chapter  3
5 Pages

‘The relation and the will’: reason’s inertia again

Let us overlook as far as we can the apparently nonsensical nature – admitted12 by the author himself – of the last question. It just does not seem intuitively obvious, unless one begs the question, that a curiosity about facts – about how things are – must necessarily, in the way Nowell-Smith suggests, lack practical consequences. But even were we to concede this ‘unbridgeable gulf’ between descriptive and prescriptive discourses, to then attempt to superimpose it upon moral rationalism would be to sorely misunderstand that position. For Nowell-Smith, ‘the unbridgeable gap’ is between, on the one side, our believing, or being convinced, that we have such-and-such an obligation and, on the other, a motivational state leading to the appropriate action. But for the moral rationalists, it is not our personally believing or being convinced of anything at all that moves us to moral action. Our motive is, as we saw earlier, the objective ‘fitness’ itself, laid bare to our understanding. Moreover, far from Hume taking the rationalists to task for allowing the supposed gap to develop at the heart of their account of morality, he censures them, quite contrarily, for propounding ‘a connexion’ here. In fact, as we shall now see, of all the various aspects of moral rationalism, there is one which arouses in Hume more scorn than any other. This is their attempt to locate the moral motive outside agents, in the ‘eternal, immutable reason of things’, so that the agent’s subjective psychological states are altogether bypassed in the production of action. The relevant passages are those – particularly T 3.1.1:22 – which we flagged for later attention. It is in these passages that we shall find, despite its strong metaphysical connotations, confirmation of our original suggestion, as to Hume’s meaning when he describes reason as ‘perfectly inert’.