Thursday, May 19, 2005

The worst thing in Hume's Treatise

I've defended the view that David Hume was the greatest philosopher ever, and I become slowly more convinced of it as time wears on. But now I write about the worst bit of his writing I've ever read.

It comes in Book III, Part II of his Treatise of Human Nature. In the final section of Part II, he offers a justification of why chastity is praised as a virtue for women. The explanation is as follows: It's of great social importance that men be able to confidently believe that they are the biological fathers of their wives' offspring. If they're not confident in this, they won't expend enough effort in providing for children, and future generations will be worse for it. If wives are unchaste, men won't know whether their wives' offspring are their children are not, and this will prevent men from caring for future generations. Despite the fact that it takes two to have extramarital sex, Hume claims that men's moral obligation to be chaste is not as strong. Nowhere is there any explicit mention of the immorality a man engages in when he has sex with another man's wife. The point that an emphasis on male chastity would be as effective as an emphasis on female chastity is totally lost on him. (Hume describes in detail, but refrains from criticizing, the extension of chastity norms to cover women beyond childbearing age.)

And now I come to the part that is a total betrayal of Hume's genius. I quote the last two sentences:

'Tis contrary to the interest of human society, that men should have an entire liberty of indulging their appetites in venereal enjoyment: But as this interest is weaker than in the case of the female sex, the moral obligation, arising from it, must be proportionably weaker. And to prove this we need only appeal to the practice and sentiments of all nations and ages.

But when did the practice and sentiments of all nations and ages ever matter to you? David, you were the one who argued (against the most deeply held beliefs of all ages!) that causes don't necessitate their effects. You offered a reduction of causation to constant conjunction which eliminated the causal necessity that everyone believed in. In doing so, you offered an error theory of causal necessity -- do you think that causal necessity is less fundamental than the moral belief in chastity as a virtue? If you do, you're blind. You know that unfortunate features of our psychology dispose us to make false judgments on so many things. And what could've made you forget that here? Despite your hours in the brothels of Edinburgh, did you not regard the whores as unfortunate creatures unfairly condemned? If you failed to do so, natural sympathy is lacking in you, and in that you are vicious.

One might try an excuse for Hume here -- he lived in a time before feminism, so he didn't know how the interests of powerful men could've led accepted views about sexual morality into error. But if we respect Hume's capacity to identify processes that lead us into error, there's not much we can feel here but disappointment. Maybe we could accept it from somone who worked to codify all his intuitions into philosophy. But among Hume's gifts were his willingness to tell everyone that they were wrong, and his skill in finding psychological explanations of error. Where we see that these gifts failed him, there is cause for disappointment and sadness.

15 comments:

Julian Elson said...

Well, complete male chastity or complete female chastity would be equally in the interest of husbands who want to know that their wives are bearing their children, but female chastity is effective for each individual husband even if his wife is the only chaste woman, whereas if any particular man is chaste, that doesn't mean that this particular woman won't cheat some other way.

Julian Elson said...

Oh, and David Hume is one of my friends on the Facebook. He has a fake account, and on his profile, under "favorite books" he writes "_An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding_ and _An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals_. Will you *please* stop judging me based on my Treatise?"

Neil Sinhababu said...

That's right, I guess. But on the other hand, if Mr. A's wife is chaste, that does nothing to help his neighbor Mr. B, while if Mr. A is chaste, that helps Mr. B.

Rousseau said...

Elson you make Neil's point too well. Female chastity makes a ton of sense in terms of serving the need of a male to know his kids belong to him. It does not make particularly more sense in actually making sure kids belong to their fathers than any other method.

Ie, it would naturally occur due to psycholocial rationalizations, and is not that big a moral value.

Rebecca Neville said...

seems an argument for male chastity can be made on behalf of women - after all if her husband goes around having children with random other women he will be less able to provide for his wife and their children.

The problem isn't so much whether female chastity is more or less effective in helping fathers know they which children are those, its that only the interests of husbands are considered morally important.

Rousseau said...

So upon further thinking, Hume’s economic argument really must be crap.

Hume: If a husband is sleeping around, he will take care of his illegitimate children and his legitimate children. However, if he suspects his wife of sleeping around, he will not take care of her illegitimate children.

Me: But then, one would hope the biological father of those illegitimate children will accept some responsibility for resources.

Hume: No he won’t.

Me: Then your first sentence is wrong, and clearly the problem starts directly with the husband sleeping around. Since he won’t care for any of his illegitimate children.

There is a very cold economic argument to be made about bottlenecks, that if women are already the more sexually reticent, or are easier to monitor their sexual activity, then any pressure to reduce sex will be most effective when applied to them. But that’s not what Hume is saying, and it has bad results anyway.

The question then becomes, well how good an economist is Hume anyway? Should we expect him to see the flaw, and when he doesn’t he’s a biased person? Or is it simply a lack of intellectual abilities in that field, but he retains his same motives of gender-egalitarianism.

david said...

Neil, I am sort of surprised that you are surprised that Hume believes that the "practice and sentiments of all nations" matter morally. I don't know much about Hume, but my impression is that for Hume, much of morality is constituted by convention, i.e. widely held practices and attitudes. If so, then it shouldn't be any big surprise if Hume thinks that when trying to figure out our moral obligations in a given case, the "practices and sentiments" of nations are at least relevant.

Protagoras said...

I am as much a fan of Hume as you, and I am equally unhappy with this part of his argument (though I like presenting it in class, because I hope some of the students, at least the women, will complain about it, and I like anything that gets my students talking). It is beside the point to note that Hume said his Enquiries were supposed to supplant the Treatise; first, almost everyone is agreed that the Treatise has more interesting ideas, and second, the _Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals_ is no more enlightened on the issue in question.

I'm afraid that it is very hard to see this as other than Hume engaging in self-serving argument, which is perhaps understandable, but not really an excuse. He was himself the subject of a paternity suit in his youth, so laws which unfairly favor men might have appealed to him for personal reasons.

Brandon said...

Not only does Hume think the practices and sentiments of the nation are relevant, he is very clear that in moral matters, they are the standard. At least, this seems implied by what he says when discussing allegiance (3.2.9):

"The general opinion of mankind has some authority in all cases; but in this of morals it is perfectly infallible. Nor is it less infallible, because men cannot distinctly explain the principles, on which it is founded."

Perfect infallibility, no less!

Dave Dick said...

Neil, I'm not with you on this one, for three reasons:

First, (and maybe this is just because Loeb has gotten to me) I don't think we should take the standards for knowledge/inquiry that decimate necessary connection in Book I of the Treatise to apply to the following two books. Given what a shoddy epistemic position we're in at 1.4.7 (where all knowledge reduces to probability which reduces to zero), there's no point in even writing anything further, since it looks that by these standards we can't know *anything*. Using them to evaluate claims Hume makes in the later books is silly, since he'd have been nuts to have written them.

Second, I thought the whole heart of Hume's moral sentimentalism depended our moral sense behaving like the rest of our senses that perceive secondary qualities, so the *very best way* to figure out if something is red, bitter, or good, is to ask as many people as possible, on the assumption that enough people have properly functioning sensory apparatus and don't lie about what it tells them.

Third, as I read this passage you've quoted, it seems that what Hume is referring back in the sentence (i.e. what he's trying to "prove") is that females are less naturally inclined to sexual desire than males, and just assumes that obligation will be proportional to inclination. That is just an empirical question that really can be settled by examining all ages and nations to find out the general tendencies of sexual desire in those two genders.

That said, and if this really was the point Hume was trying to establish (granting the assumption that the obligation would just be naturally proportional to the desire), he is obviously, and totally, wrong.

Anonymous said...

Please know I say this (and only bothered to post it) because Hume is the first and only philosopher I've ever loved. He didn't have me at "Hello". (Since "Hello" for me was his bundle theory of the mind.)

But he did have me at 1.4.7 at this passage (the more people who read it the better):

"Nothing is more dangerous to reason than the flights of the imagination, and nothing has been the occasion of more mistakes among philosophers. Men of bright fancies may in this respect be compar'd to those angels, whome the scripture represents as covering their eyes with their wings."

Dave Dick said...

I'm the "Anonymous" quoting 1.4.7 above.

Dave Dick said...

Sorry, evidently I've been smoking too much crack lately.

I've just reread the passage you quoted, Neil, and see that my reading of it in my 3rd point is *totally*, *embarrassingly* mistaken. I hereby retract it, but I'm sticking to my guns on 1 & 2.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Dave, you and Brandon have convinced me that this is tied to a larger Humean metaethical picture which is either conventionalist or response-dependent in some way. I'm still annoyed at Hume for choosing bad metaethical options and accepting the awful normative consequences that follow from them, but I can see how it's not some totally bizarre departure from his larger methodology.

Neil Sinhababu said...

But there's still one thing that bugs me. If you're going to go conventionalist, why even bother giving some kind of justifying account of moral practices that shows them to be socially optimal? That's what Hume is doing in this section, and it seems that his larger theory would render it unnecessary. You'd just have to point to the conventions, and your work would be done. And if you want to say that Hume is arguing for a coherence between our conventions supporting socially optimal arrangements and the sexist conventions which he defends, he gives a bad argument for that conclusion, for the reasons cited in the original post.