Review of 'Hume, Reason and Morality: A Legacy of Contradiction' by Sophie Botros
Mounce (H.O.)
Source: Philosophy - 81/318 (October 2006)
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Botros's work is concerned with Hume's argument to show that morality cannot be derived from reason alone.
    1. The first part is mainly historical, dealing with Hume's argument itself.
    2. The second discusses the influence of Hume's argument on contemporary moral philosophy.
    The work is serious and painstaking. But Botros's style might have been calculated to test the stamina of her readers. She discusses any given issue by debating alternative views in the secondary literature. One finds, therefore, on any issue that one has to retain alternative positions in mind. The difficulty of retaining them is compounded by one's finding in the midst of the struggle that one has lost the issue that divides them.
  2. ….
  3. There are difficulties also in her interpretation of Hume. His argument is that morality cannot be derived from reason, since it is essential to morality that it influences action but reason in itself cannot exert such an influence. Hume, however, phrases his argument in different ways. Sometimes he says that it is inert or wholly inactive. Botros claims that this involves a contradiction. To say that reason alone cannot move us implies, or at least suggests, that it cannot move us at all. In the first part, Botros attempts to explain the contradiction by showing that Hume was combining in a single argument an attack on very different opponents.
  4. ….
  5. In her second part, as we have said, Botros is concerned with Hume's influence on contemporary philosophy. Her discussion, once again, is extremely detailed and – at least to this reader – somewhat confusing. Yet it does not seem so difficult to indicate Hume's Contemporary influence. The truth is that the majority of contemporary philosophers would reject Hutcheson's account as the product of an out-dated metaphysics. They do not believe that the relation between passions and the world is intentional or teleological. Their view is not naturalist but naturalistic. They hold that nature is to be understood entirely through the concepts of the natural sciences. Thus passions are wholly the product of chance and blind or mechanical causation1. In short, they agree with Hume on his mechanistic side. They agree with him also in holding that reason in itself cannot move us. Ultimately we are moved by passion or desire. But there is a difficulty. The demands of morality, in its traditional sense, are categorical. Yet they cannot be categorical if it is passion or desire and not reason in itself that moves us, for the passions are wholly the product of contingent or accidental causes. Any demand, not based on force, must be relative to what a person can be expected to desire. This difficulty, however, can be avoided. For one can hold that morality, in its traditional sense, is itself that product of outdated metaphysics. That was the position adopted, for example, by Mackie and, in certain respects, by Williams. One can admire their consistency.
  6. That, however, is not the position Botros herself adopts. Her claim is that with the assistance of Wittgenstein she can show the categorical nature of morality whilst rejecting not simply the naturalistic view but also any element of the metaphysical. Her argument, in Wittgensteinian terms, is that morality is a language game which is played so that to show its categorical nature, one has only to elucidate what it involves. But that as it stands is plainly fallacious. She is assuming that what applies within a practice must therefore apply to the practice as a whole. Since the demands of morality are categorical, there is a categorical demand to submit to morality itself. The fallacy in this argument was well exposed by Foot, some forty years ago. …

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