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Hume’s Moral Philosophy and Contemporary PsychologyReview - Hume’s Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Psychology
by Philip A. Reed and Rico Vitz (Editors)
Routledge, 2018
Review by Saliha Bayır
Dec 20th 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 51)

In Hume's Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Psychology, editors Philip A. Reed and Rico Vitz bring together Hume scholars to shed light on the lacuna of the relationship between Hume's moral philosophy and the implications of the empirical findings of contemporary psychology (as well as cognitive science and neuroscience) on moral psychology. This surprisingly neglected relationship covers central research topics in moral psychology like the situationist debate, the role of empathy, moral motivation and so on.

All of the chapters converge on providing interpretations of different facets of Hume's moral psychology and highlighting the relationship of these interpretations with empirical studies in contemporary psychology. Therefore, the reader interested in ethics, the history of philosophy, moral psychology, social psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive science, and the related disciplines will find the essays in this volume beneficial. Essentially, this volume interdisciplinarily analyzes if Humean ethics could endure the empirical observations of the contemporary humanities. In Reed's words "It is high time that we find out whether Hume's observations of moral psychology, made without the tools of modern social science, survive investigation from work that has been done with those tools." (p. 7).

The first of the main issues the volume attempts to tackle is the question of whether the situationist challenge constitutes a problem for Hume's moral philosophy. In order to provide an adequate response to the empirical evidence demonstrating that people are rarely consistently virtuous across different situations and over time (and thus, if there are any, virtuous people are very rare), Philip A. Reed claims that Hume never endorses the widespread of virtues. Reed contends that virtue is a comparative concept and that if it were so common, it would hardly be regarded as valuable. On the other hand, Rico Vitz argues that Hume's moral philosophy is in accordance with the empirical evidence that the situationists put forward from social psychology and cognitive science as a challenge to virtue ethics without committing to the position that virtues are rare. Vitz contends that Hume accepts the role of mood effects and group effects on people's behavior and, in disagreement with Reed, believes that Humean virtues are degree concepts, not threshold concepts.

The role of empathy is another major issue for this volume. Katharina Paxman, for example, distinguishes "affective empathy" from "cognitive empathy", and she claims that this distinction enables one to refute the empirical challenges against the validity of Hume's morality based on the observations on HF-ASD patients (empirical evidence demonstrating that HF-ASD patients are capable of acting as moral agents despite of possessing severely impaired empathy). Anette Pierdziwol, on the other hand, compares Hume's account of pity and benevolent motivation with Daniel Batson's empathy-altruism hypothesis. In addition to the debates on the nature of empathy, the volume investigates contemporary challenges by Jesse Prinz and Paul Bloom on the question of whether empathy (or Humean sympathy) can serve as the foundation of morality. The general worries behind these challenges are that empathy is too narrow in scope and is often too partial to serve as a basis to morality. Lorenzo Greco and Lorraine L. Besser argue in separate chapters that the factors of intersubjectivity and the general point of view helps Humean morality in avoiding idiosyncratic judgments deeming Prinz's and Blooms' reservations about the role of empathy unwarranted. One criticism I wish to raise, at this point, is that authors disagree on whether empathy and sympathy are more or less interchangeable in meaning and this might be a potential reason of confusion for the reader. Because Hume's moral philosophy uses the term sympathy (instead of empathy), some of the authors (f. e. Greco) wishes to argue that the equalization of Humean sympathy and contemporary empathy is not a viable option.

Anne Jaap Jacobson compares Hume's empathy-based ethics with Blooms anti-empathy morality in terms of what they offer for moral inclusion. Jacobson argues that there are considerable limitations in both accounts in terms of extending moral concern to "outsiders" in race, gender, nationality, disability, and so on. Christine Swanton's chapter on the Humean notion of love attempts to respond to the problems raised by Jacobson. Swanton argues that the main research on Hume's moral philosophy is centered around sympathy/empathy and benevolence and the Humean notion of love is neglected. However, the notion of love in Hume has a considerable philosophical power and can help in explaining and predicting many prosocial behaviors. Swanton contends that the ethically-defective mechanism of sympathy can be avoided by adding the concept of virtuous love in the picture.

Michael Gill identifies three different types of roles that passions play and accordingly, three different kinds of moral motivation: virtuous trait motivation, approval of another's motivation, and approval of self-motivation. Gill uses this analysis of multiples types of motives to explain the anti-rationalist position of Hume. Similarly, Elizabeth Radcliffe wonders to what extend practical reason plays a role in moral motivation. Radcliffe's goal is to: 1. Show that many of the details of Hume's theory of passionate self-moderation are verified in contemporary studies, 2. Argue that, for Hume, reason has a practicality which is passionate regulation, 3. Show that practical reason does not generate categorical or hypothetical "oughts" but yields general "oughts" hailing from practical reason. Radcliffe also claims that the contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists' recognition of emotional regulation as necessary to mental health and well-being was a point Hume emphasized all along as 'regulations of passions.' 

The relationship between contemporary cognitive science and Hume's 'science of man' is explored by Saul Traiger. Traiger brings Hume's experimental method based on observation in closer alignment with the methodology of contemporary cognitive science arguing that historically, the scientific advance in the studies of cognition and emotion is obtained only after the kinds of observations shifted from self-reports of sensations to reports of behavior and brain processes of others.

The last main question is on whether it is possible to make a firm distinction between vice and mental illnesses on Humean grounds. Margaret Watkins argues that a Humean distinction between vice and mental illness must be a vague one lying along a wide continuum. She suggests that, for Hume, voluntariness is largely irrelevant to moral judgments. Neither traits nor behaviors need to be voluntary for good moral judges to assess them as virtuous or vicious. Moreover, Watkins claims that many qualities that are considered to be virtues like courage, patience and self-command depend little or not at all on our choice. Watkins contends that we do not need a robust sense that people have freely chosen their own virtues and vices; we only require that these traits are not wholly fixed and innate. Moreover, the question of whether diagnosing the problem as mental illness improve the odds for change is very hard to answer as it will depend on the present cultural conceptualization of mental disorders and this will affect people's beliefs about what they are capable of. However, Watkins believes that the lack of a firm distinction between mental illness and vice can be an advantage: both categories involve disorders of passions, so the therapy (improvement of 'moral taste') Hume suggests for these disorders will be helpful for both categories. I believe that further evidence and research would be beneficial in confirming or refuting Watkins' analysis and in enlightening the Humean conceptions of health and disorder.

Overall, I consider this book a treasured contribution to moral psychology. All of the chapters provide valuable insight into the relevance of Hume's moral philosophy to contemporary psychology and will be of interest to scholars and students interested in these discussions. The chapters are well-ordered in accordance with the questions they attempt to answer, and the style of writing is very clear. The introduction chapter by Reed and the conclusion chapter by Vitz are especially helpful for the reader who wants to make a straight to the point reading.

 

© 2018 Saliha Bayır

 

Saliha Bayır is a graduate student at Istanbul Technical University.


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