chapter  17
11 Pages

HUME ON MORAL SENTIMENTS, AND THE DIFFERENCE THEY MAKE

Moral sense and moral sentiments came into philosophical vogue in the modern period with Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith, but we also find them discussed in passing by Locke, and doubtless by many others before him. Locke, when discussing ‘moral relations’ in the Essay, takes the main moral idea to be that of an action being in accordance with or contrary to some authoritative law, and speaks of three sorts of laws: the laws of God, of the civil magistrate, and of ‘Opinion or Reputation’. Speaking of the last, he writes ‘Nor is there one in ten thousand who is stiff and insensible enough, to bear up under the constant Dislike and Condemnation of his own Club. He must be of a strange, and unusual Constitution, who can content himself, to live in constant Disgrace and Disrepute with his own particular society… He must be made up of irreconcilable contradictions, who can take pleasure in Company, and yet be insensible of Contempt and Disgrace from his Companions’ (Essay II, 28, 12). Nor is it only others’ bad opinion that hurts-since one’s own opinion about what is disgraceful is unlikely to differ greatly from that of one’s companions, when they hold one in contempt one will be likely to feel shame, which Locke describes as an ‘uneasiness of the Mind upon the thought of having done something which is indecent, which will lessen the valued Esteem that others have for us’ (Essay II, 21, 17). Locke writes that without pleasures and pains, man would be ‘a very idle unactive Creature’ and would ‘pass his time only in a lazy lethargick Dream’. It has, he says, pleased our wise creator to rouse us out of such stupor by ‘annexing’ pleasure and pain to certain sensations and thoughts. The thought that we ourselves have done something that, had another done it, we would condemn, is just such a thought, and awareness of the link between the thought and the pain it brings are cases of Lockean ‘reflection’, of what happens when ‘the mind turns inward upon itself’.