principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot, and while we admit it on some occasions, where the objects seem near an equality, it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.

Then Hume discusses a host of reasons why it is entirely sensible to prefer the judgements of some people to those of others. For example one might prefer the judgement of a chef who can discern subtle flavours to which others are oblivious. One might prefer the judgement of an art critic who can talk knowledgeably on the subject after long study. One might reject the judgement of someone who is prejudiced and partial on the matter.

Hume summarises:

When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects, are the object of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent. Under some or other of these imperfections, the generality of men labour; and hence a true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character: Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.

Hume concludes:

It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have a preference above others.

At no point does Hume depart from his stance that moral and aesthetic judgements are subjective matters of personal feeling, and are not statements that can be assigned truth values, but what he does say is that humans in general will make judgements about whose judgements they value more. Further, Hume argues that there will be a large measure of consensus upon such matters.

In the same way, humans can generally agree that the values of a psychopathic murderer are values that they deplore. We can value the values that will lead to a harmonious and content society, and deplore the values that produce strife and discontent. You don’t need the permission of a god, nor the backing of an objective moral standard, in order to make such judgements and to pursue the sort of society that you want.

Notes: Hume’s Of the Standard of Taste is online here.


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