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The Basis of a Moral Judgement Essay

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Updated: Feb 4th, 2019

The debate on the subject of moral judgement is continuous and cannot be easily resolved since there is no absolute standard of what is really moral and on what grounds people make moral judgements. The basis used to create a standard of morality differs with different individuals.

Some people appeal to pragmatism of the solutions presented at a given moment as the basis of judgement while others appeal to religion as their sole instruction for morality. This essay takes a critical look at the views of David Hume and Immanuel Kant regarding the concept of moral judgement.

First, we examine Kant’s moral philosophy. His basic idea is human autonomy (Fieser 284). One of the tasks of moral philosophy is to discover the binding principles of behaviour among humans. Kant argues that studying human anthropology only gives an idea of how people behave and fails to give the ideal behaviour that is expected (Fieser 284). Even with this shortcoming, people still make moral judgements.

Fieser observes that Kant’s argument in a case such as “we ought to tell the truth” (285) is essentially similar to the scientific view that all changes ought to have a cause. The statement “we ought to tell the truth” is equated to a scientific view as it is based on reason and not an individual’s experience. Reason introduces an aspect of causality to noticeable objects thus explaining the change. It further institutes a facet of duty to a moral situation. Therefore, this duty breeds notions of ‘ought to’ and ‘ought not to’ in moral situations.

Kant holds the view that concepts transcend facts experienced at any given moment. Therefore, obligations must not be based on the special properties of human nature or upon the consequences, but on the concept of reason.

Kant’s view on the subject of morality is based on awareness of regulation of behaviour that is universal and necessary (Fieser 286). Universality and necessity, according to Kant’s arguments, are the fundamentals of judgement. Kant focuses on ‘goodness’ as a quality affecting actions and not as a rational aspect of behaviour.

Kant’s moral philosophy centres on autonomy. He proposes one elementary principle of morality from which all individual moral duties emanate (the moral law). Kant argues that people give themselves moral laws as well as the general laws of nature. According to Kant, human beings ought to act according to principles that they wish should become universal laws (Fieser 289).

Kant’s moral philosophy is not complete without looking at his idea of the categorical imperatives (Bowen 37). The categorical imperative considers the universality of moral law. It dispenses liberty and autonomy to a person’s will thereby affirming the absolute worth of each rational person (Fieser 289).

According to Kant, people are moral and rational equals hence they ought to act according to the maxims that they wish to become universal laws. Due to rationality, humans create the same set of laws all over the world (Birsch 56). Kant gives a connotation that people are the end in themselves and not the means to an end (Birsch 56).

The statement “act in such a way that you treat humanity whether in your person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as the means” (57) is a clear indication of his stand on morality. By virtue of being rational, people can use other people to accomplish tasks for them as a way to accomplish an end, but never merely as the means to that end (Birsch 57). According to Kant, this is acting morally.

David Hume’s approach to morality is scientific as he likes to call it. He asserts that morality is a topic that interests all humans (Fieser 251). Hume argues that moral judgement is equally a result of feeling as it is of reason. He claims that moral assessments are emotional responses. According to Hume, reason in forming moral judgements is limited as it emphasizes ‘matters of facts’ and ‘relations of ideas.’ Matters of facts and relations of ideas are judgements of truths or falsehood of things based on a person’s emotionality (Fieser 251).

According to Hume’s moral philosophy, when someone commits murder there is an underlying fact behind the crime. A vivid recollection of all that happens at the time of committing the crime does not clearly show which part of the event constitutes the crime.

It is not clear whether a crime has been committed because the incident is considered either as manslaughter or as an act of self-defense depending on the facts collected. Two important aspects to consider in such a scenario are the act itself and the motive behind the act. Therefore, moral judgement is merely a formation of the mind and is susceptible to sentiments (Fieser 251).

Hume’s moral assessment of individual actions takes into consideration the sympathetic attitudes of pain and pleasure experienced on observation of someone else’s actions. Hume contends that moral sentiments are universal and that all humans possess them. He further adds that people praise or blame a similar action and that the praise or blame is not a consequence of narrow self-love.

He says that the sympathetic feelings are not restricted to specific events, but are instinctive (Fieser 252). The virtues that trigger universal quality of moral approval include industry, prudence and caution. He insists that there are universal arguments and that even the most cynical people agree that these virtues are universal. These qualities are useful and agreeable not only to the person in possession of them, but also to the entire community (Fieser 252).

Immanuel Kant and David Hume try to give a basis on which moral judgement is formed. According to Kant, humans install a reliable guide to moral truths within themselves. Nevertheless, they do not always adhere to this guide. Hume, on the other hand, views the notion of moral truth as problematic and that it is based on feelings.

Both philosophers overestimate the human ability to develop universally moral laws (Birsch 56; Fieser 253). According to Kant, rational beings ought to arrive at logical conclusions that are acceptable to all. In Hume’s view, even the most cynical humans agree on certain virtues. Humans cannot be trusted to be infallible since it is indisputable that human is to err. Therefore, neither philosopher is committed to the idea that humans judge infallibly.

Both philosophers dedicate their focus to the subject of discovering what exactly makes the law. For instance, using Hume’s morality in the case of a murder and what constitutes a crime in that case, there are many descriptions of the event. However, it is uncertain what happens if the crime is committed in self-defense. Although human faculties of emotions are unstable and very subjective, there is no moral justification for killing regardless of the explanations given (Fieser 253).

The same idea of the lack of an absolute moral standard is consistent with both philosophers’ reasoning. According to Kant, there are other factors built in human desires and other human tendencies that specific duties demand from them at varying times. A rational being at times acts out of inclination or self interest.

Fieser gives an illustration of somebody who wishes to be popular (Fieser 287). This person must act in obedience to certain rules that earn him the approval he desires. However, the individual’s popularity is not necessary. Therefore, there is no absolute standard that determines whether an individual’s willpower at any given point is in line with the law. Nothing can pass for being unreservedly good without a form of qualification.

Even the moderation of passion is not usually considered a good thing. Kant argues that it is the humans’ rational willpower that aids in the creation of a universal law. This is the law that is good and inbuilt in humans who do not always live up to the law’s goodness (Fieser 287).

There are notable differences between the two philosophers’ views. Hume’s arguments consider the role of emotion alongside reason while Kant’s postulations leave out the role of emotion in moral judgement. David Hume considers the reality that the human will is not only determined by reason, but is also influenced by other factors such as emotions (Fieser 252). Kant’s rationality and consistency principles give no room for the subjectivism of emotionality.

Therefore, it can be concluded that morality is a subjective topic and that David Hume and Immanuel Kant have different ideas on this concept.

Works Cited

Birsch, Douglas. Philosophical Issues: A Brief Introduction, New York: McGraw-Hill companies, 2003. Print.

Bowen, L. Jonathan. The Categorical Imperative of a Confucian Evil Demon in America, Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005. Print.

Fieser, Stumpf. Socrates to Sartre and Beyond: A History of Philosophy, New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2008. Print.

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