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Lecture 3a: Hume and freethought

February 10, 2014

What are we to make of Hume’s religious views? Although religion is a topic on which Hume wrote often, his exact personal views are unknown as he remains ambiguous as to his own personal beliefs. From his writing, it is clear that he is skeptical as concerns most aspects of contemporary religion, which comes out in several ways. First, he does not believe in the God of standard theism or deism, although he does not rule this out as a possibility. Second, he finds that polytheism has its merits as compared to monotheism. Third, he considers Catholicism to be superstitious idolatry and extreme Protestantism to be enthusiastic corrupters of religion. Fourth, he argues against the design argument seen in deism. Finally, he argues agains the truth of miracles. In short, at the very least, Hume is irreligious in the sense that religion is irrelevant for our lives on earth. In his time, he was classified as a freethinker or atheist, though this corresponds more closely to our understanding of agnosticism in our own era.

b. Hume and deism

In our last class, we discussed deism, the philosophical position according to which we are so many interlocking parts in a cosmic machine designed by a benevolent God. This position is perhaps best encapsulated in the work of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) who holds that the universe has been designed by just such a benevolent creator God. This universe now set up to sustain and produce happiness for humanity, God then leaves the machine to run on its own to the fulfillment of its own benevolent ends. Yet, and to continue with the machine metaphor, for the machine to run reliably on its own, it requires reliable parts, and, for this reason, God implants a force and something of his benevolent nature within the agents within that world. This force directs them towards these benevolent ends, i.e. the common good and individual happiness. To this end, God endows humanity with a number of senses: consciousness, beauty, honor, and, the most important for our purposes, a moral sense.

What is a moral sense? In general, for Hutcheson, reason and reflection are not what prompts me to moral judgments and actions. Rather, a feeling inside me makes me think that a.) an action is virtuous or vicious and b.) I should do such and such a virtuous deed and avoid such and such a vicious one. More simply, when I am confronted with virtuous or vicious deeds or motives, I feel a certain kind of pleasure or uneasiness that informs me of whether I should find the deed or motive virtuous or vicious. Imagine the discomfort that one feels over the thought or fact or murder. This moral sense not only says what is good or bad, but it drives me to act on its judgment. I approve the good and disapprove the bad where the good is that which is benevolent (i.e. promoting the common good) and bad the malevolent (i.e. contrary to the public good). In some way, virtue excites us. For Hutcheson, this sense is universal, that is, we are all possessed of a moral sense identical in each of us, a sense which does not evolve over time or change from one culture to another. This shows to what extent this sense must have been implanted in us by a creator. Moreover, this moral sense ensures that we do our part to spread and promote happiness and benevolence by contributing to the greater functioning of the world machine. We know our place and do good by paying heed to our inner senses and emotions. There is no need for reflection through reason here. 

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