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Project Topic: Passion, the Foundation of Morality in David Hume’s Moral Philosophy: A Critical Analysis




In moral life, actions are either good or bad, right or wrong. Man as a moral being is capable of distinguishing between moral goodness and badness in actions in order to choose which action is suitable for him to achieve his final end. To this, so many philosophers down through the ages have look into behaviour of man to see whether he acts morally or not. Some of them attempted to deny the cause of what man does. The term passion is one of the key concepts in the understanding of man. It belongs to one of the principles that constitute the human act namely, the will. An action is truly human when it proceeds from insight and free will. These two constituent principles go hand-in-hand. The will can decide for something and seek it only if it is first known. Man cannot will without knowing what object he is concerned with or without being master and therefore conscious of the act he is about to perform. In this way, man will able to evaluate the action as a desirable good or undesirable evil. This view has however been a bone of contention among moral philosophers especially the rationalists and the empiricists.The ancient Greeks, Plato, Plotinus, the Stoics and the modern idealists: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and Kant, were of the view that man is more of an intellectual being, that is, a being that is more protected by the faculty of reason than any other faculty. They were of the view that since the lower facilities are against reason, they should be suppressed. On the other hand, the hedonists, the empiricists, utilitarians and the emotivists see man as a practical and sentimental being than a speculative or intellectual one. Man, they believed, acts right when he acts according to his feelings, passion, sentiments or emotions. They therefore, propose that what is good is what produces pleasure and evil according to them is what produces pain. Reason, according to them, has no part to play in morality. In other words, reason should be under the control of passion. Sequel to the controversy between different philosophers on the superiority of reason over passion, the study of passion as the foundation of morality becomes pertinent.


Since the history of moral philosophy, different philosophers have propounded different theories as solution to this problem of foundation of morality. Despite propounding different theories, there is a common agreement among them, that moral basis exists in man and is in the nature of man. However their conceptions of this very nature vary and here lies the discrepancy. Rationalism, as a system of philosophy, claimed the autonomy of reason in human morality, while the empiricists failed to recognize the role played by reason and upheld sense experience. The existential questions are: is man’s rational faculty the basis for morality, or is there any other faculty in man that is responsible?


The essence of this study is to find out the dichotomy existing in the foundation of morality, to ascertain whether reason or the passion is the basis of morality and also, to see if both contribute to the foundation of morality in the philosophy of Hume. Therefore, there is the need to expose critically, Hume’s philosophical orientation on this problem. This is aimed at rectifying the discordant and misconstrued notions of the basis of morality.


This work will be a critical analysis of Hume’s ethical philosophical orientation, especially on his establishment of passion as the basis of morality. For the scientificity of this work, it has been divided into five chapters. The first chapter deals with the statement of the problem, the background of the study, the purpose of the work, method of approach used, scope of the study and the explication of our working terms. The second chapter will be the literature review on the role of passion. Chapter three talks about the conception, the nature and acts of reason, which is preceded by a historical excursus on the idea of morality. Hume’s contrary conception of reason and his establishment of the passions, as the moral basis will come in the fourth chapter while chapter five will be the critical evaluations and conclusion of the work.


Here, when we talk of Hume’s philosophy, we can see or find out that this philosophy is very vast and encompassing. As a result of this, we shall focus on his ethical thoughts as a trend in this philosophical project. Hume in his own way tried to base ethics on experimental psychology and to explain ethics as no more than conformity to one’s natural tendencies, and feelings. In this way, he establishes the passion as the foundation of morality. Morality for him, is not based on reason, but it is based on sentiments, natural feelings, natural tendencies and the passion.



“Good” from the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary simply means pleasant which is that for which one enjoys. From its etymological point of view, good comes from the Latin word “bonus” means “pleasant”, that which gives us satisfaction. For instance, light is good because it satisfies our desire for it, and knowledge is good because by knowing we satisfy our desire to know.

Also, something can be regarded as good because it exists. This is known as ontological goodness.  Practically, that which all things tend towards or desire is good. Goodness can also be attributed to whatever is suitable or beneficial to someone or something. When something is desirable to or the object of natural or supernatural needs or tendencies of a being, it is regarded as good. The first sentence of his Ethics, Aristotle says that the good is that at which all things aim. Whenever a being desires, it desires only good. Hence, the good is whatever that satisfies the appetite. It desires only good. Thus, light is the good of a plant, water of a fish, happiness of a man. Therefore, the word good implies that which possesses desirable qualities or which satisfies some need, a thing or an experience which is valuable. When we say that a thing is good, we mean that it is good for something or for somebody. Hence, a thing is good if it has value for a person or if it makes for social welfare. The good implies a relation between a being or faculty seeking something, and an object is called good because it is capable of satisfying that appetite.  In the strict sense, goodness is conceived as the fullness of a being. No wonder Ethel, commenting on Aquinas writes.

Since God in his goodness cannot create anything evil, it follows that evil cannot be a positive characteristic of things. However, the things which God creates are less than wholly good, and they are evil only in so far as they lack goodness.[1]

God, therefore, is the fullness of a being, fulfilling what is according to the nature of one’s being. Evil on its own means different things to different people. To some, it means one thing while to others it means another, depending on how it is perceived. The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary describes it as: Wicked arising from a caused or supposed wickedness. It is that which indicates wickedness, foul, disgusting, disastrous, ill omened, and what is morally wrong. It is what hinders the realization of the good. It is what is materially, socially, morally, religiously, etc, very harmful. In his traditional definition of evil, John Hospers presents another dimension of evil as a non-being when he defines it as a lack, a privation and negation. According to him, ‘there is no evil but only comparative absence of good[2].’ This view about evil is highly espoused by philosophers who denied the ontological existence of evil. However, the existence of evil cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand as having no foundation in reality since the effects of evil are all around us. Besides, if evil is the privation of good, the good could also be regarded as the privation of evil. In this sense, goodness would imply the absence of evil and vice versa. Hospers captures this vividly when he writes:

Is war-negative the absence of peace, or peace negative the absence of war? Whichever way we classify it, the one is as real as the other, there is war and there is peace; there is happiness and there is suffering, there is good and there is evil. [3]

Evil can also be viewed in its abstract form. In this line of thought, evil is considered a negation or privation. It could be seen as a privation because of the fact that a certain evil existence in a being when it lacks a good it requires in order to enjoy the integrity and perfection of its nature. Evil exists in two ways: purely and simply when it affects a subject directly and this subject has no relation to other beings, it also exists relatively in a being affected by something or in some manner that is not fitting to its nature. The latter can be broken down into relative-negative and relative-positive evils. Evil is seen as relatively negative when a being is deprived of a perfection it needs for its utility. And if a being is deprived of its perfection, it is termed relative-positive evil. The term “evil” has no unanimously accepted definition among philosophers and theologians as well. From its Latin etymology, evil is derived from the word Malum which means an unwanted thing.   Because of its nature, the concept of evil eludes any scientific explanation. For a better understanding, we take evil not as a positive determination of a being, but a lack of goodness. Hence, evil is a negation of good. Nwabekee succinctly captures it thus:

We can then say that is opposed to good, which is the integrity of being or perfection of being in its entire orders – materials, moral or spiritual. Evil, we can sometimes concretize in a subject that is the subject affected.[4]

In all, evil is seen as that which gives us displeasure and keeps us uncomfortable.


In man there is an inner force compelling him to behave and conduct himself in certain ways. Thus, stipulating ways in which man should act so that humanity might be guided by it. These actions must be types that are suitable to the nature of humanity that is, which befit it, suit it, perfect it and necessary for its existence, operation and happiness. Man then conforms his actions to particular situations in life, that is, to his inner conscience. This can be regarded as the basis of morality. The word “morality” as an ethical term bears different meaning and connotations from one philosopher to the other.  It is defined by fagothey as.

The quality or value human acts have by which we call them right or wrong, good or evil. It is a general term covering the goodness or badness of a human act without specifying which of the two moral values is meant. [5]  

We should not be confused with the above definition. Morality if I may say means good. It specifies good act. It is concerned with good relations between men. How they ought to behave towards each other with what general rules governing relation between men which a society ought to adopt. The subject of morality, therefore is man as a free and rational being who performs acts which are praise-worthy or blame-worthy according to how they conform or not to the accepted set of rules or codes of behaviour which must be good and thus induces pleasure Stumpf quoted back as saying;

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Topic: Passion, the Foundation of Morality in David Hume’s Moral Philosophy: A Critical Analysis

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[1]  M.A. Ethel, et al, Great Traditions in Ethics (4th ed., California: Wadsworth pub. Co,

1980) 111.

[2]  J. Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis In J. Maduka, The paradox of Evil (Enugu, SNAAP Press Ltd; 2007) 4.

[3]  Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, 5.

[4]  A. Nwabekee, Man and the problem of evil suffering in a changing world (Enugu: Snap Press Ltd, 1995) 12.

[5]  A. Fagothey, Right and Reason, Ethics in Theory and Practice (9th Ed) (London Merrill Pub. Co.,   1986) 50.


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