Friday, May 14, 2010

Hume on Unreasonable Affections

On the question of whether passions can be unreasonable, Hume writes, famously:
[I]t is only in two senses, that any affection can be called unreasonable. First, When a passion, such as hope or fear, grief or joy, despair or security, is founded on the supposition or the existence of objects, which really do not exist. Secondly, When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the designed end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it.

On a natural reading of this passage, Hume has in mind cases like these:
False Supposition: Tom's fear of Casper the ghost. Given that there are no ghosts (and, in particular, that Casper the ghost does not exist), Tom's fear is founded on a false supposition (the supposition that Casper exists). Thus, Tom's fear can be called unreasonable.

Insufficient Means: Jane's decision to eat an apple (when motivated by her aversion to scurvy). Given that eating apples will not help one avoid scurvy, Jane's decision to eat the apple is founded on a false judgment about causes (of scurvy) and effects (of eating apples). Thus, Jane's decision (and/or action) can be called unreasonable.

Note that Hume's account of what makes for an "unreasonable" belief seems to be the following: A belief that P is unreasonable if and only if ~P. I'll come back to this point in a later post, but it is important to notice it here.

A natural criticism of Hume's position is that these cases don't seem to be cases of unreasonable emotions/decisions/actions. If anything, the false beliefs giving rise to Tom's fear and Jane's decision seem to help (rather than hinder) the reasonableness. What would be unreasonable, the thought goes, is for Tom to fear Caspar when he doesn't believe that Caspar exists (or for Jane to eat an apple as a way to avoid scurvy when she doesn't think apples prevent scurvy). To the first part of this criticism (the claim that the affections in these two cases are not unreasonable), I think Hume has room to maneuver. He even makes a point of articulating that "properly speaking" it is the judgments involved (and not the passions) which are unreasonable. So, what about the thought that there are these other cases, in which the passions are unreasonable?

Interestingly, Hume's framework leaves no room for such cases. Passions are secondary impressions (aka "impressions of reflection"), and thus, are responses to antecedent mental activity. In these cases, the passions can't be present in the absence of the relevant judgments. Setting aside the question of whether this is a desirable feature for Hume's mechanics of mind, it is, at least, an explanation of why Hume doesn't consider such cases: they are impossible, not irrational.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that Hume doesn't account for an attempt (or lack of attempt) to even gather evidence for an action. It seems more reasonable to say that a belief that P is reasonable if valid evidence toward ~P could potentially open the case for ~P. I think that is your criticism, but it could still work whether there was evidence available or not.

Lewis Powell said...

I am going to assume that you meant "evidence for a belief" in the first sentence of your comment (otherwise I am confused about what you had in mind).

I agree with you that it is natural to think of a person (or one of their beliefs) as reasonable or not insofar as they are responsive to evidence (or, in the particular case, insofar as the belief is strengthened or weakened by the acquisition of evidence for or against it).

However, Hume's use of "unreasonable" in the passage seems to suggest that, if, in fact, ghosts do not exist, then any belief in ghosts is unreasonable. I guess it leaves open the possibility that one's true beliefs could be unreasonable (so, I might be unreasonable to believe in apples, even if apples exist, in at least some cases), but typically, we think that it is at least possible for someone to have a reasonable belief that is false, and it seems like Hume is ruling those out. Until I figure out why Hume has this view, I'm not inclined to be critical of it, as much as I am inclined to be perplexed about it.

The other thing that might be labeled a criticism isn't really my criticism, just the thing that Hume has been criticized for, with respect to this passage. I was glad to figure out why Hume doesn't think the cases I mentioned (fear without belief and knowingly choosing insufficient means to your own ends) are unreasonable, and that's simply because he regards them as impossible: on his view, emotions are caused by beliefs in a way that precludes such cases.

Brandon said...

I'm not at all convinced that Hume is assuming that a belief is unreasonable if and only if ~P. I think it's very important that he is here talking about what it is that makes an affection unreasonable; and his answer is that what makes the affection unreasonable is some disproportion in the closely associated judgments -- Hume is not here committed to saying that these are the only ways a belief can be unreasonable, so I think it would be a mistake to put it as a biconditional. Moreover, I don't think it's ~P alone that is at issue here. 'Supposition' in Hume usually indicates something weaker than belief, and, even if it didn't, it always means something for which the evidence is at best indirect. Thus I think there's room in the interpretation here to say that the first case would be more like what Hume has in mind if it were clear that Tom was getting worked up over Casper despite the fact that he had merely suggested the existence of Casper as one way to account for certain experiences (e.g., missing socks) that don't directly push us to think that Casper must exist; it would contrast not just with the case in which Tom fears Casper and Casper exists but also with the case in which Tom fears Casper, Casper doesn't exist, but Tom has had real experiences that are evidence (albeit misleading) that Casper exists. And it's clear that the sort of thing Hume has in mind here is unreasonable: it's getting worked-up over a mere supposition as if it were a well-founded belief (and the unreasonableness lies in treating a hypothesis as if it were more than it is).

Lewis Powell said...

Brandon, I find your interpretation interesting, but I do want to note a point on this:
"'Supposition' in Hume usually indicates something weaker than belief, and, even if it didn't, it always means something for which the evidence is at best indirect."

Supposition often suggests something weaker than belief, but does not suggest judgment, let alone "unreasonable judgment". Hume generally treats (in Book I at least) judgment, assent, and belief as equivalent, and uses "supposition" to refer either to something specifically different than belief, or (as I would read this passage) as a broader category which includes beliefs as well as that something weaker.

Note also, that regardless of whether supposition here has your favored reading or mine, the condition of unreasonableness is that the supposition is false: an affection is unreasonable "when a passion, such as hope or fear, grief or joy, despair or security, is founded on the supposition of the existence of objects, which really do not exist", emphasis mine.

I am not well-versed on book 2, so it is possible my reading of the passage would be undermined by other things Hume goes on to say about affections, but it looks like the falsity of the supposition is required (even if he means supposition in a sense that precludes it being a judgment). And I took back the other direction of the biconditional in an earlier comment, so I agree with you that I was too quick to jump to the biconditional.

Brandon said...

My claim wasn't that supposition is a judgment but that in the unreasonable judgments Hume has in mind, suppositions are treated as if they weren't merely suppositions. We can, of course, make judgments in light of suppositions, and suppositions can become judgments when other things give them sufficient force and vivacity (e.g., with our supposition of the continued existence of bodies).

I agree that the supposition has to be false; but the class of judgments that P when in fact ~P is much broader than the class of judgments that something exists when in fact it doesn't.