Volume 38, Issue 2, November 2012
Sympathy and the Mechanics of Character Change
Sympathy’s susceptibility to interpersonal relations is problematic for Hume because even though sympathy is crucial for making moral judgments, it biases our character judgments in favor of those closest to us. This essay will argue that despite his emphasis on these negative effects and his insistence on the need to correct sympathy in order to attain universal moral judgments, Hume also offers resources for thinking that uncorrected, relation-susceptible sympathy plays a powerful role in the formation of character and in the refinement of one’s character ideals. This positive role emerges from Hume’s claim that close relations to other persons maximize the pains we feel in response to their disapproval, suggesting that our interactions with these persons strongly motivate us to become critical of morally questionable traits and sufficiently determined to abandon them. Focusing on this function of sympathy enables us to understand the importance of situatedness and attachments for our moral development and reveals how spontaneous affections can usefully feed into our more reflective moral insights.