The Argument over Morality: Kant and Hume

The phenomenon of morality and its origination has been a topic of debate throughout history. Specifically, the world renowned philosophers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, come to a very significant disagreement over the history of morality, the source of its origin, and its universality. But, upon further inspection, it is evident that their diverging conclusions arise from very distinct methods of proof, analysis, and use of data. Hume, on one hand, seems to trust in experience over reason and subsequently offers a more experience-based derivation of morals. Kant, on the other hand, forms his whole argument with dependence on a progression of logic and stays within the metaphysical world of abstract thought and theoretical reasoning.

To begin, in his piece, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume claims that human sentiment is the origin of morality, and relies on experience contrived evidence and the fact that sentiment produces the same actions as morality to defend his claim. Human sentiment is majorly dominated by the feeling of benevolence, which to Hume, is what motivates a person to act in the interest of the species, and allows them to become conscious of and connect to others. Therefore, benevolence is also the source of mankind’s social character and is what drives man to create society. But, Hume never uses reason to prove that benevolence is what birthed morality nor does he fully explain the origin of benevolence. Instead he assumes that benevolence is intrinsic to man because he claims, all have experienced it, felt its pressures, and can relate to it. Therefore, his evidence is largely derived from experience. But, interestingly enough, Hume also claims it is the lack of universality of experience that causes different conceptions of morality to be produced by societies.

In contrast, human sentiment is common to all because none can disprove another’s claim to experiencing a sentiment and all of mankind claims to feel the same sentiments or at least acknowledge them. But how can one trust Hume when he proves sentiment in universal experience, but then dismisses any possibility of universal experience when he attributes experience to the divergent notions of morality? This is the part of Hume’s argument that requires faith in his manner of thinking. When Hume argues that experiences are not universal, it is because chance, sentiment, and reason combine to form its content. Despite the sentiment being universal, chance and circumstance cause experiences to differ, and the unique utilization of individual reason creates a unique perception. But, when he argues that the specific experience of sentiment is universal, his only proof is in the familiarity of sentiments that all humans seem to have. Yet, he never acknowledges that what one individual regards as one sentiment, for example anger, may be very different than the actual experience another has under the same label of sentiment, anger. Therefore the need to prove that sentimental experiences are truly universal reflects Hume’s methodology in drawing conclusions from experience.

Yet, Hume does expand on why reason is the incorrect method in deriving truth or morality. Because reason is disputable, and so is the truth in concludes, it cannot prove a universality of morals, or take credit for morality’s origination. Sentiment, on the other hand, aims not at discerning the truth, but simply attempts to align man’s actions with the will of humankind (as a whole). Consequently, because morality motivates a man to act in the same way as benevolence, Hume believes benevolence produces morality. Opposite from Hume stands Kant, who claims that morality is the result of the cultivation of reason. But, despite much of his argument unfolding through a sequential processing of reason, his evidence is not fully grounded in the principle of reason.

Kant begins Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals by claiming that all humans are born with the capability to reason which, in part, distinguishes them from other species. This capability can only be improved within a society of free individuals, who trust in their own reason and derive their societal laws from the summation of all their individual conceptions of morality. Independent of society exists a metaphysical realm of morals that defines the ethical principles man should abide by, which Kant labels as the Categorical Imperative. This Categorical Imperative, available through the correct use of reason, includes the duty to pursue true morality, and so requires a moral intent for an action to be moral. But, Kant doesn’t ever prove the existence of the metaphysics of morals or of the categorical imperative with reason. Instead, he authors a new definition of reason to fit with his theory of a universal morality. This definition claims that reason is the application of the human mind on the external world and because it is an application, it is a distinctive manner in which humans perceive the world.

Consequently, using reason, or organizing the world by principles of reason, is the common perspective of the environment humans share. Therefore, because all humans can relate, understand, and use the same conception of reason, there has to exist some set of rules that standardize the human perception of the world and allow a universality of reason. This is how Kant subtly incorporates reason in his proof of a universal metaphysics of morals, but also requires an amount of faith in his definition of rationality. More generally, Kant emphasizes the separation between pure moral philosophy and empirical phenomena to reject theories that depend on empirical data. Empirical phenomena is what occurs in the external world without influences of laws or metaphysical realms. According to Kant, empirical phenomena is what human reason is applied to, to produce laws of nature and morality that facilitate a certain relationship with nature and propel man towards the Categorical Imperative. But, in being independent from reason or any other distinct method of perceiving the world, empirical phenomena has no intrinsic principles that guide its fate. Therefore, to Kant, empirical evidence has no meaning unless interpreted by a common perspective, and so cannot, by itself, legitimize a theory.

Once reason is taken into account as a lens in which humans look upon the world with, then a metaphysics of morals can be proven. In conclusion, Kant and Hume take extremely different routes in proving and concluding the origin of morality. In support of the rationalists, Kant favors a metaphysical realm that defines universal principles of morality. But he is unique in his claim that reason acts as the common human perception of nature, and is shaped by the universal principles of morals that make up the categorical imperative. In contrast, Hume allies himself with the empiricists and grounds his claims of benevolence as the source of morality by appealing to experience. But, neither philosopher is able to fully prove his/her theory in either empirical data or rational thinking. Instead, both require a certain trust in their claims or conformity to their way of thinking to fully be convinced of their arguments. Consequently, it is up to the individual to decide in which conception of morality to believe in, and so, the origin of morality still remains a mystery.