Critically discuss Hume’s argument for the conclusion that ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’...

Critically discuss Hume’s argument for the conclusion that ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ [Consult ‘Hume’s Moral Philosophy’ in the SEP for some orientation on this topic.] 1200 words limit

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The relevant quote comes from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature where he discusses the "motivating influence of the will." When making decisions, there are many contributing factors, the not least of which is the recognition of what would be morally right. This often conflicts with desire and forces an individual to reason with himself in order to ensure the best outcome.  Morality will always be a personal issue and, as such, can only influence a person if it is a belief he already holds or can be persuaded to hold. Concrete motivation secures many decisions- closing a gate to stop a child from going onto the road is a physical act that easily solves a dilemma and each person would favor the same result and be similarly motivated. Careless acts are excluded as they do not involve rational thought or purpose.

In the twenty first century, there is a concern that the material world has a strong grasp and reason is often based on imagined desires and needs rather than real potential expectations. Complex reasoning on moral issues is strongly associated with religious beliefs and whilst, essentially, many religions have the same or a similar moral code, extremists in any of these religions cause an unbalancing of any moral reasoning. Culture also affects decision-making. Economics has also taken a place in morally- charged issues.  Internalized social standards – habits, skills, values and motives from early childhood- persuade emerging adults to make decisions that are socially expected of them. As they develop however, they begin to form their own perspective. Selfish desires and a lack of awareness often cause people to make poor decisions - solely motivated by their own will. It is possible to reason that a decision is the best possible decision based on what the desired outcome is rather than taking a more holistic and measured approach to reaching a more reasonable decision as this would involve a consideration of others.

In Hume's approach, therefore, reason is not rational but is subjective and personal. The expectation that there is already a uniform pattern of existence, leads people to make their judgements and reach a stage of moral reasoning, based on those expectations. Conflict with expectations often, then, exposes moral issues and decisions are guided by "passions." Establishing "the ultimate qualities of human nature," was Hume's intention and he expected to glean some universal truths that ideas are perceptions and guided by environmental influences and experience. 

Believing something does not make it true; so too with reasoning. A person who displays a moral standpoint and bases decisions on this standpoint cannot be said, according to Hume, to necessarily have a grasp of the truth. Reason is a tool that people use to ensure that goals are achieved. The reason does not determine the goals as they are set by the “passions. ” In context, an individual goal may lead a person to reaching a simple decision which actually could have a huge impact on others. The reason is sound, despite the effect it may have.