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Can Sympathy Provide A Satisfactory Basis For Morality?

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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.

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