Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

Volume 57, Issue 4, December 1997

Rachel Cohon
Pages 827-850

The Common Point of View in Hume’s Ethics

Hume’s moral philosophy makes sentiment essential to moral judgment. But there is more individual consistency and interpersonal agreement in moral judgment than in private emotional reactions. Hume accounts for this by saying that our moral judgments do not manifest our approval or disapproval of character traits and persons “only as they appear from [our] peculiar point of view ... ” Rather, “we fix on some steady and general points of view; and always, in our thoughts, place ourselves in them, whatever may be our present situation” (T 581-82), in order to “correct” our situated sentiments. This seems to create two serious difficulties for Hume’s theory. First, moral evaluations become inductive, empirical beliefs about what we would feel if we really occupied the imagined common point of view, and hence are the deliverances of causal reason; this contradicts Hume’s claim that the making of a moral evaluation is not an activity of reason but of sentiment. Secondly, given Hume’s thesis that the passions do not represent anything else, he cannot say that our moral evaluations will better represent the object being judged if they are made from the common point of view. This leaves no clear reason to adopt it, rather than making judgments from our real position. Hume says that left to our particular points of view, we will encounter contradictions and be unable to communicate, but it is hard to see why. My interpretation resolves these two difficulties. I argue that every time we reflect upon someone’s character from the common point of view, we feel an actual sentiment of approbation or disapprobation, which may alter and merge with the situated sentiment or may fail to do so, leaving two different feelings about the same character. Furthermore, whenever we make moral evaluations we also simultaneously make objective, causal judgments about the love and hatred, pride and humility that the trait will produce. We routinely take up the common point of view in order to achieve truth and consistency in our causal judgments, to avoid grave practical problems.