God, I love Hume.
Now that I’m an actual factual philosophy grad student, I think it’s time we revisited this website. And in the spirit of Hume:
ALSO: I am in a severe music rut, which is bad for this “download a new song every day” business. So friends, neighbors, subscribers, random blog passers-by, could you please suggest some songs for me? I’ll listen to anything at least once.
I’m also thinking of adding a page that actually lists all the songs I’ve downloaded for 2010/2011, so look for that in the next few days if you’re interested at all.
Okay, that’s it.
Here’s a big heap of Humean goodness, mainly because I don’t have anything else to write about today and I’m always afraid of Vaio crashing and me losing this paper before I have to turn it in. Ignore it, or read it, I really don’t care either way.
Despite it being a relatively new field in philosophy, environmental ethics has so far seen its fair share of varying approaches to solving the problems that human-nature relationships bring to the philosophical table. With regards to many different components of human beings’ relation to nature, including to what extent we should concern ourselves with the future state of the planet, the basic relationships we have with nature, and any possible responsibilities we may have in caring for the environment, there have been many different approaches developed to help solve problems that may arise.
There are several points of debate in this still-developing field. One area of debate involves the notions of intrinsic versus instrumental value—that is, whether nature should be valued due to it having worth in and of itself or whether it should be valued solely because it is of use to humans. Another involves monism versus pluralism—whether ethicists should develop a single approach that could be adopted in all cases, or whether different approaches should apply to each individual situation.
The pragmatic approach to environmental ethics is unique among these different approaches as it draws ethics away from the more traditional “armchair philosophy” realm and into a more practical, action-based philosophy. As I will show, advocates of a pragmatic environmental ethic seek to place what we deem moral in our interactions with the environment in a more active, progressive realm, rather than confining our ethics to abstract concepts that do not necessarily readily apply to the world.
Several proponents of a pragmatic environmental ethic advocate an approach that is based off the philosophy of David Hume. More specifically, they promote basing an environmental ethic on Hume’s famous distinction between reason and sentiment and his claim that both are important in defining and interpreting morality. While some authors mention Hume’s reason-sentiment distinction explicitly, many appear to implicitly advocate the importance of this distinction in their description of a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics.
In this essay, I will explore the connections between modern pragmatic approaches to environmental ethics and the reason-sentiment explanation of moral decision-making Hume developed. My goal is to demonstrate that Humean ethics strongly support a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics. I will show that the combination of sentiment in the form of feelings and emotion and reason in the form of communal discussion and lead to a strong, functioning, pragmatic ethic.
I begin with a brief overview of Hume’s ethic—mainly his distinction between reason and sentiment, drawn from his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, then follow with several modern environmental ethicists’ interpretations of environmental pragmatism in order to define pragmatism in term of environmental ethic. Following this, I show how several authors explicitly connect Humean ethics to their idea of pragmatism, as well has how several other authors use Humean ethics in a more implicit manner. Finally, through a general overview of the goals of environmental pragmatism—as well as through a criticism of this view—I show how I see Humean ethics in connection with a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics.
Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals begins with his claim that the foundation of morals seems to arise either from “argument and induction” or from “an immediate feeling and finer internal sense,” thus causing a conflict as to whether moral distinctions are discernable from pure reason—logic and formal proof—or from sentiment—feeling and intuition (Hume).
Hume further develops this distinction by explaining moral distinction drawn from reason as distinctions involving long proofs, examples, analogies, the detection of fallacies and the drawing of conclusions. He then explains moral distinction drawn from sentiment as that relying not on impartial, indifferent logic that fails to push men closer to ethical action, but rather that which relies on feeling and intuition—things that evoke from man warm feelings towards virtue and disgust toward vice (Hume).
From these seemingly opposite sources of moral distinctions, Hume is able to suggest that both reason and sentiment occur in moral determinations and conclusions. Sentiment, he claims, is responsible for all feeling that “pronounces characters [people’s characters] and actions amiable or odious, praise-worthy or blameable…that which renders morality an active principle” (Hume). In other words, it is primarily responsible for the judging of Personal Merit—the attributes of a person that renders them either praiseworthy or contemptible.
The importance of Hume’s ethic and its relation to pragmatic environmental ethics lies in his relation of sentiment and reason and their importance in moral decision making. First, he claims that reason alone cannot motivate moral decision making. We base our moral judgments on personal merits—the qualities that render a man “an object of esteem and affection or of hatred and contempt” (Hume). The only thing man needs, he claims, to decide whether or not a quality should be ascribed to himself is to “enter his own breast for a moment, and consider whether or not he should desire to have this or that quality ascribed to him, and whether such or such and imputation would proceed from a friend or an enemy” (Hume). This indicates that the judgment of whether a quality is considered “good” or “bad” is a judgment based on sentiment.
It is important to note, however, that Hume does not divorce reason from the process of moral judgment; rather, he makes special note to underline its importance while still maintaining that it is not the deciding factor in our judgments. Important to Hume is the idea of the usefulness of human qualities or actions. Reason, he claims, “when fully assisted and improved, [is] sufficient to instruct us in the pernicious or useful tendency of qualities and actions” (Hume). In other words, it is the role of reason to discern and discriminate between virtue and vice, and Hume states how important this step is in even getting to the point where one can employ sentiment—reason allows distinctions between qualities to be made, but once this distinction is made, it can do no more. It is up to the role of sentiment at that point to be the final factor in our moral judgments.
Following this line of reasoning, he states also that reason alone is not sufficient enough for any moral judgments to be made at all. All qualities upon which men make moral judgments, he says, require some sort of subjective “influence” that causes us to either praise or scorn them. Reason discovers truth, but carries no persuading influence with such truths. Reason, therefore, cannot motivate on its own any sort of moral judgment, since the truths it discovers “are indifferent, and beget no desire or aversion, [and] they can have no influence on conduct and behavior” (Hume). The traits that we find admirable as well as those we find despicable, Hume claims, we deem so due to our sentiments regarding them.
To understand how Hume’s ethic—especially his claim that both reason and sentiment play important roles in the development of moral distinctions—relates to pragmatism, we need to see first how modern philosophers interpret pragmatism in relation to environmental ethics. A common problem with many approaches to such an action-oriented ethic, according to environmental pragmatists, is the tendency of philosophers to focus on more abstract, unnecessarily complicated definitions and distinctions. This focus on what I considered at the beginning of this paper to be components of “armchair philosophy” rather than more practical, easier-to-understand elements seems to be less than optimal for an ethic that is so focused on being applied to real life.
Anthony Weston, for example, in his paper “Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics,” mainly attacks the idea of intrinsic value. Drawing a distinction between instrumental value—valuing nature because it is necessary or useful—and intrinsic value—valuing nature for its own sake, Weston claims that most environmental ethicists tend to focus on the latter as their reason for why we should demonstrate respect for and care for nature. However, he claims that such a thing as “inherent value” is a non-natural property “where problematic metaphysical commitments are plain to see” (Weston, 329). In other words, how can one judge what has inherent value and what doesn’t? Others (e.g., Minteer & Manning) see such abstract, theoretical concepts in a similar manner, stating that when focused on alone, they do little for an ethic that is very much based in action and connection with the real world.
A pragmatic approach to ethics, according to its supporters, attempts to involve experience, differing viewpoints, and a less “removed” approach to what constitutes morality in order to create a more applicable environmental ethic. According to Weston, pragmatism “focuses on the interrelatedness of our values” (Weston, 334) and creates a sort of ecology of values that can be changed and modified. Minteer and Manning share a similar interpretation of pragmatic ethics. A pragmatic approach, they hold, strives to develop a more “applied” ethics, one that is based on experience, experiments, and more societal- and cultural-based guidelines for defining and determining morality. That is, the authors advocate an approach that, with the input from the community and lawmakers in that community, will be based mainly off of the society’s moral guidelines in which the ethic will take hold.
From the perspectives of both Minteer and Manning and Weston, we can define pragmatism now in terms of environmental ethics. For environmental ethicists, a pragmatic approach is an attempt to involve experience, differing viewpoints, and a less “removed” approach to get to what constitutes morality. The idea of a pragmatism in environmental ethics is to examine things from a more practical and applied approach that involves more action-based ideas such as looking at differing viewpoints, experience, and experiments.
With pragmatism defined in terms of environmental ethics, we turn now to two authors—P.S. Greenspan and Y. S. Lo—who explicitly mention Humean ethics in relation to their interpretations of environmental pragmatism. P.S. Greenspan examines the idea of social norms and codes in relation to Hume’s notions of reason and sentiment, while Lo focuses on how we come to deem actions virtuous or vicious.
Greenspan claims that the concept of moral wrong is the result of a “collective response”—it arises due to society and the way certain acts are forbidden in order to achieve or to allow for what he deems “group flourishing” (Greenspan, 110). In other words, he claims that moral codes are constructed by society in order to promote the flourishing of that society. It is here that Greenspan makes a comparison with Hume’s idea of reason. His suggestion “presuppose[s] notions of group rationality, or arguably even moral assessment, on the order of ‘social flourishing’” (Greenspan, 109). Group members, according to Greenspan, are rational agents, not just in general but within each individual case where questions over morality arise. It is this rationality of the members of a society that allow for a rational application of morals.
The more important component to morality for Greenspan, though, involves a semi-Humean notion of sentiment. This relates to how morality is taught. Emotion is relied upon as a “supplement to cognition in general terms” when morality is taught and in the way morality is generally set up in a society. With the assumption that moral language, moral emotion, and moral rules are taught generally in the same manner to children, he makes the assertion that emotion and sentiment are actually the first components of morality taught to young children.
For example, when a child does something that is deemed morally wrong, such as pushing another child, they are taught that what they did was a bad thing—either because their actions caused the other child to be sad, or because their actions led them to an unfavorable consequence (such as being put in time-out, thus making them angry). “What comes first,” according to Greenspan, “is basic emotion tendencies such as sadness and anger, along with some sort of higher order tendency to pick up emotional reactions from others—something like Humean sympathy” (Greenspan, 107).
The practicality and pragmatism of this combination of reason and sentiment is quite apparent. The aspect of sentiment allows for a more “personal” application of morals—what one does leads to consequences (or benefits) that evoke some form of emotional response. The aspect of rationality allows for a coming together of differing emotional responses and reactions that allow for a form of “group consensus” of what may be deemed immoral (things that cause adverse emotional reactions) and moral (things that cause good emotional reactions).
This type of application of reason and sentiment combined to develop morality can be extended to apply to environmental ethics as well. For example, suppose the individuals of a community decide to overlook the pollution in their lake. However, at a certain point, the lake water becomes poisoned due to the pollution and the members of the community, who rely on the lake for their drinking water supply, get sick because of the poisoned water. I will develop this example in relation to Humean ethics and pragmatism in general later in this essay, but for now, we examine it from Greenspan’s theory. According to Greenspan, the members of the community will first respond with an emotional reaction—maybe some will be angry that their water supply is poisoned, others will be generally upset, some will be sad, etc. Along with this, Greenspan would argue, many would probably make the connection between the poisoned drinking water supply and the pollution in the lake. Led by their rationality, these members of the community would come together and try to work out the best way to deal with the cause (the pollution) of their adverse emotional responses.
A very similar interpretation of the importance of Humean sentiment and reason with regards to environmental ethics can be drawn from Y. S. Lo. He reiterates Hume’s claim that which actions are deemed “virtuous” and which are deemed “vicious” are based on the feeling or sentiment one has regarding the action (Lo, 128). Reason alone, due to its objective, unbiased standpoint, could not lead one to make any sort of distinction between that which is considered moral and that which is considered immoral. “An action or character is virtuous/vicious,” Lo claims, “if and only if the ‘spectator’ feels the sentiment of approbation/disapprobation towards it” (Lo, 130).
Like Greenspan, Lo points out the importance of rationality, citing Hume’s condition that the spectator in question must be a “judicious spectator,” adopting points of view that are free of and indifferent to private interests and relations (an especially important component when we consider that at least some significant conflicts regarding environmental ethics are caused when a private company is in conflict with environmental regulations set up by a different group).
Lo claims that it is this rationality combined with sentiment that allows for genuine virtues and vices—those that can be viewed as such under ideal conditions (though he never specifies what these are). In other words, he reiterates a view of Hume’s—that there is a human nature that all humans universally share. The relation of this view to morality, according to Lo, is that it “sets the limits within which a moral theory remains humanly intelligible” (Lo, 133)—that it must be interpretable and clear.
With this claim, Lo subtly argues against the “armchair philosophy” approach to ethics in general. Even if the concept of a universal human nature seems unbelievable, the important limit this idea places on philosophers when determining an ethic has to do with retaining the entire ethic in the realm of what can be humanly intelligible. In other words, such an idea appears to guide one away from more abstract, unattainable definitions such as “intrinsic value” versus “instrumental value.” While we can assume which things have intrinsic value and which do not, it is something we as a species will never truly be able to be sure about. Therefore, Lo appears to argue, we should not attempt to base an ethic on such concepts. Rather, we should stick with what we can know, experience, and define—something that is practical—reason and sentiment.
Authors who don’t explicitly mention Hume—such as Ben Minteer and Robert Manning and Anthony Weston—also demonstrate the importance of his claim that both reason and sentiment play important roles in defining morality through their descriptions of the importance of a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics.
Ben Minteer and Robert Manning, in their essay “Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics: Democracy, Pluralism, and the Management of Nature” fail to mention Hume at all, yet they advocate a pragmatism that is strongly based on Humean ideas. “Practical aims of environmental philosophy” they claim “are not well served by ethicists’ penchant for employing esoteric forms of discourse that make it difficult for a large audience to connect” (Minteer & Manning, 192). They advocate a communal, pluralistic environmental ethic derived from the coming together of different people with different viewpoints, rather than an ethic that employs terminology and distinctions that can be difficult to understand.
According to the authors, any attempt at constructing an environmental ethic based purely on “analytically constructed moral ‘truths’” is insufficient (Minteer & Manning, 194). This is similar to Hume’s objection regarding basing morality solely on reason. “There is a broad range of moral sentiments about human-nature relationships,” Minteer and Manning claim, and a more community-based ethic promotes a coming together of these different viewpoints and allowing them to be open for discussion and challenges. They advocate a solution similar to that of Greenspan, who suggested that a collective response would arise out of a community’s desire to flourish. They suggest that sentiment is combined with reason when a community comes together to rationally determine how to best act as a group with regards to differing sentiments.
30) The authors essentially make a very Humean claim without referring to a clear distinction between reason and sentiment at all. Individual viewpoints, or individual sentiments, must be combined in a group setting in order for criticism, challenges, and compromises to be made. This rational confluence of ideas, according to Minteer and Manning, allows for the most practical, applicable, and secure form of environmental ethic.
A similar train of reasoning can be found in Anthony Weston’s essay “Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics.” As stated above, Weston argues against the abstract, obscurely-defined approach to environmental ethics. Instead he claims that a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics is essentially the only approach that would make a viable ethic possible. Disconnecting values from their contexts, Weston argues, does nothing to further our attempts to assign value, for once they are out of context, “what they are in relation to everything else is pushed out of focus” (Weston, 323). Similar to Minteer’s and Manning’s point, this, too, can be related back to Hume’s assertion that reason alone does little for defining morality. While reason is important, it is the combination of reason and sentiment that leads to the best decisions made when things become challenging.
“When values do become problematic,” Weston asserts “when choice is required, then they need articulation and defense” (Weston, 332). He promotes—again, like Minteer and Manning—a more community-based foundation for environmental ethics. Rather than relying on abstract concepts, we should rely instead on our sentiments which we then explore further through rational, communal considerations of sentiments. We must look at “the relation of these values to other parts of our system of desires…and to the solution of concrete problems” (Weston, 337).
After reviewing key points from a number of thinkers above, I have shown that many different approaches to environmental pragmatism rely on the Humean ethical components of sentiment and reason, regardless of whether or not they specifically take these components from Hume. Greenspan and Lo, who both explicitly mention the reason-sentiment distinction, claim that both components are necessary for an environmental ethic. Greenspan focuses on the fact that morality is taught first through sentiment, then rationally applied through a community coming together to better promote its flourishing. Lo focuses on the idea that “virtue” and “vice” are qualities we ascribe based solely off of our sentiments. The importance of reason, for him, lies in the fact that only judicious spectators, free of and indifferent to private interests, can make true value judgments with regards to what is virtuous and what is vicious.
Minteer and Manning and Weston, unlike Greenspan and Lo, do not explicitly mention Hume, yet the reason-sentiment distinction is still apparent in their suggestions for pragmatism. For Minteer and Manning, the focus lies on the idea of a community-based environmental ethics, where individual viewpoints (similar to sentiments) can be viewed, considered, and critiqued by all in the community, leading to a rational confluence of ideas used to develop an environmental ethic. For Weston, individual values, when they conflict with others’ values, should be worked through in a community setting, much like the rational setting Minteer and Manning suggest.
The goal of a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics is to abandon an armchair philosophy outlook on the discipline and instead focus on what can be actively, practically applied. From the authors I’ve noted above, it becomes clear that there are several key connections between the Humean distinction between reason and sentiment and components necessary for a solid, functioning pragmatic environmental ethic. The main connection between Hume’s reason-sentiment distinction and a pragmatic approach to environmental ethics exists in what many of the authors above advocate—a coming-together of individual values to systematically and rationally decide on an environmental ethic for a community. Sentiment—our emotions and feelings—guide our individual reactions to situations (such as the reaction to the poisoned drinking water in the scenario presented above). However, advocates of pragmatism suggest that if members of a community come together and rationally discuss their individual reactions to environmental issues, this will lead to a well-functioning ethic.
One criticism of a pragmatic ethic based on Hume’s reason-sentiment distinction argues against the idea that sentiment is necessary in all situations. Returning to the polluted lake example above, critics could argue that sentiment does not play a role at all—rather, the individuals in this community could come to the rational conclusion, “if we pollute the lake, the lake water will become poisonous. Since we do not want to drink poisoned water, we should stop polluting the lake” without sentiment necessarily playing a part.
A response to this criticism involves pointing out again the importance many of the authors cited above place on both reason and sentiment with regards to ethical decisions. Suppose we ask an individual in that community why he shouldn’t pollute the lake, and he responds that the pollution leads to the water being poisoned and that he doesn’t want to drink poisoned water. If we ask him why he doesn’t want to drink poison water, he will most likely come up, with a reason based off of sentiment—“it makes me sick, and being sick makes me sad/mad/upset/etc.” In other words, as many of the authors appear to suggest, at the heart of peoples’ rational decisons are sentiments, which guide their ultimate value judgments.
It is the coming together as a community to discuss and evaluate these differing value judgments, they go on to claim, that is similar to Hume’s idea of reason—communities that are able to work through many different value judgments as a group to reach a rational, general conclusion about an environmental ethic have combined both the sentiment aspect of morality and the rational aspect of morality in a pragmatic, practical, effective way.
This paper has attempted to demonstrate the strong connection between Humean ethics—particularly with the distinction between reason and sentiment and the roles both of them play in defining morality—and modern pragmatic approaches to environmental ethics. It is apparent through the articles and ideas discussed that ideas formed centuries ago by Hume still apply today, especially in a pragmatic setting. Sentiment, in the form of feelings and emotions, helps guide our value judgments—without sentiment, we could not make judgments whatsoever. Reason, in the form of communal discussion and critique, acts as a “guide” of our sentiments, which allows the ability, in a community setting, to base an environmental ethic rationally upon the collective sentiments of that community. The joint use of both reason and sentiment helps to promote a pragmatic, practical, strong approach to environmental ethics.
Greenspan, P.S.. “Moral Responses and Moral Theory: Socially-Based Externalist Ethics.” The Journal of Ethics 2(1998): 103-122.
Lo, Y.S.. “Making and Finding Values in Nature: From a Humean Point of View.” Inquiry 49(2006): 123-147.
Minteer, Ben A., and Manning. “Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics: Democracy, Pluralism, and the Management of Nature.” Environmental Ethics 21(1999): 191-207.
Hume, David. (1777; reprint 1912; digitized n.d.) An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume. Ed. J. Mamoun, C. Franks et al. Retrieved March 3, 2009, from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4320.
Weston, Anthony. “Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Ethics 7(1985): 321-339
Alternate title: “Things Claudia Does to Avoid Homework/Cleaning Her Room/Death by Boredom/Drugs”
So this morning I woke up and put on my new snazzy David Hume shirt. After playing Rock Band for a bit, I sat down at about 4:00 with the intent to do a quick sketch of Hume in Flash, just to check my skills how much I suck.
I just finished. It’s 9:30.
FRUIT OF MY LABORS:
Yes, I know the shirt and the wig suck (I forgot to shade a few places…shut up, it’s the first time I’ve drawn ANYTHING in a long while, especially in Flash). But look at that lace neckerchief…damn.
OH MY GOD I HAVE FOUND THE MOTHERLOAD.
I will now show you a few of my favorites, ‘cause I’m cool like that and I’ve been laughing all night because of these. You might get them, you might not, it depends on how much philosophy you know/how closely you actually listen to me when I go on my philosophy tangents.
Causes of Death for Philosophers
Anselm: Than which no deadlier can be conceived (I wonder if he realized how often that one single phrase of his would turn into random jokes?)
Berkeley: His girlfriend stopped seeing him (this has to be one of the greatest of all)
Descartes: Stopped thinking (of course)
Leibniz: Monadnucleosis (bahahahaha…)
Plato: Caved in
Spinoza: Substance abuse
Hume’s philosophy summed up in limerick form. Perfect.
That somewhat stout Scot David Hume
Said “this cosmos of ours has no room
For forces or powers
It’s just hours and hours
Of impressions, then ideas, till the tomb.”
Scroll down to the “Songs and Poems” section and click on The Monads. I want to find these guys and have all of their children (“The Missing Shade of Blues” is genius).
I love people who find humor in the things in which I find humor.