Can We Be Free If Reason Is the Slave of the Passions?

By van Dun, Frank | Freeman, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Can We Be Free If Reason Is the Slave of the Passions?


van Dun, Frank, Freeman


The writings of David Hume (1711-1776) are a treasure trove for those eager to find pithy, polished memorable quotes to bolster their arguments in favor of freedom, justice, and against the arrogance and follies of governments. It is difficult to resist the youthful elan of his major philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), his provocative ironic style, witticisms, irreverence, and occasional sarcasm, which made him an international celebrity, the darling of Parisian salons, and, even now, a reader's delight.

The English philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote of Hume: "No man has influenced the history of philosophy to a deeper and more disturbing degree." And there's the problem: Between Hume's time and our own, philosophy, to the extent that it is part of public life, has not been particularly supportive of the case for freedom as classical liberals and libertarians understand it. If Hume's influence was so profound and disturbing as it is said to be, then maybe we should wonder whether his philosophy had anything to do with this. Did it undermine precisely the sort of freedom that his age was beginning to see as the shape of things to come?

Hume wrote when the ideas of freedom, justice, and the rule of law were at their apogee in public discussion, and "English liberty" was the envy of many intellectuals on the Continent, where royal absolutism was still the rule. It was not his philosophy that had put these ideas in the spotlight but the philosophy of natural law. Natural law refers to the principles of order (law) in the human world that the mind can discover, no matter how great the conflicts of interest and opinion among persons. The natural-law philosophy held that those principles ought to be respected by all because they are true principles. The advocates of natural law readily acknowledged that people might not always perceive a personal advantage in conforming their actions to the law. However, they were confident that enough people were sufficiently open to reason to accept the validity of the natural-law principles and to use them in their active life.

Human nature was the key concept. It comprised the notion that persons, having the capacity to reason, also had the capacity to modify the perception of their interests so as to include due respect for the dictates of reason. The natural-law philosophy recognized that mastery of these capacities is unevenly distributed among individuals, but it did not see that as a reason to give up on the search for true principles and for ways to increase their weight in practical deliberations. Over the centuries it had erected an edifice of thought in which arguments about human affairs would have to be judged by objective principles-not particular subjective opinions, interests, sentiments, or sympathies, no matter how powerful or influential these might be. This is not to say that every writer who used the term "natural law" was as scrupulous in his reasoning as one might have hoped. Many could not resist the temptation to advance their pet schemes for organizing a particular society, its government, armed forces, educational institutions, and so on as "dictates of reason." There was junk and pseudo-natural-law theorizing then as there is junk and pseudoscience now.

Disturbingly, Hume was a prime agent in the modern intellectuals' fight against the philosophy of natural law, not only against its caricatures but also and primarily against its fundamental tenet: that reason ought to guide the actions of men. Hume's moral philosophy was an explicit denial of that proposition. Reason, it said, is and ought only to be the slave of the passions. Man is motivated by, and only by, self-interest-only considerations of utility can sway man to act one way or another.

Following in the footsteps of Thomas Hobbes, Hume asserted that morality has nothing to do with reason because reason is either philosophic (and then merely a system of definitions) or practical (and then merely a slave of the passions, an instrument without a finality of its own). …

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