Philosophy Pages

    Dictionary    Study Guide  Logic   F A Q s
  History Timeline Philosophers   Locke

Hume: Morality and Religion

Grounds for Morality

Having examined the epistemological basis for Hume's naturalism, we are ready to consider its application to human conduct. In morality as in all else, Hume supposed, our beliefs and actions are the products of custom or habit. Since all of our most scientific beliefs have exactly the same foundation, this account preserves the natural dignity of moral judgments.

Hume devoted the second book of the Treatise to an account of the human passions and a discussion of their role in the operation of the human will. It is our feelings or sentiments, Hume claimed, that exert practical influence over human volition and action. Observation does reveal a constant conjunction between having a motive (not a reason) for acting and performing the action in question. Hence, with the same reliability that characterizes our belief in any causal relation, on Hume's view, we further believe that our feelings have the power to result in actions.

At one level, of course, this entails that we are determined to act as we do. Our feelings or sentiments produce our actions with the same degree of causal necessity, the same habitual expectation that the future will resemble the past, as that by which the rotation of the earth causes the sun to rise. (Like Locke, Hume denied that determination of this sort is relevant to our moral freedom; only when my actions are observed to be the effects of some cause outside myself could I decline to accept my own responsibility for them.) So a proper science of human nature will account for human actions, as well as for human beliefs, by reference to the natural formation of habitual associations with human feelings.

Clearly, rationality had no place in this account of morality. Although reason may judge relations of ideas and matters of fact, its most vivid outcomes never compel us to act as even the weakest of feelings may do. No compilation of facts, however complete or reliable, ever entails a moral obligation or results in action. "Reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions," Hume held. All human actions flow naturally from human feelings, without any interference from human reason.

Moral Sentiment

It does not follow that all actions are of equal value. On Hume's view, the judgments and recommendations of traditional morality arise not from reason, but from a moral sense. As a straightforward matter of fact (discoverable by experience), virtue is always accompanied by a feeling of pleasure, and vice by a feeling of pain. Thus, we praise an instance of virtuous action precisely because it arouses in us a pleasant feeling, and we avoid committing a vicious action because we anticipate that doing so would produce pain. Our feelings provide a natural guide for moral conduct.

Hume worked out the details of this account in Book III of the Treatise. The ideas of benevolence, utility, and justice arouse our deepest and most pervasive feelings, he maintained, and these feelings in turn motivate us toward actions of moral worth. I offer assistance to those in need because it makes me feel good to do so, and I am fair in my dealings with others because it would make me feel bad if I were not. All of morality rests firmly upon the natural human inclination to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

This noncognitive derivation of morality from emotion rather than from reason may seem hopelessly subjective at first glance, but remember that on Hume's view our confidence in causal efficacy has a similar source. I do what is morally right in the same way that I believe there is an external world—by following my natural inclinations in the absence of rational evidence. Thus, Hume regarded himself as having provided morality with a status no less significant in human life than that of natural science.

God's Existence

Finally, we pause for a quick look at Hume's views on religion. In his own time, he was often regarded as a great enemy of organized religion. The posthumously published Dialogues offer an extended treatment of the intellectual interchanges among facile orthodoxy, natural theology, and philosophical skepticism. There Hume took great care to expose what he believed to be the great mistake of trying to prove that god exists.

The newly-popular argument from design supposes that the order and beauty of the universe reflect the greatness and demonstrate the reality of its ultimate cause. Hume noted that since this analogical argument claims to infer a cause from presumed effects, it must be grounded as a matter of fact on the experience of a constant conjunction. But since in fact we have not observed repeated instances of gods creating universes, we cannot have formed the habit of associating our experience of the one with our inferences about the other. No causal relationship can ever be established from the observation of a unique example.

What is more, Hume argued that even if it were possible to engage in causal reasoning in this case, it could not warrant the intended conclusion. The presumed cause must always be supposed to be proportional to the observed effect, so the manifest imperfections of this world could never support belief in the perfection of its creator. The argument from design is a two-edged sword, as likely to persuade us of the frailty or malevolence as of the power and benevolence of the presumed cause of the world as we know it.


Nor did Hume suppose that references to the miraculous would provide a rational basis for religion. In this case, we do have the experience of constant conjunction to establish the "laws of nature" of which any purported miracle is a violation, and we have only the testimony of witnesses to establish the fact of the miracle itself. Since this testimony and the motives of the witnesses who offer it are always open to question, Hume argued, we will believe that the miracle occurred only when the possibility of false testimony seems an even greater violation of the natural order.

Some scholars suppose that the final paragraph of the essay "On Miracles" (Inquiry Section X) and the closing words of the Dialogues reflect Hume's acceptance of religious fideism, the notion that religion is properly a matter of faith, not reason. On this view, a fideistic Hume could hold that belief in the existence of god or the immortality of the soul is no less natural than belief in the existence of bodies or the persistence of the self. An alternative interpretation, however, accepts the lengthy rejection of religious orthodoxy as sincere while attributing the brief, moderate endings as a half-hearted effort to take the edge off. Certainly Hume's influence on the philosophy of religion has been primarily of the latter sort.

. . . . .
History of Philosophy Philosophical Ethics
Previous Next Previous Next

Creative Commons License
The Philosophy Pages by Garth Kemerling are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

©1997, 2011 Garth Kemerling.
Last modified 12 November 2011.
Questions, comments, and suggestions may be sent to:
the Contact Page.