Review of 'Hume, Reason and Morality: A Legacy of Contradiction' by Sophie Botros
Sinclair (Neil)
Source: Mind, New Series, Vol. 116, No. 463 (Jul., 2007), pp. 733-736
Paper - Abstract

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  1. If Moore gave birth to modern metaethics, then Hume was undoubtedly present at the conception. His influence on contemporary debate can be felt far and wide, from the instrumental theory of rationality to the 'projectivism' of quasi-realists. But perhaps Hume's most enigmatic legacy is his argument from practicality. This is the claim – inspired by Book III of the Treatise – that moral judgements cannot be beliefs since they are practical in a way in which no belief can be. But
    1. can such an unequivocally valid argument be found in the Treatise and
    2. is it worthy of its current status as 'the most serious obstacle to any coherent cognitivism' (p. 145)?
    It is these questions – one exegetical, one metaethical – that Botros addresses in this book. Her controversial answers are 'No' and 'No'. Though Botros's contributions are original and thought-provoking I suspect that historians of philosophy will find her exegesis strained and that metaethicists will find her criticisms of the Humean argument unconvincing. I will elaborate these points below, after summarising Botros's arguments
  2. Botros's prose is dense and challenging, making this book more suited for scholars of the subject rather than newcomers. A wide range of sources – historical, philosophical and literary, from Sophocles to Kierkegaard – constantly vitalises the text. But given the strength of Botros's conclusions there are worrying gaps. Metaethicists may be disappointed that the refutation of internalism does not address recent defences by Smith, Gibbard and Lenman; Blackburn's avowedly Humean argument for non-cognitivism is not addressed2; the discussion of direction-of-fit excludes recent work by Velleman, Papineau, and Milikan; and McDowell's defence of external reasons is absent. On the exegetical side it would be nice to know whether Hume's correspondence with Hutcheson throws any light on the claim that the latter is one of Hume's targets in 3.1.1. Of course, no book can hope to cover all possible ground, but we must be correspondingly circumspect in our conclusions. Certainly on the basis of what is discussed in this book, Botros's claim that 'the practicality argument ... in its only fully extant form in contemporary literature – the form in which it is claimed to drive us towards non-cognitivism – hardly warrants its formidable reputation' (p. 176) appears somewhat premature.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: The first and last paragraphs.

Footnote 2:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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