Russian Studies in Philosophy 41 (1):5-45 (2002)

In his time, D. Hume made an observation that essentially predetermined the nature of subsequent ethics research. "In every system of morality that I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked," he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature, "that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. … A reason should be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason."1 The obvious meaning of this statement is that the imperative nature of moral language cannot be considered an adequate expression of the essence of morality; rather, it conceals the erroneousness of its epistemologized schemes of explanation. The accuracy of such an interpretation of the excerpt, even if it were questionable on the basis of its literal meaning, raises no doubt in the general context of Hume's own ethics where morality is identified with a special moral sense-a sense of sympathy that can be revealed effectively without the compelling force of duty. By some strange logic, ethics after Hume turned his warning into a positive program and saw its task as laying bare the concept of the moral "ought" and trying to find a transition from "is" to "ought." These persistent and multifaceted efforts, which enriched the theory of ethics in many ways, nevertheless did not achieve their immediate goal. The question arises, then, whether the negative result was not predetermined by an improper formulation of the problem itself that arose from the assumption that the specific nature of morality is connected with its imperativeness
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DOI 10.2753/RSP1061-196741015
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