Complexities of Character

Hume Studies 35 (1/2):29-55 (2009)
Abstract
Hume claims that moral assessments refer to character; it is character of which we morally approve and disapprove. This essay explores what Hume means by “character.” Is it true that moral assessments refer to character, and should Hume think this given his other commitments in moral philosophy and moral psychology? I discuss two prominent themes—namely, Hume’s views on moral responsibility; and Hume’s comparison of moral feelings with feelings of love—to see what light these themes can shed on Hume’s broader views about moral assessment. I argue that at least according to a traditional understanding of the term, character could not plausibly have a role to play in Hume’s account of moral assessment, but that Hume’s moral theory could require a conception of character different from this traditional one: a conception according to which character need not be the standard one that holds character to be consistent, stable, and well-integrated. In morally assessing others, we do not do so on the basis of their characters (at least in any robust sense of character), but on the basis of their motivational states. My account of Hume’s theory of the responsibility, passions and the moral sentiments leaves intact the central Humean insights about the conditions for action and the arousal of the moral sentiment, suggesting what Hume could have said, both more plausibly and without undermining the key features of his moral psychology. And it also shows that Hume’s moral theory has no need for a robust conception of character
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