• Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

Can Sympathy Provide A Satisfactory Basis For Morality?

Extracts from this document...


Can Sympathy Provide A Satisfactory Basis For Morality? Western philosophy has provided many attempts to unravel the complex problem of human morality and to provide answers to questions such as 'how can I be moral?' and more generally to questions such as 'What is morality?'. One prominent line of thought, which can be traced back to the writings of Cicero places sympathy or a kind of fellow feeling as the basis for morality. It is this particular idea, whether or not sympathy can provide a sound basis for morality, that I am going to explore over the course of this study with particular reference to the writings of the Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) in two of his principle works A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). For Hume, sympathy is an essential feature of the way humans communicate and in particular communication of feelings from one individual to another, such that if one person sees a misfortune befall another they will, in some sense, share in the pain of that misfortune. Hume's moral philosophy is unusual in that it seems to present us with less of a moral philosophy than a socio-psychological account of why humans in general act in the moral way that they do. ...read more.


pain and as such excite the passions to motivate us towards those that produce pleasure and away from those to the contrary. Reason cannot by itself yield any moral judgements but has an important subsidiary role to play. Piers Benn in his Ethics offers a nice example to illustrate this instrumental role. Reason might inform me that a remark I am about to make to someone will cause offence, but this knowledge will only deter me from making this remark if I do not wish to cause offence. If motivation of making the remark was to cause offence then I will still go ahead. The operation of reason has no effect on my original intentions. Hence Hume concluded reason to be totally inert and therefore plays no role in actively making moral judgements. One small problem, noted by Reid, arising from this, is that it is not clear what meaning of 'reason' he is claiming that moral distinctions do not arise. Though in the context of this study it will be enough simply to draw attention to this issue and we may continue without further investigation of this point. Since Hume wants to hold that moral distinctions between vice and virtue are not derived from reason he must show what he believes the true basis of virtue to be. ...read more.


Hume does not mean by 'sympathy' either compassion or pity as it often does in modern use. Rather he uses the term to mean a tendancy to share what one takes to be the feelings of another, of whatever kind they are. Sympathy is not another word for benevolance or altruism. However, sympathy can and normally does produce benevolance. Hume in his Treatise... seperates virtues into natural and artificial. Firstly artificial virtues such as justice and fidelity are not embedded in human nature. They have developed over time as a necessary feature of human interaction. It is only through artificial virtues such as justice that has enabled society as it exists today possible. ..... Those natural virtues, on the other hand, such as charity, beneficiance, generosity, moderation etc... are embedded as fundamental features of human nature. It is through sympathy that we may experience pleasure in observing others who benefit from natural virtues. Hume thought that an analogy could be drawn between sympathy as a means by which humans communicated feelings, and the strings of the same length of a musical instrument that that resonate amoung themselves. When others receive pleasure, we ourselves resonate with that pleasure. We receive no direct benefit from the action but our sympathetic link to it causes us to approve it. ...read more.

The above preview is unformatted text

This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our GCSE Ethics section.

Found what you're looking for?

  • Start learning 29% faster today
  • 150,000+ documents available
  • Just £6.99 a month

Not the one? Search for your essay title...
  • Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

See related essaysSee related essays

Related GCSE Ethics essays

  1. What is the relationship between religion and morality?

    A decision could not be made on the basis of religion, and therefore would need to be made on the basis of reason alone. Some people favour heteronomy because it is inevitable that society is influenced by religious views. It could also be said that for such a long time,

  2. Aristotle - Virtue Ethics Essay

    For instance, if a mother were choosing whether to abort her foetus, and was following Natural Law as a religious ethical benchmark, then it clearly states in the secondary precepts, do no abort the unborn. With virtue ethics it would be far more ambiguous what course of action should be taken.

  1. Christian Aid - A Charity Helping Poverty

    They say that they cannot help people who cannot help themselves. The poor must be willing to learn if they are to become self-sufficient. They aim to help relieve the suffering by doing this. With all the suffering around the world Charities like Christian aid are needed.

  2. Explain how Macintyre's or Aristotle's account of a life lived in accordance with virtues ...

    This can be related to consumerism, because although to begin with, a rich person may feel happy because they can buy anything they want, it soon comes to a point where they have everything they need and are bored with their consumer lifestyle.

  1. Famine, Affluence and Morality - Peter Singer.

    However, if thought through, Singer's ideal still encounters problems; one only has to think about the consequences of his ideal to see how meaningless it would become. If Singer's argument was consistently applied, and we gave away everything apart from that which we needed for 'basic necessities' no one would

  2. Are all human actions motivated by self-interest?

    "Ought implies can." We cannot expect people to do things that they cannot do. If a child is drowning, and John cannot swim, then john is not physically capable of saving the child, and there is therefore no sense in our saying that he ought to save the child.

  1. Euthanasia can never be justified

    Seeing a loved one's suffering can be very hard on family and friends and the patients themselves sometimes feel the pain is too much to bear. They may request to end their own and their loved ones' misery by ending their lives with dignity and no pain.

  2. With reference to abortion, examine and comment on the view that the sanctity of ...

    We need the rules as a basis, but the outcome of the decision must be love. Love is the most important issue in Situation Ethics, the whole theory centres around it. Fletcher said that 'the only absolute thing was that of love.

  • Over 160,000 pieces
    of student written work
  • Annotated by
    experienced teachers
  • Ideas and feedback to
    improve your own work