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An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals


What is a moral? This is a question that has plagued
philosophers for many years. Is it possible to have a set
of universal morals? There are many questions that surround
the mystery of morals. They seem to drive our every action.
We base our decisions on what is right and what is wrong.
But what is it that actually determines what is right and
what is wrong? Is it our sense of reason? Is it our sense
of sentiment? This is a question that David Hume spent much
of his life pondering. What exactly is it that drives our
actions? Yes, morals drive them, but what determines what
our morals are? What is it that ultimately drives our
actions; our feelings or our minds? Hume would say that it
is our sentiment that ultimately drives our actions.
According to Hume, reason is incapable of motivating an
action. According to Hume, reason cannot fuel an action and
therefore cannot motivate it. Hume feel that all actions
are motivated by our sentiment. For example, on page 84
Appendix I, he gives the example of a criminal. "It resides
in the mind of the person, who is ungrateful. He must,
therefore, feel it, and be conscious of it." Here, it is
evident that Hume is saying that unless the person, or
criminal in this case, sincerely believes in what he wants
to do, he will not be able to motivate the action. In other
words, unless the sentiment is there, the action cannot be
willed into being. Hence, the sentiment is the driving
force behind the action. Hume does not however say that
reason is incapable of determining wether an action is
virtuous or vicious (moral or immoral), but instead he
tries to say that the reason for the morality of an action
does not dictate the execution or perversion of an act so
far as determination of wether the action is executed or
not. In simpler terms, reason has it's place in determining
morality, but it is not in the motivation of an action.
Motivation must come from the heart, or better yet, from
within the person; from their beliefs. Reason merely allows
the person to make moral distinctions. Without reason,
there would be no morality. Without reason, one moral
clause would not be differentiable from another. That is to
say that below all morals, there must be some underlying
truth because "Truth is disputable; not taste" (p.14). If
truth were not disputable, there would be no way to prove
that a truth was just that... a truth. To make an analogy
to mathematics, truth is a function of reason, whereas
taste is a function of sentiment. Sentiment is a function
of the individual whereas reason is a function of the
universe. The universe as a whole must follow reason, but
the catch is that each individual's universe is slightly
different in that each individual perceives his or her
universe differently. "What each man feels within himself
is the standard of sentiment." (p.14) That is to say each
person's individual universe has truths. These truths are
based on reason. These truths/reasons are what help to
determine the person's sentiment. However, it should be
noted that because the reasons are NOT necessarily the
person's sentiments, they do not motivate actions. One
other reason why reason does not impel action is because
reason is based on truths. Truths are never changing
whereas sentiments are dynamic and are in a constant change
of flux. At one moment, the criminal could feel sympathy
for his victims and decide to spare a life, and the very
next, the same criminal could become enraged at the pimple
on a hostage's forehead and shoot him. Of course these are
extreme cases, but the point is clear. Reason would dictate
that only the first action would be moral. If reason drove
actions, then moral behavior would prevail and there would
be no immoral actions and hence there would be no crimes.
This shows how sentiments can change as the individual's
perception of the universe changes. Obviously, the driving
force behind the criminal shooting the victim because of a
skin blemish is not one based on reason, but instead it is
based on feeling, emotion, sentiment. 


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