Kant vs Hume

hume kant

Kant and Hume: A philosophical controversy

In this article, the positions of Kant and Hume will be presented regarding the relationship between reason and morality.  Through their respective works, A Treatise of human nature, and Grounding for the metaphysics of morals, they both advocate a position on this issue. For Hume, morality comes from the feeling while for Kant, morality must be based on a duty that applies a moral law, i.e. morality is a rationality matter. The position of each author will be exposed in detail, as a result of their analysis. Finally, we discuss a criticism of Hume‘s position with respect to moral judgments based on feeling.

David Hume’s Morality

According to David Hume, the reason is inert in terms of motivation and action. This is because according to him, the faculty of the human mind to associate the ideas with each other is true or false. Morality can not be produced by reason because the ideas and beliefs can not motivate us to act. So there is a lack of belief and desire the need for action, and in this sense, the reason is the slave of the passions in Hume, contrary to Descartes’ view on passions of the soul. However, the corporation regarding the passions it arouses or product and prevents the action. The rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason because you can not rely on an active principle inactive. Passions, volitions and actions are not likely to an agreement with the true and false as were the original facts and realities that are complete in themselves. There is no possibility to declare true or false as to declare conformity or not to reason.

First, it shows directly to Hume, that the actions do not derive their merit or demerit of compliance or opposition to reason. Second, it indirectly proves that the philosopher, the reason because it is unable to produce or prevent an immediate action by approving or by contradicting, that reason can not be responsible judgments about the good and evil in morality. That said, the only ways that reason can influence the conduct, are indirect. First, the reason can awaken a passion for discovering an adequate object of desire. Second, the reason may be the connection of cause and effect so as to provide the means to pursue a passion. In both cases, the action is produced by a passion that is the active ingredient and that reason can at most suggest since it is a passive principle.

Depending on this, for Hume, it is thanks to the feeling of the observer relative to a fact or an action, that moral judgments are possible. In this sense, moral goodness has nothing to do with reason but rather with the passion, which itself takes a position on the right or wrong feeling by feeling. It is in relation to the action that the agent experiences feelings of approval or disapproval, but it is not the action itself or the reason which led to feelings. For Hume, morality is felt, not reasoned. Hume claims that moral evaluation is from us and it does not emanate from the subject that makes us react. So there is no objective moral truth, but rather subjective moral judgments that arise from our feelings. It is against these that we refer to what is right or wrong in terms of morality.

Hume argues on the basis of four theses. Its starting point is that reason is inert in terms of motivational. This contrasts with the theory of moral rationalism and argues instead that morality is not the product of reason. Thus, morality is based on the feelings that approve or disapprove the action. Realising the limits of our natural virtues, Hume distinguishes them from the artificial virtues that enable us to live in society. Moral sentiments exist in our nature but are limited to our family as the natural virtues tend to bias. It is precisely from there that are formed by the virtues artificial conventions. These are mainly based on long-term interest and for the large-scale cooperation. Justice is not entirely different because the character comes from our feelings and our feelings are rooted in our nature. For Hume, justice is also somehow rooted in our feelings.

Immanuel Kant and the Moral Law

The notion of duty is central to the moral philosophy of Kant. This is to determine what to do what should not, based on principles derived from a categorical imperative of the moral law and is discovered by reason. What to do does not depend on what is, for what is in nature is morally neutral. For Kant, goodwill is the only source of morality, it is rational and it is governed by duty. According to Kant, theoretical reason can explain the world, but it can not tell us what to do. The theoretical reason is mainly positive, while the practical reason can be normative, for it is according to Kant, which governs the action. Kant also argues that practical reason must tell us what to do and not feel in morality. Thus, where the will to choose principles, goodwill, chose the right principles. Act morally is not a reflex, but rather an object of practical reason involving deliberation and often force to compel his own nature, regardless of his feelings.


What is the fundamental principle of morality for Kant? The philosopher says that we must first look at the daily and because of the common conception of morality. Thus, the phenomenological observation of the moral life will become the basis on which to build the philosophy of morality. Second, morality is the principle of the categorical imperative and the moral law. The only source of moral value is goodwill or the principle of the will. Thus, to have a moral, an action must be made primarily out of duty, that is to say, because it is needed. An action is performed by having respect for the moral law and only a commitment to behave morally because it is a corporation.

For Kant, the human is a rational being who has a will which is defined as a disposition and capacity to act according to principles or laws he gives himself. Thus, the rational being is free and autonomous. However, freedom is negative, that is to say, that he can act, by its autonomous will, against his wishes or character and choose his actions by principles that are not included in nature, but he gives himself. For Kant, we are not slaves to our impulses constant, there is something beyond the passion which we own consciousness, and this is the true self. In this sense, we can choose what desire priority over another and how to act by our government because, since free action. We could easily object to Kant that people are not as rational as they think: compulsive buying, promo code, murders and others passions and low instinct expressions reflect that the human is both rational and instinctive.

For Kant, we act according to maxims which are subjective principles of action that are valid for one person or a finite group of individuals. A maxim is a reason to act. But there is a moral action, the maxim must be consistent with the moral law. This requires that the maxim of the action is set necessarily an objective principle of action that is valid for any rational agent. First, we must conduct them so that the maxim of the action become a universal law. Second, the moral law commands the will to execute such an action regardless of its consequences and no matter reaching the end, because only the good will is the source of morality. We must act only according to the maxim that it is possible at the same time to become a universal law. According to Kant, a maxim is moral if it can be universalized and applied to any person in the same situation in order to act the same way. The duty is universal and impersonal, it is not relative. For Kant, there is a categorical imperative that underlies all moral action and it looks like this: do not lie. Its characteristic is to present the action as necessary and not contingent.

Conclusion on the compared philosophies of Kant and Hume

So, for Hume, reason is not involved in morality. By cons, according to Kant, the man is a rational being who has an autonomous will and reason itself determines a moral law. While Hume based on a sense of morality, Kant establishes a categorical imperative in order to remain faithful to the moral law of reason discovers. For my part, I argue that morality based on feelings is not an appropriate way to judge what is moral or immoral, precisely because, the reasoning is not for nothing and the error is easily committed to this is immoral to what is moral.


Influence of David Hume to Kant’s theory of knowledge:

Kant’s position on the theory of knowledge shows us that it occupies a central position between rationalism and empiricism. As the dogmatic rationalism proclaims pure reason that knowledge comes exclusively a priori, the empiricists, as David Hume, for their part say that knowledge can come only from the sensitivity, and this is done a posteriori. Where rationalists advocate some form of autonomy to establish their concept a priori science, David Hume said that all knowledge must maintain a link with the sensitive and that the concept can not be autonomous. For Hume, every concept is a posteriori and stems from the perception. Thus, while the rationalists teach full readability of things in the world and their demonstrations a priori, David Hume said that the principle of causality that is used by rationalists can not be used a priori, but can only be asked retrospectively. For Hume, reason is powerless to make known causal relationships and a priori knowledge has a status of probability. Thus Hume says that causality can not be established a posteriori. Knowledge of a fact implies a connection with another fact which explains, and we can not explore this connection a priori. There would be no relationship and universal and necessary, only contingent and specific relations.

Kant does not share Hume’s conclusion, because for him causality is something rational. Experience shows of things, but individuals (or contingency) are summarised in the general laws that refer to sensitive and that, a priori. Kant, however, Hume holds that all concepts need to maintain a link with the experience and knowledge begin with experience. Thus, without a referent-sensitive, causality can not be plausible and its application to what is beyond the scope of the experiment is illegal. However, for Kant, knowledge is not derived entirely from experience unlike Hume, although it begins chronologically with it. We must see the position of Kant two parts, one is asserting that empirical knowledge begins with experience, and one that is rational, which states that knowledge comes not only from experience. So to see the Kantian position in relation to his centrism between rationalism and empiricism, we can say with him a concept without significant reference is empty, and from an intuition and sensitivity that is no concept blind.

For Kant, knowledge comes from two sources that are sensitive and understanding. The sensitivity is the ability to receive sensitive objects and produce a representation. The understanding would, in turn, activates the capacity of our mind to unify and synthesise the various sensitive to it in the sensitivity of thinking and being in connection with the representations. The reception of the object in intuition produces a sensitivity and understanding derive basic concepts or categories. The sensitivity and understanding must both be part of the process of knowledge because both are equally important. Similarly, all knowledge is related to the sensitivity in relation to intuition, and the work of the understanding is based on the performances to do its work of synthesis of the sensible. But there would also pure intuitions or representations a priori sensitive and are in some way the form of intuition and transcendental form the framework, or the condition of possibility of experience, namely the space and time in their pure form, or a priori. The experience would be the result of a unification of the understanding and sensitivity on the condition that transcendental and a priori representation of space and time as a form of our intuition.

Thus, while the conclusions of Hume ruin Newton’s physics, Kant says that mathematics and physics take their referent sensitive in the pure intuition of space and time and can, therefore, be built and derive a priori knowledge of concepts and this not only empirically. For the rationalists, would clean the referent they have forgotten and why is their doctrine would have fallen in the formalism through an unending expansion of a priori knowledge in their metaphysics. Similarly, if it would have remained faithful to this reference, it could not have come under attack by Hume.

Cite this article as: Tim, "Kant vs Hume, June 5, 2018, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, June 5, 2018, https://www.the-philosophy.com/kant-vs-hume.

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