For Hume, our fellow feeling is a “principle in human nature”, something that cannot be explained any further (EPM 5.17, n.19; SBN 219). To ask “why we have humanity or a fellow feeling with others” would therefore make no sense, since “we have to stop somewhere in our examination of causes” (ibid.). The claim that our fellow feeling is fundamental to human nature also figures in Hume’s account of the “fictitious” state of nature (T; SBN 493). Although denying that “cordial affection, compassion, [and] sympathy” (T; SBN 494) are what originally drove us to establish the virtue of justice, he nevertheless stresses that concern for others is part of our original psychological make-up. In this paper I argue that Hume’s account of sympathy provides us with a good example of how we can think of moral capacities as natural and yet as acquired through the mind’s interactions with its environment. Thus, for him it is through the mechanism of sympathy and its regular functioning that we are pushed towards the development of moral capacities that take us beyond what was originally given to us. Nature, in the form of our untutored sympathy, thereby becomes the cause that has as its regular effect our ability to judge from a moral point of view. Due to this causal link, capacities essential for the assessment of morality must be seen as being natural, and this is so even though they have been acquired through an engagement with the artifices of society, history and culture. Importantly, being natural here does not mean that moral capacities are just given in the sense that we are born with them. Rather, the claim is that we acquire them, while the process of acquisition is taken to be natural insofar in that it unfolds spontaneously when our naturally responsive human nature is placed in specific environmental conditions.

Hume, David



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