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Philosophy Research Archives

Volume 14, 1988/1989

Adrian M.S. Piper
Pages 193-228

Hume on Rational Final Ends

Historically, the view, prevalent in contemporary economics and decision theory as well as philosophy, that rational action consists simply in satisfying one’s desires, whatever they may be, as efficiently as possible, is to be found first in Book II of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. This view has counterintuitive and self-refuting implications, in that it recognizes as rational behavior that may reveal a clear degree of irresponsibility or psychological instability. Accordingly, many Hume scholars have tried to show recently that this view was not Hume’s; and that, on the contrary, Hume did supply an account of rational final ends--in his discussion of the calm passions, the “steady and general view” that corrects the biases and contingencies of an individual’s desires and perceptions, and elsewhere. But a detailed reconstruction of Hume’s views on these matters that assembles all the relevant texts does not support this thesis. Instead, it undermines it. Hence the counterintuitive and self-refuting implications of Hume’s view of rational action must be allowed to stand.

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