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Hume Studies

Volume 39, Issue 1, April 2013

Cass Weller
Pages 3-35

Hume on the Normativity of Practical Reasons

It is well known that Hume both denies that reason in the strict sense is practical and claims that no end an agent adopts is contrary to reason. Many conclude from this that Hume denies that there are action-guiding reasons and that a person can be blamed for failing to do what she acknowledges as means to her end or for remaining indifferent to the acknowledged means to her end. This paper argues against this reading by mining the texts for Hume’s account of the relation between desiring an end and willing the means to that end. The first part of the paper argues that for Hume, willing an end and willing the acknowledged means to that end form a complex of passions of a sort, so that it is not within human nature to remain indifferent to the acknowledged means to an end. In this sense, willing a certain action is a necessary response to having an end in view and believing that that action will achieve it. In the second part, the paper argues that for Hume, when willing an action as a means to an end is defeated by a contrary desire, the agent is blameworthy for having acted contrary to reason in a sense to be defended. Calm passions, while often confused with reason, play some of the roles ascribed to reason. For example, an agent sets ends through calm passions, thereby imputing value to objects that would otherwise remain objects of mere desire. It is through calm passions that we endorse the objects of lower-level desires as constituting our happiness and good. These features of calm passions help to explain why in choosing to φ as a means of achieving a valued end, an agent acknowledges that φ-ing is valuable in relation to that end and that she ought to φ in the sense that she has a defeasible reason to φ. The calm passions are thus sources of defeasible action-guiding reasons. Strength of mind is a case of managing, in the face of a competing passion, to do what one has reason to do. Its counterpart, weakness, is an example of culpably failing to do what one has reason to do. Here willing the means to a given end is motivationally weaker than a competing desire whose object is either not endorsed or negatively valued. The agent is blameworthy for failing to do what she ought, despite willing it.

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