Hume’s Irreligious Core
Interview by Richard Marshall.
Paul Russell is a philosopher who broods on the areas of free will and moral responsibility along with various topics in early modern philosophy. Within the area of free will and moral responsibility he is particularly interested in the challenge of scepticism and theories of responsibility that appeal to reactive attitudes or moral sentiments. On the subject of early modern philosophy he is especially concerned with the philosophy of David Hume and how his philosophy relates to problems of religion and atheism. Here he discusses freedom and responsibility, Strawson, the optimism/pessimism distinction, why he’s a freewill pessimist, Hume and classical vs naturalist compatibilism, Hume as an anatomist of virtue, Hume and Aristotle, Hume and Epicureanism, Hobbes, Hume’s relationship to the British Empiricists, Hume and Reid, Hume’s irreligious and freethinking core, whether he is a Pyrrhonian skeptic and Korsgaard’s challenge. Go read as a reprieve against the days…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Paul Russell: I suppose that, like most other philosophers, the answer to this question is complex and layered, given that a number of factors and influences were at play in directing me into philosophy. My parents were both academics and they had both been raised in a religious (Calvinist) environment that had strong social and political (Socialist) leanings and concerns. My father was a professor of philosophy and, although he died when I was just starting my undergraduate studies, he nevertheless shaped a great deal of my own early interest in philosophy broadly conceived. The period of my early intellectual development – the late 60s and early 70s – was one that was politically and socially engaged and highly charged. This not only helped to direct me into philosophy, it also helped to shape the particular interests that I developed within philosophy. Apart from all this, I was very fortunate, all the way through my education, to have a series of dedicated and able teachers and Professors who encouraged and stimulated my philosophical interests.
Arguably the most crucial stage in relation to all this comes at the graduate level, when the prospect of devoting your entire life to these matters becomes a real possibility. I had the unusual good fortune, as a graduate student at Cambridge in the early 80s, to work with two excellent supervisors who did a great deal to cement and secure my sense of commitment to the subject. I began my graduate studies working on the topic of the Marxist theory of history and was supervised by G.A. (Jerry) Cohen who, although still relatively young, was already recognized as a leading figure of “analytical Marxism”. After a year or two, however, my interests changed in the direction of free will and the philosophy of Hume and I moved over to work with Bernard Williams, who was, of course, an established, distinguished and hugely influential figure in the field. When I look back on the forms of support and encouragement that I was provided with early on, and the various opportunities that were made available to me, I realize how exceptionally fortunate I was.
3:AM: You’re a leading Humean scholar and one of the big issues grappled with by Hume is that of the idea of freedom and necessity, especially as it relates to morality. The late PF Strawson influentially wrote into this debate and you’ve assessed his contribution. Can you first say how Strawson characterized the compatibilists and incompatibilists and why he had no sympathy with the ‘one-eyed utilitarians’ and ‘panicky’ Kantian metaphysics that were default positions of those in the debate before him?
PR: Strawson introduced the labels of “optimist” and “pessimist” to contrast the compatibilist and incompatibilist positions in the free will debate. The optimist, on his schema, is a compatibilist who denies that the truth of determinism would in any way systematically discredit or dislodge our commitment to the attitudes and practices associated with moral responsibility. The compatibilist view that Strawson has primarily in mind is one that is grounded on considerations relating to the efficacy of rewards and punishments and the utilitarian benefits we accrue from this. The pessimist, for Strawson, is not only an incompatibilist, who takes the view that the truth of determinism is inconsistent with the attitudes and practices associated with moral responsibility, but also a libertarian, who believes that we are free and responsible but that this requires the falsity of determinism.The form of libertarianism that Strawson is particularly concerned with is one that relies on “contra-causal freedom or some similar form of “obscure and panicky metaphysics”.
The root difficulty with both these strategies, Strawson claims, is that they fail to acknowledge the essential role that reactive attitudes or moral sentiments play in accounting for the nature and conditions of moral responsibility. As a result of this, both the main parties in this debate have “over-intellectualized the facts” and seek forms of general justification that are neither available nor required. The right approach to questions of free will and moral responsibility, according to Strawson, is to account for the way in which our reactive attitudes are modified or withdrawn in light of excusing and mitigating considerations. It is within this framework that we must assess whether or not determinism poses a threat to moral responsibility. The conclusion he reaches is that, in the final analysis, nothing about the truth of determinism discredits our commitment to the reactive attitudes and the role they play in human moral life.
3:AM: So what was Strawson arguing we should do, and do you think it vindicates any form of optimism even if it defeats the skepticism around freedom to make moral choice?
PR: One important strand of Strawson’s argument is the claim that not only do skeptical arguments based on concerns about determinism fail to discredit our commitment to the reactive attitudes they are also practically irrelevant. They are practically irrelevant because our commitment to the reactive attitudes rests on natural foundations, not on any set of philosophical arguments or rational justifications that are vulnerable to a skeptical challenge of some kind. This general line of naturalistic argument is one that has also been employed in responses to other forms of skepticism (e.g. concerning induction, perception and the external world, etc.). According to this view, our reactive attitudes and practices are immune skeptical arguments or theoretical criticisms that aim to systematically discredit them or encourage us to abandon them altogether. While I think that Strawson’s general approach based on the reactive attitudes is correct, I would also agree with his critics that his attempt to dismiss the skeptical threat is not entirely convincing and the various arguments he puts forward require substantial amendment and adjustment.
The way in which Strawson uses the optimism/pessimism distinction is illuminating and important but it is also problematic in a number of ways. The main message that comes across from his use of the label of “pessimism” is that skepticism about freedom and moral responsibility would be troubling and disturbing in some relevant way. To the extent that skepticism and its troubling implications can be discredited or defeated we can vindicate a general metaphysical attitude of “optimism”. This way of presenting our options has been widely accepted and, for the most part, it is agreed that skepticism implies some form of pessimism and that, similarly, the refutation of skepticism serves to support optimism. However, in recent years a number of philosophers have argued, contrary to this familiar framework, that skepticism about moral responsibility has few, if any, disturbing or troubling implications and we can be both skeptics and optimists on this subject.
My view also diverges from the familiar view but not because I think that we should accept optimistic skepticism. I believe that Strawson’s naturalistic compatibilist arguments, suitably revised and amended, can serve to vindicate and secure a robust and credible theory of freedom and moral responsibility. We should, therefore, reject skepticism. However, contrary to Strawson (and other like-minded compatibilists), I would argue that the position we are left in does not vindicate any form of unqualified or easy optimism. On the contrary, when we understand conditions of freedom and responsibility, along the general (compatibilist) lines that Strawson and others have proposed, we encounter a distinct source or form of pessimism. This form of pessimism is rooted in what might be described as the limits of human agency or free will as this concerns our finitude and contingencies as (moral) agents in the world.
3:AM: Are you therefore a freewill pessimist? Is this because fate and luck are important components of your compatibilism? Can you say something about this position?
PR: Yes, that is the way I would describe my own view. The best way to understand the nature of free will pessimism is with reference to a core assumption shared by almost all parties in the traditional free will dispute. What the parties to the free will debate are all generally agreed about is that it would be unacceptable and unfair for an agent to be held responsible (i.e. morally evaluated or praised and blamed) in ways that are sensitive to features or conditions that the agent does not have control over. For conditions of freedom and moral responsibility to be satisfied, therefore, the agent must not be subject to conditions of fate and luck. Let us call this the exclusion requirement. Libertarians aim to satisfy this general requirement by means of the various brands of indeterministic metaphysics that they have developed (e.g. “spooky” forms of causation, etc.). Orthodox compatibilists maintain that when compatibilist conditions of free agency are fully satisfied agents are not subject to fate or luck and so the exclusion requirement is satisfied. The skeptic argues that both these projects fail but holds that we must, nevertheless, still respect the exclusion requirement. The intractable nature of the traditional free will problem turns on the difficulty that all these proposals fail and are guilty, in their own distinct ways, of various modes of evasion.
Any plausible or credible form of compatibilism, I would argue, must accept that it cannot and should not aim to satisfy the exclusion requirement. There are two related reasons why compatibilists have been reluctant to accept a view of this kind. The first is due to what Bernard Williams has described as “the morality system”, which is a particular understanding of the nature of moral life that assumes, among other things, that morality is somehow immune to fate and luck (in contrast with other aspects of human life). Closely related to this assumption is the aspiration to optimism, where this is understood precisely in terms of vindicating a consoling picture of human moral agency that does not leave us vulnerable to the influence of fate and luck in respect of moral life. Free will pessimism is the view that the truth about our human predicament in respect of matters of moral agency is that we are both free and responsible and subject to fate and luck in significant and important respects – i.e. contrary to the demands of the exclusion requirement (and the morality system). A plausible compatibilism – what I describe as critical compatibilism – must accept free will pessimism. It is important to note, however, that critical compatibilism and free will pessimism do not propose a solution to the traditional free will problem – as that depends on finding a way to satisfy or at least respect the exclusion requirement. Since critical compatibilism accepts free will pessimism, and free will pessimism involves rejecting the exclusion requirement, critical compatibilism involves rejecting the free will problem as it is generally understood.
The morality system – which is deeply embedded in our Western, Christian culture – is highly resistant to this entire picture of the human predicament. Free will pessimism is, however, the truth about our condition and circumstances with respect to moral agency. The intractable nature of the traditional free will problem, which has tormented philosophers for centuries, can be accounted for largely in terms of the mistaken effort to satisfy or at least respect the requirements of this ethical self-image. When we reject these faulty assumptions and illusory aspirations, and accept the truth of free will pessimism, then we do not so much have a problem that is in need of a solution, as a (troubling or disturbing) predicament that needs to be recognized and acknowledged.
3:AM: Do structural similarities between art and morality regarding human agency help the compatibilist or does your insistence on the role of luck in human life erode any easy optimism?
PR: Yes, there are, I think, some significant structural parallels between art and morality with respect to the free will problem and these parallels do lend support to the compatibilist position. However, although these parallels lend support to compatibilism they also reveal some problematic and troubling features of any plausible compatibilist view – along the lines of what I have already described as free will pessimism. The basic difficulty that confronts the incompatibilist with regard to this issue is that they face a dilemma. On one side, the incompatibilist might argue that libertarian free will is essential not only for morality but also for art, as it concerns our evaluations of creativity and the merit of artists and artistic activity. Alternatively the incompatibilist may argue that free will is required only in the sphere of morality, and that in this respect the analogy between art and morality breaks down. Either way, however, incompatibilists face awkward problems.
If it is claimed that the analogy holds, then it seems too demanding and highly implausible to suggest that art – along with all other forms of human activity liable to evaluation and assessment (e.g. in sports etc.) – also requires the metaphysics of libertarian free will. It may also be argued that since compatibilist analyses are both adequate and accurate for these other forms of activity and achievement, this would tell against the incompatibilist view, if this analogy is endorsed. On the other hand, if incompatibilists retreat from this view, and deny the analogy, then they need to provide some principled basis for the distinction, and this generates its own problems. What makes morality different, they might argue, is that – unlike in the case of art, sports, and other such activities – morality must be fair all the way down. To meet the required standard of absolute fairness there cannot be any background factors and conditions that the agent has no control over that influence the way she is (morally) evaluated. According to this account, while nothing as demanding as this holds for art, much less for any other more mundane activities and achievements (e.g. in sports etc.), this standard needs to be met in the case of morality. On this approach, therefore, the art/morality analogy does not hold and morality alone makes the demand for absolute fairness.
Although this incompatibilist view is, perhaps, not so vulnerable because it is less demanding it still encounters its own (familiar) set of problems. It may be argued, in the first place, that the effort to drive a wedge between art and morality in this respect is problematic, given that in both cases we are able to draw relevant normative distinctions within compatibilist assumptions. Moreover, even if this claim is rejected, we still require a further set of metaphysical commitments to satisfy the demand for absolute fairness in the sphere of morality. Not only are these requirements generally obscure, if not unintelligible, they conflict with a great deal of empirical evidence that supports the (extended) analogy between art and morality. This concerns the various ways in which human agents are subject to background causal influences that they do not control. For this reason, if the incompatibilist opts to deny any relevant analogy between art and morality, then morality, so construed, remains vulnerable to a general skepticism about the possibility of free, responsible agency. Morality, in other words, is liable to collapse under the weight of its own requirements. Granted the adequacy of a compatibilist approach to understanding artistic achievement and merit, the further, distinct demands placed on morality seem both unwarranted and liable to generate a gratuitous skeptical threat to the foundations of moral agency.
Although the above observations lend support to the compatibilist view, they are not wholly friendly to compatibilism in its more familiar forms. It has been a prominent feature of most compatibilist strategies to present incompatibilism as grounded in illusory worries and a groundless pessimism on this subject. Contrary to this account of things, however, the art/morality analogy suggests that a more complex and nuanced view is called for here. More specifically, if we abandon the requirement of absolute fairness – something which motivates a great deal of libertarian metaphysical system building, along with the skepticism that is ushered in when it fails – then we must allow for a background role for fate and moral luck. Contrary to the usual compatibilist picture of things, free, responsible agency may operate and be exercised in circumstances where the agent lacks relevant forms of control over causal conditions that, nevertheless, shape and influence what she does. This is plain to see in the case of artistic achievement and merit – where luck in the development and exercise of artistic ability and achievement is both obvious and pervasive. It is, however, especially troubling and disconcerting to find this within the sphere of morality. What the art/morality analogy brings to light, therefore, is that with respect to the human predicament, fate and luck have a role to play in all dimensions of human activity – including moral activity. The art/morality analogy helps to illuminate and highlight these more disturbing features of the human predicament, which are generally obscured or denied by the various parties in the free will debate, including that of orthodox compatibilism.
3:AM: David Hume of course is a key figure in this free will debate. He was a compatibilist wasn’t he, but was he a naturalistic or classical compatibilist? Why is the distinction significant for the contemporary debate?
PR: Hume is, of course, widely understood to have formulated the classical statement of the compatibilist position. On this reading, he follows Thomas Hobbes’s general line of argument very closely and has, in turn, been followed by later empiricist-compatibilists such as Mill, Russell and Ayer. The central argument of classical compatibilism turns on the claim that free action is not uncaused or undetermined but is, rather, action that is caused through the agent’s desires and willings. An uncaused action would simply be capricious or a product of chance. As such, it could not be attributed to any agent, much less judged to be free and responsible in nature. Hume’s most significant contribution to this line of reasoning is the claim that we get confused on this issue due to faulty beliefs about causation and necessity. More specifically, we mistakenly assume that what is caused is somehow compelled or forced to occur, which would conflict with the requirements of free action. However, since causation and necessity are just a matter of the constant conjunction of objects and the inferences we make based on this, there is no basis for the objection that action that is caused would be in some way compelled to occur. An action is compelled if it is caused or necessitated by something other than the agent’s will – it is the nature of the cause (not the causal relation) that indicates whether compulsion or force of some freedom defeating kind is present. On this reading Hume’s arguments are primarily about the logic of our concepts and that when these are properly clarified the apparent conflict between “liberty and necessity” evaporates.
In my view this classical interpretation of Hume’s compatibilism, although it has been widely accepted and hugely influential, overlooks the most interesting and distinctive features of his general strategy – and in doing so it misrepresents his core compatibilist arguments. According to the alternative naturalistic interpretation, Hume was primarily concerned to describe the circumstances under which people are felt to be responsible (this being an especially important part of his wider project of a “science of man”). The key element in this account is moral sentiment. Moral sentiments, Hume maintains, operate according to the more general principles of the mechanism of the indirect passions (e.g. love and hate). It is within the framework of his naturalistic account of the moral sentiment that we must understand Hume’s claims concerning the ways in which both “liberty” and “necessity” are essential to our ascriptions of responsibility. In particular, according to Hume, we rely on constant conjunctions of a relevant kind to infer an agent’s character from his actions – without this no moral sentiment would be aroused and no one would be regarded as responsible for their conduct. Whereas a freedom that implies indifference or an absence of causation and necessity would make this impossible, a freedom that involves an agent acting according to her own will is not only consistent with but essential to this psychological mechanism. The naturalistic interpretation brings Hume’s core arguments much closer to those of P.F. Strawson’s views, which I described above. Suffice it to say that Strawson’s contribution aims to critique and discredit the (“optimistic”) classical compatibilist view that is generally attributed to Hume. When we consider Hume’s views from the perspective of Strawson’s hugely important contribution to the contemporary debate, it is a matter of considerable importance whether we see Hume as a target of Strawson’s critique or as anticipating and articulating it in a number of important respects.
3:AM: Does this connect with the idea of Hume as an anatomist of virtue? What is his anatomy of virtue aiming to achieve and how does he carry it out?
PR: Hume’s compatibilist arguments, as they concern the operations of the indirect passions and moral sentiments, are all part of his broader program to provide a detailed, descriptive analysis of the various parts of human nature and how they are related to and influence each other. With respect to morality, Hume is especially concerned to show how our moral evaluations must be understood in terms of more general principles that shape and guide our passions of love and hate, pride and humility. These passions are themselves pleasant or painful, and they are aroused by pleasant or painful qualities that we perceive in those who we are dealing with or thinking about. Among the most important of the qualities that arouse these passions are our moral qualities, which are understood by Hume to be pleasant or painful qualities of mind. Hume carefully and patiently dissects the various and distinct kinds of moral qualities that we discover in ourselves and others and explains how each aspect or element fits into the complex whole of moral and social life, as grounded in and structured by our shared human nature. This is all part of Hume’s famous effort to introduce the “experimental” method into the study of human nature.
3:AM: Is Hume’s account of the disposition to moral reflection doing the same work as Aristotle’s account of practical wisdom, or is Hume’s approach deficient in that it really can’t account for our moral capacity?
PR: Hume’s account of moral virtue can be described and explained in a way that detaches it from any intimate or close relationship with moral reflection or moral sense. Hume’s references to virtue as a form of “moral beauty” encourage this, since a person may be beautiful but lack any sense or appreciation of beauty. The interesting question this presents us with is whether, for Hume, a person must possess moral sense to be capable of virtue? By moral sense in this context I mean an ability to feel moral sentiments and, in particular, to see oneself as an object of moral sentiment. Although Hume’s remarks are not entirely clear or explicit on this matter, a case can be made that he takes the view that there is an important relationship to be accounted for here.
Hume’s observations and remarks about the artificial virtues – which concern our reliable participation in a system of social rules and conventions that secure the benefits of mutual cooperation of various kinds – indicate the importance of our reputation for honesty and trustworthiness in regard to these matters. Our ability to reflect on our own moral character and reputation, and recognize and respond to these assessments and evaluations, becomes a crucial source of moral motivation and correction. Capacities of this kind both contribute to our moral development and sustain our commitment to virtue. A person who lacks any capacity to reflect on her conduct and character in these terms, and who is not sensitive to the force and influence of moral reflection so understood, would be shameless and fail to develop moral virtues in any steady or reliable manner.
The operation of the moral sense, as described by Hume, involves the fusion and integration of both reason and feeling. An animal, an infant, or an insane person, will lack the sort of capacities that are required for moral sense and will, to that extent, fail to fully and effectively develop the virtues. This way of understanding Hume’s account of the relationship between moral virtue and moral sense serves to fill a gap that critics claim to find in Hume’s moral theory. It is often claimed that what is missing from Hume’s theory is any plausible account of moral capacity along the lines of Aristotle’s account of practical wisdom (phronesis). However, as I have explained, it may be argued that Hume’s account of moral sense, considered in terms of our ability and propensity for moral reflection, fills this gap. As with Aristotle’s phronesis, moral sense functions like the rudder on a ship, keeping us sailing in the direction of virtue and away from the rocks of vice.
3:AM: Is Hume an Epicurean and are his attacks on ‘monkish virtues’ such as fasting, penance, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude etc. part of this Epicurean approach that in the end results in him calling out religion? Are his arguments any good?
PR: There are certainly strong “Epicurean” features in Hume’s account of virtue, in the sense that his core distinction between virtue and vice is explained in terms of the operations and influence of pleasure and pain on the human mind. In its simplest terms, Hume understands the virtues to be constituted by pleasurable qualities of mind – it is these features of mind that we naturally approve of and praise. Similarly, the vices are painful qualities of mind, which we naturally disapprove of and blame people for. Hume’s analysis has, to this extent, a strong utilitarian orientation and emphasizes the natural and essential relationship between morality and human happiness. Any system of ethics, he maintains, that deviates from these natural principles and operations of the human mind as it concerns morals, is both corrupting and pernicious in its influence.
It is, as your question suggests, a key part of Hume’s fundamental and systematic critique of religion to show that religion (and Christianity in particular) does have a tendency to distort human morality in exactly these ways. Instead of making it our concern to guide and assess conduct and character with a view to human life and society, religion focuses our attention on (illusory) objects of worship and the existence of a future state in a manner that is wholly disconnected from our real needs and interests in this world. Any moral system of this nature is liable not only to frustrate human needs and interests but to directly oppose them. Although Hume’s arguments for this general position are varied and complex they present a powerful set of considerations that serve to both explain and condemn some of the all too familiar attitudes and practices encouraged by religion. These attitudes and practices may get dressed-up as “morality” but they are, in fact, deeply destructive to human well-being and happiness.
3:AM: You’ve written about the eighteenth-century atheist scene in Britain, starting with the godfather of a certain approach – Hobbes – linking skepticism, naturalism and atheism – and Spinoza often associated with the Hobbesian atheism. So what are the components of Hobbesian atheism and do you think contemporary attitudes such that philosophy excludes theology largely come from him? Is Hobbes denying theism or just limiting it to its own domain – and did he see this as limiting theology or limiting philosophy?
PR: Although Hobbes’s contemporary critics were divided in many ways and they generally viewed his philosophy as “atheistic” for a number of related reasons. There were two features of his philosophy that especially alarmed Hobbes’s contemporary critics and the various apologists for the Christian religion who have followed them. First, Hobbes went out of his way to emphasize the limits of philosophy with regard to the all attempts to provide the Christian religion with secure rational foundations. In general, Hobbes manifested, albeit in a cautious and indirect way, a systematic skepticism about the claims of both natural and revealed religion. We have, he maintained, little or no idea of God and, in consequence of this, our talk about God is mostly empty and meaningless. The whole notion of immaterial substance, Hobbes maintains, is nonsense. All accounts of God and the immortal soul understood in these terms are, therefore, similarly absurd. Not only was Hobbes happy to separate philosophy from religion – and to deny that religion had any solid or secure foundation in reason or philosophy – he also took the view that we can and should separate ethics from religion. Following scripture, the church, the clergy, and an assortment of prophets, has led to nothing but social and ethical chaos and confusion. In contrast with this, Hobbes aimed to develop a scientific account of ethics, premised on a materialist and a necessitarian conception of human nature. This entire project, along with its presuppositions, was doubly repellent to his Christian critics. Hobbes advanced not only a wholly secular account of moral and political life, his account was also grounded in a view of human nature and human motivation that these critics regarded as incapable of supporting any recognizable form of ethical life, much less Christian ethics. These two pillars of Hobbes’s atheism were as influential and powerful as they were, from an orthodox perspective, controversial and threatening.
There is some doubt and controversy about the extent of Hobbes’s skepticism and atheism. Suffice it to say, however, that Hobbes had to be extremely careful about openly expressing any “atheistic” views and was guarded and evasive on these matters. Despite all this, he was still subject to various threats and forms of suppression. His Leviathan was, for example, banned and publicly burned by the authorities at Oxford University and there was a period of time, around the restoration, when the Bishops and clergy were making moves to have Hobbes treated the same way (i.e. to be burnt). In my view Hobbes was more than simply “theologically unorthodox”, as some scholars have suggested, he was thoroughly skeptical and, indeed, hostile to the various doctrines and dogmas of the Christian religion in any recognizable form. His primary concern was, nevertheless, constructive in nature; aiming to rescue human society from the anarchy and hostilities that had been generated by religious superstition in its various forms. It was Hobbes’s ambition to separate both philosophy and ethics from the poison of religion and to use his own naturalistic philosophical principles to erect a scientific ethical system that would secure a measure of peace and stability for society. Much of what he has to say remains of considerable relevance to our current predicament with regard to dealing with religious fanaticism and ignorance around the globe – sadly, despite the efforts of Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, and others, these problems have not gone away.
3:AM: Hume is often thought of as one of the British Empiricists, joining Locke and Berkeley in their fight against the continental rationalists of Descartes-Spinoza-Leibniz. Kant’s then seen as the guy who sorted out the dispute by synthesizing the two sides in his critical philosophy. Has this grand narrative distorted how we understand Hume and if so how?
PR: There is no doubt that the grand narrative of “British Empiricism”, which presents Hume as the last member of the great triumvirate of Locke-Berkeley-Hume, has dominated not only the way that Hume’s philosophy has been interpreted over the past century or two, this grand narrative has also dominated the framework in which the early modern period as a whole has been interpreted. According to this view, early modern philosophy is primarily concerned with problems of epistemology, with particular attention being paid to the foundations of human knowledge as this relates to the rise of modern science. Hume’s role in this has been portrayed as that of highlighting the radical skeptical implications of the empiricist principles and assumptions of his predecessors (i.e. Locke and Berkeley). Over the past century the inadequacies of this grand narrative have become increasing obvious but there is no general agreement about what sort of alternative picture or account should be put in its place.
With respect to Hume, the empiricist-skeptical account has been challenged by an alternative “naturalistic” interpretation that places emphasis, among other things, on Hume’s constructive program of advancing the “science of human nature”. Both the skeptical and naturalistic accounts have something to be said for them, since it is evident that there are pronounced and significant strands of skepticism and naturalism in Hume’s philosophy, beginning with the Treatise and extending on to his later works. This observation, however, presents us with a major problem for understanding Hume’s philosophy and assessing its overall coherence. The skeptical and naturalistic projects do not just move in different directions, they are directly opposed to each other – as Hume the skeptic seems to saw-off the branch that Hume the naturalist is sitting on. I have described this core interpretative issue as constituting “the riddle” of Hume’s philosophy. Much of contemporary Hume scholarship has concerned itself with the set of issues and problems generated by this core tension between Hume’s skepticism and naturalism. The naturalistic interpretation of Hume began the process of challenging the narrow and limited perspective on Hume’s philosophy, as encouraged by the framework of “British Empiricism”. The problem we are still left with, however, is the riddle problem, which the naturalistic interpretation has, in my view, no adequate answer for.
3:AM: Reid saw a conflict between Hume’s naturalism and skepticism. Are you sympathetic with the irreligious ‘castration’ reading of Hume that seeks to answer this problem? Can you sketch out the core features of this way of approaching Hume.
PR: Reid was not only one of Hume’s earliest and most acute critics, he was probably the first to identify the core tension in Hume’s philosophy between his skeptical principles and his naturalistic ambitions – as per the “riddle” problem. What Reid also was alive to, along with most of Hume’s other contemporaries, was the extent to which Hume’s philosophical views were deeply and systematically motivated by irreligion or “atheistic” concerns. Although Reid was restrained and moderate in the expression of these concerns others were much less restrained or circumspect in presenting these “charges” against Hume. (Perhaps the most notorious of Hume’s early critics was James Beattie, who pursued Reid’s aim of defending “common sense”, and the Christian Religion, with greater venom.) What Hume’s early critics recognized, and was almost entirely lost sight of by later generations of Hume scholarship due to the distorting effects of the prism of “British Empiricism”, is the extent to which the core of Hume’s philosophy belongs to a tradition of freethinking or irreligious thought that can be traced back, through various key figures of the Radical Enlightenment, to Hobbes and Spinoza in the previous century, and from there all the way back to the ancients (e.g. Lucretius).
The irreligious interpretation begins, as any complete and adequate interpretation of Hume’s philosophy must, with Hume’s earliest and most ambitious and substantial work – his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). From the perspective of the irreligious interpretation Hume’s philosophy advances into two fundamental themes, which are both held together by his core irreligious aims and objectives. On one side Hume advances a secular, scientific account of ethics and politics, grounded in a close examination of the elements of human nature. The principal model for this project was Hobbes, who was, as I have already explained, widely regarded as a key representative of modern atheism. On the other side of Hume’s thought is his skepticism, which according to the irreligious interpretation, should not be viewed as a disjointed and arbitrary set of arguments aiming at nothing more than to challenge our confidence in “common sense”. On the contrary, Hume’s various skeptical arguments were carefully constructed and directed against the fundamental doctrines and dogmas of the Christian Religion as advanced and defended by “religious philosophers”. The most prominent target of Hume’s skeptical arguments, throughout his philosophy, was Samuel Clarke – a close and distinguished colleague of Isaac Newton and a prominent and hugely influential critic of the atheistic philosophy of Hobbes, Spinoza and their followers.
Viewed this way, Hume’s skepticism and naturalism are intimately related and held together by his fundamental irreligious objectives. His two core irreligious objectives fall neatly into place with those of Hobbes and Spinoza. The first is to separate philosophy from theology (via systematic skeptical attack) and the second is to separate ethics from religion (via the project of a “science of human nature”). Although Hume’s concerns plainly range over a vast number of topics and problems, they are, nevertheless, carefully informed, controlled, and directed by these fundamental irreligious aims.
PR: Hume distinguishes two forms of skepticism. The first is a moderate or academic skepticism the central lessons of which are that when we carefully consider the weaknesses and limits of human understanding we will avoid dogmatic claims of any kind and also limit our investigations to “common life”. In particular, we will avoid philosophical speculations and hypotheses concerning “the two eternities” – the creation of the world and a future state – which are both matters that religious philosophers are typically preoccupied with. The second form of skepticism is an extreme or Pyrrhonian skepticism, which is much more destructive in its implications for human knowledge. This more extreme form of skepticism leads to the conclusion that all our ordinary beliefs concerning matters of fact and existence beyond our immediate experience cannot be justified and lack any foundation in reason. Whereas Hume’s moderate skeptical principles are not only consistent with his irreligious aims but essential to them, extreme skepticism or Pyrrhonism threatens to collapse not just the (dogmatic) aims and ambitions of the religious philosophers but also the whole edifice of human knowledge – including Hume’s project of a “science of man”. We encounter, therefore, another dimension of the “riddle” problem: why does Hume advance extreme skeptical arguments, instead of confining his skeptical arguments to the more moderate form of academic skepticism that is consistent with his core irreligious aims and objectives?
The first thing to be noted about this problem, concerning the relationship between Hume’s moderate and extreme skeptical commitments, is that it is a problem that all interpretations of Hume’s philosophy must face – not just the irreligious interpretation. Unlike the other interpretations, however, the irreligious interpretation has a more satisfying and credible explanation for how these two dimensions of his skepticism are related to each other and what motivates each of them. Hume is clear that he endorses moderate skepticism and regards it as the only form of skepticism that we can live with. Any more extreme form of skepticism, he argues, is a clear case of “philosophical extravagance” that would be both destructive and impossible in practice. Hume also maintains, however, that there is still some significant value or benefit to be gained from extreme skeptical argument and reflections. Extreme skepticism, Hume argues, serves to support and sustain our commitments to more moderate forms of skepticism – holding off any tendency to backslide into dogmatism or overextending the use of our reason. Pyrrhonism, in other words, lends further support to the lessons of moderate skepticism and prevents us from falling away from it. In this way, the split that we find in Hume’s skeptical arguments is best explained and accounted for in terms of his effort to shore-up and secure his moderate skeptical principles with a stronger set of extreme skeptical arguments. The motivation behind this is not only consistent with Hume’s irreligious aims, it only makes sense in light of them (as otherwise it is not even clear why Hume faces this problem at all).
With regard to your question about the resemblance between Hume and Nietzsche on matters of skepticism and naturalism, suffice it to say for now that while this raises very interesting and important questions of interpretation and analysis in respect of both these philosophers, Nietzsche’s thought is especially enigmatic and was prone to change and evolution. For this reason there is, I think, no easy or quick generalization to be made here about this relationship. I would agree, nevertheless, that there are a number of deep and illuminating points of philosophical affinity between Hume and Nietzsche. These points of affinity have been, and continue to be, wholly obscured by the “British Empiricist” reading of Hume. They are, however, rendered entirely intelligible when we consider Hume’s core philosophy from the perspective of his irreligious aims and objectives.
3:AM: Korsgaard argues that Humean skepticism can’t work because motivational skepticism is always based on content skepticism – it lacks independent motivational force. This is a challenge that some forms of Pyrrhonianism also faces. So why does this challenge fail?
PR: Korsgaard does argue that if we can identify rational considerations of some formal kind, that provide content that can guide choice and action, then there is no further, independent problem about how these reasons might actually motivate us. It is her general contention that if content skepticism can be defeated (e.g. along the lines of the Kantian project) then motivational skepticism collapses with it. While it is certainly true that if pure practical reasons exist they may still fail to motivate, all this shows, says Korsgaard, is that the agent concerned was not fully rational. In general, there is no basis for motive skepticism if it rests on the claim that since reasons must be capable of motivating us, considerations that fail to motivate us cannot be reasons for action. When an agent fails to act on available reasons we do need some appropriate explanation for that failure (e.g. the agent was tired, ill, etc.) but in cases where a reason moves us the agent to act no further (psychological) explanation or apparatus is required to explain the linkage between reasons and motivation, other than the fact that the agent was rational.
I am not persuaded by Korsgaard’s argument. We are told, on this theory, that pure practical reasons, detached from any existing motivational source provided by desire or inclination, can somehow acquire causal traction in the world and produce changes in the form of voluntary actions. Motivational skepticism is nothing more than the demand that defenders of pure practical reasons provide some account or explanation of the (natural) processes at work here. Even if it is true, as Korsgaard suggests, that a person must be motivated by her practical reasons insofar as she is rational, the puzzle remains how is this possible? The Humean theory identifies the source of motivation as being located with some relevant passions or desires and maintains that reasons always attach to existent desires and inclination of some kind. When the Kantian theorist is challenged to explain how this motivational force is to be accounted for in the absence of any relevant desires or inclinations all that is offered is the (logical) observation that rational agents must be motivated by their reasons insofar as they are rational. When Korsgaard’s argument is boiled down, this is all that we are left with. However, even if it is true that rational agents must be motivated by their (pure) practical reasons, if they are fully rational, we are still left entirely in the dark about the source or basis of this motivation and how it gets transmitted into action. From the perspective of the (Humean) motivational skeptic we cannot assume that there exists some “internal” connection between pure practical reasons and motivations until some plausible (psychological) account of that linkage is provided or accounted for.
How does this relate to challenges that some forms of Pyrrhonism might also face? I suppose that one point of resemblance here – which was of considerable interest to both Hume and Strawson – is the way in which certain kinds of philosophical skepticism fail to secure any practical force in human life in relation to belief, passions or action. In particular, extreme Pyrrhonism may present us with arguments that, while we cannot refute them, they nevertheless fail to persuade us – much less influence our passions or guide our conduct. This is a recurrent theme that both Hume and Strawson return to in their efforts to identify features of human thought and action that rest on natural, non-rational foundations and are, to that extent, immune to skeptical argument. This brings us, of course, to a very large and complex set of philosophical problems that cannot be quickly summarized, much less settled. Nevertheless, these observations regarding this general set of issues, arising with respect to the limits of both theoretical and practical reason and various associated problems of skepticism, is an area of philosophy that continues to be of great interest and importance.
3:AM: And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
PR: I will assume that your readers are already familiar with Hume’s Treatise and Hobbes’s Leviathan, which are obviously both great works that have been especially important for my own thinking and philosophical orientation. If I was to list five works coming from contemporary philosophers that I have been most engaged with, and find most engaging, then I would list the following (six) works…
1. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985).
This is one of the most important and challenging contributions to moral philosophy in the last half of the 20th century. However, because some of the central arguments and themes in this book are elusive and presented in a highly condensed manner, it may take another generation or two for its full significance and impact to be realized and achieved. Williams’ critique is deeply radical with respect to the limits of “moral theory” – most of which is fundamentally misguided in his view, as are many of the familiar assumptions and features of moral thought and practice which it aims to justify. Williams’ method and style of thinking is at odds with the dominant contemporary philosophical attitude that views the methods and assumptions of science as the gateway to solving our most fundamental philosophical problems. In contrast with this, Williams’ work is humanistic in orientation and deeply infused with lessons from history, literature and human life.
2. Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984).
This book is something of a contemporary classic on the subject of free will by a leading representative of compatibilism. It excludes a confident optimism that the traditional free will problem can be easily defused and debunked. By drawing on relevant empirical evidence, and making some sensible conceptual distinctions relating to the natural basis of human reason and agency we can, Dennett believes, blow-away the skeptical spider webs that philosophers have been spinning on this subject for several centuries. Dennett’s confidence that a scientifically informed approach to these problems leaves human agents in a more or less comfortable and unproblematic predicament contrasts sharply with Williams’ very different methods and outlook.
3. R. Jay Wallace, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments (1994).
In Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments Wallace aims to combine a Strawsonian (compatibilist-friendly) theory of holding responsible with a Kantian theory of agency. The product of this is a refined and revised version of the Strawsonian program. The theory Wallace advances is clearly and carefully articulated and is also well-defended. In my view, however, his theory is fractured into two core components that do not cohere together and leave us with a truncated understanding of the nature of moral responsibility. This is, nevertheless, a significant and valuable contribution to the subject.
4. Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will (2001).
In contrast with both Dennett and Wallace (and my own view), Pereboom defends a skeptical view about free will and moral responsibility. Although the scope and extent of his skepticism is, perhaps, a matter of some debate, the general tenor and orientation of his view is certainly that of skepticism. Much of this book advances and develops a set of arguments of this nature – many of which have been very influential in the contemporary discussion and debate. There is, however, another side to Pereboom’s work which is arguably even more interesting, and this is the argument that the skepticism he defends is optimistic, not pessimistic, in its implications. In contrast with Pereboom, I am inclined to be less skeptical and more pessimistic about the human predicament as it concerns agency and responsibility
5. Nomy Arpaly, Unprincipled Virtue (2003).
Arpaly’s book is an imaginative, subtle and highly illuminating study of various aspects of moral psychology, particularly as it concerns motivation, rationality and responsibility. Unlike many other works in this area, it is not only carefully argued it is also well-written and entertaining – employing interesting and amusing examples from literature and life. Arpaly challenges many deeply entrenched orthodoxies on this topic and develops a distinctive and comprehensive view of her own.
6. Philip Kitcher, Life After Faith (2014).
Kitcher is probably best known for his distinguished contributions to the philosophy of science. In recent years, however, he has turned his attention to the question of how and to what extent a secular outlook can meet and respond to the needs and functions of traditional religion. Kitcher’s work is of particular value and interest because, unlike many other familiar works with a secular and theological skeptical orientation (e.g. as found in the school of “new atheism”), it is sensitive to the significance of religion in human life and history, along with the various sources that sustain it. Without capitulating to or denying the failures and dangers of various forms and features of religion, Kitcher does not simply dismiss religion as a set of crude prejudices generated by the evil and the ignorant. A credible secular humanism needs to have something better and more worthwhile to say in response to religion than this.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
Buy his book here to keep him biding!
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 21st, 2016.