Say What? David Hume on Religion

‘Convulsions in nature, disorders, prodigies, miracles, though the most opposite to the plan of a wise superintendent, impress mankind with the strongest sentiments of religion; the causes of events seeming then the most unknown and unaccountable.’

~ David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, Section VI, paragraph 3

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Rationality and the Origins of Myth: Bayle, Fontanelle, and Toland

Pierre Bayle, Bernard de Fontanelle, and John Toland; all images in the public domain or free for noncommercial use

This is an extended version of a blog post I recently wrote for my seminar class Myth and the History of Scholarship in Early Modern Europe. It’s a more formal style than I generally like to write in since it’s for an academic blog, but I thought I’d share it with you just in case you’re interested in what I’ve been working on at the University of Edinburgh lately ~ Amy

From the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome to the European Renaissance to early modern Europe in the Age of Discovery, thinkers and scholars attempted to make sense of mythology and the multiplicity of belief from ancient to modern times, in light of their own understanding of the nature of God and the workings of the universe. The Renaissance saw the humanistic attempt to understand mythology as allegories, repositories of ancient wisdom in fable form which conveyed essential religious truths to those discerning enough to perceive them. Then, missionaries to the New World and theologians wrestled with the fact that vast numbers of human beings had no knowledge of the biblical God or of Jesus Christ. They attempted to reconcile this with their beliefs about God’s justice and mercy by recasting pagan myths as expressions of natural theology.

The years leading up to the Enlightenment saw another significant shift in ways of thinking, a rationalist approach that we now associate with the rise of skepticism and the scientific method. In the decades straddling the turn of the 17th century, Huguenot scholar Pierre Bayle, French scientist and writer Bernard de Fontanelle, and British freethinker and religious critic John Toland offered their own critical approaches to the myths of the ancients and of the New World.

‘…People began, in various countries, to write histories in a more reasonable manner and generally with more verisimilitude. So no new fables appear; people are satisfied with preserving the old ones. But can this ever stop those who are infatuated with antiquity? They imagine to themselves that under the fables are hidden secrets of the physical and moral world (Fontanelle 18)’

In On the Origin of Fables, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) applies ‘natural reason’ and Aristotelian method to myths and ancient philosophy to determine whether they are worthy of belief or useful in promoting a rational understanding of God and the world. Bayle’s approach is to offer critical examinations of particular myths. Through these examples, Bayle intends to demonstrate that mythology is not a vessel of truth, allegorical or otherwise. For one, he considers the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximenes’ idea that the gods were produced by the air, which is the primary and original cause of everything. Bayle rejects this idea as absurd because natural reason doesn’t allow us to believe that a thing’s efficient cause (Aristotle’s term for that which is responsible for another thing’s state of being) to be inferior to that which gave rise to it (Bayle 110). Even more ridiculous, for Bayle, is the idea that a non-thinking thing like air could give rise to a thinking thing like a god (p 113). (I suspect that Bayle would have little use for the theory of evolution.) Other myths such as the birth of Venus, who arose from the foam created when Saturn cut off his father Chaos’ genitalia and threw them into the sea, or that  thunder and lightning is caused by Jupiter’s hurling thunderbolts to earth, aren’t only immoral and brutish, but entirely useless for understanding the rationality of the universe.

Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) sees mythology as the product of the childishness of the human mind at the dawn of reason. When humans observed some amazing or unexpected thing that they couldn’t explain, they naturally embellished it a little so that they could (Fontanelle 11). These embellishments often consisted of positing beings with human-like capacities causing the phenomenon in some recognizable way. Fontanelle, like Bayle, uses the example of thunder and lightning, a mysterious phenomenon that could be explained by imagining a being very like a human but more powerful, who throws arrows of fire like humans do but much larger ones from higher up (p 11-12). He also uses the example of rivers: they originate somewhere, so why not from pitchers like these we use to make water flow? (p 11) But to make rivers, the being(s) who pour the pitchers must have much larger ones, with added power that can keep them flowing plentifully and with force. With each subsequent retelling of these stories, they took on more and more fantastic elements they passed from one person to the other (Consider Michel de Montaigne’s passage about un/reliable testimony in his essay ‘Of Cannibals’), resulting in elaborate and fantastic myths.

But Fontanelle doesn’t judge these almost accidental mythmakers harshly; rather, he makes an interesting and astute observation: it’s actually harder to adhere strictly to the truth than to embellish a tale, especially when it’s about something exciting. It’s harder because 1) ‘our imagination gets heated up with its subject’ (Fontanelle 11) and begins to elaborate the tale all on its own and 2) the more marvelous details you add, the more interest, encouragement, and admiration you arouse in your audience. But though rationality is hard and the imagination is lively (p 15), Fontanelle insists that it’s still essential that we resist ignorance. David Hume would later elaborate on Fontanelle’s idea about myths and miracles, making it one of the centerpieces of his skeptical philosophy in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

John Toland’s (1670-1722) theory also cites human ignorance and frailty in the origins of myth, but he offers a less general account. In his view, myths spring from the honor paid to the dead. Worship of the gods is an extension of the respect, fear, and supplication of powerful rulers, warriors, magicians, and so on (Toland 72). He accepts Euhemerus’ idea that the gods of myth refer to real people but that, over time, their origins were forgotten (p 85). Toland observes that the honor paid to the gods closely resemble the honors paid to dead heroes and princes, so he postulates a common origin for these practices.

Toland further explains that the gods, based on exceptional humans now dead, are also based on human ideas and virtues (p 88). Here, both Toland and Bayle reflect the ancient philosopher Xenophanes, who argues that all gods are devised to resemble their creators. If animals had gods too, they would look, act, and have the same mental features as those animals—at least, the strongest, best, most admired animals among them. Fontanelle also takes a Xenophanean view in his description of how the gods evolve over time: the gods of the earliest, most primitive myths were as irrational, lustful, and brutal as the people themselves. But just as societies became more civilized, more rational, and more virtuous, so did the gods (Fontanelle 13).

Fontanelle, Toland, and Bayle all take a rationalist approach to the subject of myth, as they do to the sciences and all other areas of inquiry. All myths and idolatry are born from irrationality, and if we are to understand the world as it really is, as a rational place created and designed by a rational God, it’s important to demonstrate the irrationality of the myths and remove their power to promote irrationality in the general public. This will result in a more rational, moral, and free society.

Bayle, again, takes the approach of examining particular examples of myths to show that their origins are irrational and that they cannot, even as allegory, be seen to impart anything good or true, or to promote understanding in any way. He continues his exploration of ancient ideas about air, this time the myth that equates the goddess Juno with the air. Despite all attempts to understand this myth as a way of understanding a truth about the workings of the world, it does nothing but confuse and confound. Bayle again invokes Aristotle, who says that if it’s a thinking being, it must have a soul, and if that being is a part of nature and has a soul, it must be an animal. Therefore, if Juno is the air, she’s a sort of animal being constantly being torn and wounded by things passing through her, which he offers as such a patent absurdity that the myth couldn’t possibly promote a rational understanding of nature. (p 117-118)

Fontanelle argues that his time was one of the most intellectually vigorous (p 13), no doubt because he saw it as an age of rationality. He has a progressive view of the human capability for rationality (p 17), and sees it as the way of the world that all human societies will become more rational over time, just as the Greeks did, and just as he suspects that the Native Americans encountered by the Spanish would if given the time to develop their capabilities (p 16). This is consistent with Fontanelle’s view that creation itself is a rational system. It would make sense, then, that the more human beings come to understand it, the more rational they become as well. That’s why it’s a mistake to perpetuate irrationality by continuing to teach the myths through the arts such as poetry, fine arts, and theater (p 17).

Toland argues that a multiplicity of gods and objects of worship, which is characteristic of the less rational belief systems, is correlated with irrationality, less freedom, and more autocracy. The more gods a society creates, the more autocratic and the less free and rational the society – (Toland 98) (Noted scientist and religious skeptic Richard Dawkins would likely point out that in that case, the most free, rational, and democratic societies would have no gods at all.)

‘So [the well-meaning Philosophers] proceeded to explain away the rest of the Gods; and, as Allegorys are as fruitful as our Imaginations, scarce any two Authors cou’d wholly agree in their Opinions. But supposing the Truth of the matter had bin as any or all of ’em wou’d have it, yet their Religion was not a whit the better, and deserv’d to be abolished; since, what ever were the Speculations of a few among the Learned, ‘cis evident that the Vulgar took all these to be very real Gods, of whom they stood in mighty fear, and to whom they paid Divine Adoration…’ (p 122)

So even if the myths could be interpreted as allegories by the learned, their dissemination spread ignorance and irrationality and so did far more harm than good.

‘But if any shou’d wonder how Men cou’d leave the direct and easy Path of Reason ‘ton wander in such inextricable Mazes, let him but consider how in very many and considerable Regions the plain Institution of Jesus Christ cou’d degenerate into the most absurd Doctrins, unintelligible Jargon, ridiculous Practices, and inexplicable Mysterys…’ (p 129)

Bayle goes further than Toland, and believes that myth not only correlates with barbarous societies, but that they promote acceptance of bad behavior. The myth of Jupiter, for example, deifies a being guilty of just about every crime you can think of: murder, rape, incest, lies, and cruelty of every sort (Bayle 107). Fortunately, Bayle observes, most people behave better than the gods of mythology, an observation that extends beyond his close examination of many mythological beliefs.

Fontanelle also observes that belief does not necessarily inform moral convictions or behavior; in fact, they seem to be quite separate:

‘What is strange is that Christians, whose system of religion is so pure, yield almost nothing to the gentiles in respect to engaging in vices. It is a mistake to believe that the moral practice of a religion corresponds to the doctrines of its confession of faith. (p 107)’

People, then as now it seems, accept those religious beliefs that accord with their own principles and moral characters more than the other way around.

~ Thanks to Dr. Felicity Green for inspiration and insight


Bayle, Pierre, ‘Jupiter’, in Historical-Critical Dictionary: Selections [1697], trans. Richard Popkin (Indianapolis, 1991), pp. 107-119.

‘Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle.’ (2017, 25 January), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from  ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Falcon, Andrea, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Fontenelle, Bernard de, De l’origine des fables [wr. c.1691-99, pub. 1724]. English trans. Of the Origin of Fables by Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860 (Indiana, 1972), pp. 10-18.

‘John Toland’. (2017, 17 August), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Lennon, Thomas M. and Hickson, Michael, ‘Pierre Bayle’, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), ; accessed 09 November 2017

Toland, John, Letters to Serena (London, 1704), part III

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He Died as He Lived: David Hume, Philosopher and Infidel, by Dennis Rasmussen

As the Scottish philosopher David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, his passing became a highly anticipated event. Few people in 18th-century Britain were as forthright in their lack of religious faith as Hume was, and his skepticism had earned him a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland. Now everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event, Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humour and without religion.

The most famous depiction of Hume’s dying days, at least in our time, comes from James Boswell, who managed to contrive a visit with him on Sunday, 7 July 1776. As his account of their conversation makes plain, the purpose of Boswell’s visit was less to pay his respects to a dying man, or even to gratify a sense of morbid curiosity, than to try to fortify his own religious convictions by confirming that even Hume could not remain a sincere non-believer to the end. In this, he failed utterly.

‘Being too late for church,’ Boswell made his way to Hume’s house, where he was surprised to find him ‘placid and even cheerful … talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time.’ Ever tactful, Boswell immediately brought up the subject of the afterlife, asking if there might not be a future state. Hume replied that ‘it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever’. Boswell persisted, asking if he was not made uneasy by the thought of annihilation, to which Hume responded that he was no more perturbed by the idea of ceasing to exist than by the idea that he had not existed before he was born. What was more, Hume ‘said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and … that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’

This interview might show Hume at his brashest, but in the 18th century it remained mostly confined to Boswell’s private notebooks. The most prominent and controversial public account of Hume’s final days came instead from an even more famous pen: that of Adam Smith, Hume’s closest friend. Smith composed a eulogy for Hume soon after the latter’s death in the form of a public letter to their mutual publisher, William Strahan. This letter was effectively the ‘authorised version’ of the story of Hume’s death, as it appeared (with Hume’s advance permission) as a companion piece to his short, posthumously published autobiography, My Own Life (1776).

Smith’s letter contains none of the open impiety that pervades Boswell’s interview, but it does chronicle – even flaunt – the equanimity of Hume’s last days, depicting the philosopher telling jokes, playing cards, and conversing cheerfully with his friends. It also emphasises the excellence of Hume’s character; indeed, Smith concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.

Though relatively little known today, in the 18th century Smith’s letter caused an uproar. He later proclaimed that it ‘brought upon me 10 times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’ – meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Throughout his life, Smith had generally gone to great lengths to avoid revealing much about his religious beliefs – or lack thereof – and to steer clear of confrontations with the devout, but his claim that an avowed skeptic such as Hume was a model of wisdom and virtue ‘gave very great offence’ and ‘shocked every sober Christian’ (as a contemporary commented).

Boswell himself deemed Smith’s letter a piece of ‘daring effrontery’ and an example of the ‘poisonous productions with which this age is infested’. Accordingly, he beseeched Samuel Johnson to ‘step forth’ to ‘knock Hume’s and Smith’s heads together, and make vain and ostentatious infidelity exceedingly ridiculous. Would it not,’ he pleaded, ‘be worth your while to crush such noxious weeds in the moral garden?’

Nor did the controversy subside quickly. Nearly a century later, one prolific author of religious tomes, John Lowrie, was still sufficiently incensed by Smith’s letter to proclaim that he knew ‘no more lamentable evidence of the weakness and folly of irreligion and infidelity’ in ‘all the range of English literature’.

In the 18th century, the idea that it was possible for a skeptic to die well, without undue hopes or fears, clearly haunted many people, including Boswell, who tried to call on Hume twice more after their 7 July conversation in order to press him further, but was turned away. Today, of course, non-believers are still regarded with suspicion and even hatred in some circles, but many die every day with little notice or comment about their lack of faith. It takes a particularly audacious and outspoken form of non-belief – more akin to the Hume of Boswell’s private interview than to the Hume of Smith’s public letter – to arouse much in the way of shock or resentment, of the kind that attended the death of Christopher Hitchens some years ago. (Indeed, there were a number of comparisons drawn between Hitchens and Hume at the time.) The fact that in the 18th century Smith endured vigorous and lasting abuse for merely reporting his friend’s calm and courageous end offers a stark reminder of just how far we have come in this regard.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Dennis Rasmussen is an associate professor in the department of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He is the author of The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Triage of Truth: Do Not Take Expert Opinion Lying Down, by Julian Baggini

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thirst for knowledge is one of humankind’s noblest appetites. Our desire to sate it, however, sometimes leads us to imbibe falsehoods bottled as truth. The so-called Information Age is too often a Misinformation Age.

There is so much that we don’t know that giving up on experts would be to overreach our own competency. However, not everyone who claims to be an expert is one, so when we are not experts ourselves, we can decide who counts as an expert only with the help of the opinions of other experts. In other words, we have to choose which experts to trust in order to decide which experts to trust.

Jean-Paul Sartre captured the unavoidable responsibility this places on us when he wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (1945): ‘If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example – you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise.’

The pessimistic interpretation of this is that the appeal to expertise is therefore a charade. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated the power of motivated thinking and confirmation bias. People cherry-pick the authorities who support what they already believe. If majority opinion is on their side, they will cite the quantity of evidence behind them. If the majority is against them, they will cite the quality of evidence behind them, pointing out that truth is not a democracy. Authorities are not used to guide us towards the truth but to justify what we already believe the truth to be.

If we are sincerely interested in the truth, however, we can use expert opinion more objectively without either giving up our rational autonomy or giving in to our preconceptions. I’ve developed a simple three-step heuristic I’ve dubbed ‘The Triage of Truth’ which can give us a way of deciding whom to listen to about how the world is. The original meaning of triage is to sort according to quality and the term is most familiar today in the medical context of determining the urgency of treatment required. It’s not infallible; it’s not an alternative to thinking for yourself; but it should at least prevent us making some avoidable mistakes. The triage asks three questions:

  •  Are there any experts in this field?
  •  Which kind of expert in this area should I choose?
  •  Which particular expert is worth listening to here?

In many cases there is no simple yes or no answer. Economic forecasting, for example, admits of only very limited mastery. If you are not religious, on the other hand, then no theologian or priest can be an expert on God’s will.

If there is genuine expertise to be had, the second stage is to ask what kind of expert is trustworthy in that domain, to the degree that the domain allows of expertise at all. In health, for example, there are doctors with standard medical training but also herbalists, homeopaths, chiropractors, reiki healers. If we have good reason to dismiss any of these modalities then we can dismiss any particular practitioner without needing to give them a personal assessment.

Once we have decided that there are groups of experts in a domain, the third stage of triage is to ask which particular ones to trust. In some cases, this is easy enough. Any qualified dentist should be good enough, and we might not have the luxury of picking and choosing anyway. When it comes to builders, however, some are clearly more professional than others.

The trickiest situations are where the domain admits significant differences of opinion. In medicine, for example, there is plenty of genuine expertise but the incomplete state of nutritional science, for example, means that we have to take much advice with a pinch of salt, including that on how big this pinch should be.

This triage is an iterative process in which shifts of opinion at one level lead to shifts at others. Our beliefs form complex holistic webs in which parts support each other. For example, we cannot decide in a vacuum whether there is any expertise to be had in any given domain. We will inevitably take into account the views of experts we already trust. Every new judgment feeds back, altering the next one.

Perhaps the most important principle to apply throughout the triage is the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s maxim: ‘A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Trust in experts always has to be proportionate. If my electrician warns me that touching a wire will electrocute me, I have no reason to doubt her. Any economic forecast, however, should be seen as indicating a probability at best, an educated guest at worst.

Proportionality also means granting only as much authority as is within an expert’s field. When an eminent scientist opines on ethics, for example, she is exceeding her professional scope. The same might be true of a philosopher talking about economics, so be cautious about some of what I have written, too.

This triage gives us a procedure but no algorithm. It does not dispense with the need to make judgments, it simply provides a framework to help us do so. To properly follow Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment injunction ‘Sapere aude’ (Dare to know), we have to rely on both our own judgment and the judgment of others. We should not confuse thinking for ourselves with thinking by ourselves. Taking expert opinion seriously is not passing the buck. No one can make up your mind for you, unless you make up your mind to let them.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Julian Baggini is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is A Short History of Truth (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Hume, Aristotle, and Guns

Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Antique firearms at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

As have many Americans, I’ve been mulling over the issue of ‘gun rights’ quite a bit recently. It’s a pressing issue in the United States since more people are injured and killed by citizens wielding guns than in any other state with a stable government and a thriving economy.

It’s also a divisive issue, as it’s generally argued in terms of liberty, a core value in our culture and politics. One side emphasizes the right to self-defense, the other the right to freedom from fear and from the pressure to join the arms race. And whether or not people chose to arm themselves, their fellow citizens feel that they are placed under some kind of obligation or burden as a result.

From the anti-gun perspective: if at least some of your fellow citizens are armed, then you are forced into a position where you must arm yourself too whether you’d like to or not, or remain at their mercy. After all, in a moment of greed, anger, zeal, fear, mental illness, hate, or accident, one person with a gun can permanently remove all freedoms that another could ever enjoy, within seconds, with the simple squeeze of a trigger. When another is armed, they have the potential power to wield complete control as to whether you live or die, and to force you to act according to their will, and against your own.

From the pro-gun perspective: if your fellow citizens choose not to arm themselves, you leave all the work of crime deterrence up to gun owners. Not only that: since a gun is the most effective weapon which can be wielded by a person of nearly any degree of strength, it’s the only available method for many who feel the need to defend themselves and others. In other words, it’s the one real equalizer: anyone with a gun has as much power as any other, so long as they know how and when to use it.

What would help us decide how to settle this, since the freedom to live the life we want, and the freedom to live at all, are in direct conflict here? We’re still figuring it out here in the US. Some nations have chosen in favor of individual gun rights, and others have disarmed their citizens, with varying results. While, generally speaking, nations and states with low gun ownership rates have much lower rates of gun violence, there are some exceptions. The gun rights dilemma, therefore, is not simply and immediately solved through legislation designed in favor of one set of rights issues over another.

Putting the conflicting liberty and rights issues aside for the moment, perhaps it would help to consider the relevant moral issues. Here, we can look beyond local, cultural considerations to a broader source of guidance as to what we should do about guns. What does it mean to be a good person, a virtuous person, and how do we cultivate that in ourselves and in each other? How does a society cultivate that in its citizens? Can these and other considerations help us decide what’s right, morally, when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of owning a gun? What should we do about it? Is it right or good for people to hold so much power over life and death? Permissive gun laws, which make it easy for responsible gun owners to trade in guns, also make it easier for members of drug cartels and other criminals to get their hands on them, too; that being known, are those laws right?

I think two of the greatest thinkers on morality and virtue, David Hume and Aristotle, can do much to help us discover some answers to these questions. Let’s explore their ideas, look for some answers there, and see how they fit with modern discoveries in behavioral science, psychology, and neuroscience.

According to David Hume, morality originates in the ‘passions’, or feelings. We can see ourselves as naturally moral creatures, since we come equipped with those emotions, those motivations, that make morality possible. We demonstrate altruistic, ‘pro-social’ (not Hume’s term, a more modern one), even as children, though we develop our moral character as we grow, through life experience, conversation with other moral beings, and by acquiring and developing the use of reason. For example, from the earliest age, we approve of kindness and disapprove of cruelty. We desire happiness, love, and generosity, and detest pain and avoid selfish people; we crave learning, and enrichment, and the approval of others. Those ‘sentiments’ ennoble us, and are responsible for that which is best in our characters. Yet the emotions we come equipped with are not sufficient, in themselves, for a morally developed person. Reason also plays a key role, enabling us to universalize and expand morals, and to apply these needed in any given situation.

Yet morality cannot be founded on reason alone: as Hume points out, reason is the means to means to link one true proposition with another, but cannot, on its own, show us what to value, or make us care about each other or anything else. It’s moral feeling, the passions, that provide the motivations, and provide reason the materials to work with to develop our morality. So as we grow up, we learn to develop our moral instincts, to ‘expand our moral circle‘ through conversation and the use of reason. By spending time with others, by being exposed to diverse ways of thinking and being, we learn that others have emotions and interests just like we do, that are just as important to them as ours are to us. Emotionally, we empathize with others; rationally, we know that what we expect of others is no more or less than what we must demand of ourselves. A very young person has the instincts for morality, but prior to experience of the world and the use of reason, it’s a very limited morality, or can even be considered a sort of proto-morality. Experience of other moral agents, through discourse with them, reveals there are others whose feelings and interests matter just as much to them as ours do to us, and finally reason shows that there is not particular reason to favor oneself over another when determining moral rules and guides of behavior. A morally good person, then, will seek to be pleasant and generous, to make others happy and improve their well-being, to respect and protect their interests as much as possible, just as we desire and expect they will do for us.

Hume’s account of how morality works, combined with the body of knowledge we’ve discovered since his time, reveals that it’s as much a natural part of the makeup of the human personality as any other, as are creativity, romantic passion, mother love, curiosity, and hunger, as well as (sadly!) rapacity and cruelty. A natural explanation of morality does not require a complex suite of arguments to found its origins in logic and reason, nor does it require some cause outside of ourselves, as traditional explanations claimed. To find out what morality is and how it works, we observe human beings, how they act and how they desire themselves and each other to act; we explain how and why morality developed as a natural adaptation for human beings; and we apply reason to determine what kinds of mindsets, rules, and behaviors lead to their flourishing.

Behavioral, biological, and evolutionary sciences have, over the years, lent support to Hume’s explanation of morality. Rebecca Saxe and Alison Gopnik, among others, has closely observed the behavior of infants and very young children over time, and has gathered a large body of evidence that people demonstrate moral instincts from the very earliest age, recognize that others are moral beings with their own interests and emotions just like us, and make moral judgments accordingly. Evolutionary psychology (Darwin considered Hume one of his great influences), in which morality is considered as much an adaptation as our opposable thumbs and long limbs, inherit much from Hume’s account. In fact, Hume is widely considered a founder of naturalistic moral theory, and a father to modern cognitive science.

Aristotle’s grounds the origin of morality more on reason, though his theory is founded, like Hume’s, from his observation of the world and how people behave. His elegant ‘function argument’ is the centerpiece of his moral theory. When you consider what something is for, and observe what it does and how it functions, you’ll know where to start. The quality of goodness in material things is closely related to the quality of goodness when it comes to actions and moral feelings. A musical instrument is for making music; therefore, an excellent, or good, musical instrument is that which produces the best music. Further, if we consider a case in which we’re deciding who the musical instrument should belong to, it would be the right thing to do to give it to the best musician. Not to the nicest person, or the one who can pay the most for it, or even to the person who made it; those considerations are irrelevant since none of those have anything to do with the proper function of the instrument.

To Aristotle, reason is the one definitive human trait that no other creature on earth possesses. That’s what we do uniquely, and what we’re best at, or at least, that’s what we do when we’re at our best. So what we should do, the moral thing to do, is what’s most reasonable, what’s most in keeping with our nature as reasonable beings. What helps us recognize that, in turn, is called the ‘Golden Mean’: consider all those traits we have, see how they fall on a spectrum, and we will see that the virtue consists of the happy medium between extremes. For example, bravery would be the virtuous golden mean between cowardice and recklessness, love between disdain and fawning or obsession, and so on. (Fun fact: Hume himself placed great importance on moderation, temperance, and fairness, eschewing divisive party politics, for example, as if it was part of his mission to live out the ideal of the Golden Mean!)

Making the leap from the function of a thing which is an artifact of intentional human creation, to the function of a human being itself, is quite a leap. Aristotle recognized this and sought to address it, but did not yet have the modern knowledge of the theory of evolution, and of evolutionary psychology, and how well they account for the origin and development of moral virtues such as kindness, sympathy, generosity, bravery, and so forth. Nor did Hume, but he did not consider it justified to form conclusions by building a logical case as far removed from original observations as many who followed Aristotle later. Hume saw human beings as much a product of the natural world as any other, and their nature as fully explicable in those terms. So leaving the function argument aside for the time being, let’s consider another important contribution of Aristotle’s to moral philosophy: the importance of habit.To Aristotle, habit is essential to the practice of virtue. By emulating virtue, we habituate ourselves to it. Over time, morality, the practice of virtue, becomes second nature. Here, Aristotle proves himself a keen observer of human psychology, and his emphasis on habit as a central driving force behind human thought and behavior, as well as something which can be deliberately instilled through practice, is confirmed by the findings of modern psychologists and neuroscientists. A recent article in Scientific American outlines some of the ways in which habits are formed, and how necessary they are if we wish to improve our behaviors systematically. Cognitive behavioral therapy, now widely considered among the most effective ways to overcome addiction and anxiety-depression, among other disorders, is also founded on these scientific discoveries.

Here’s where I find a link between these two moral theories: Aristotle’s emphasis on habit works hand in hand with Hume’s account of how moral sentiments arise from human psychology. Whether it be from habit or other mental processes we are naturally equipped with when we achieve consciousness, moral behavior is largely a spontaneous reaction to the situation at hand. Early in our development, as Saxe and Gopnik describe, a basic set of moral instincts are included in human consciousness in its earliest stages. As Hume observes, experience and reason help us expand, develop, and perfect our moral characters over time; the moral character, as Aristotle recognizes, is the set of, and relationships between, the virtuous habits we’ve cultivated through practice.

This also consistent with other findings of modern neuroscience and psychology. The way we tend to act in any given situation, the emotions and motivations that arise in us as we respond to stimuli, are formed as we react to circumstances, and by engaging in patterns of action, reactions, thoughts, behavior, we create mental channels, so to speak, or ‘paths of least resistance’, which predict our reactions, our thoughts and behavior, given similar circumstances. We usually act and think in accordance with how we’ve been given to act and think before, and only change when some new consideration(s) arises that makes us stop and consider whether to do something else this time. These considerations, the combination of reason and emotion (how do I act that will make me feel good about it, given the consequences of my actions for myself and others? How did the decisions I made last time the sort of thing came effect me and the world around me? How do others act in these situations, and what are the effects then?) inform how we habituate ourselves to new and improved moral actions and reactions.

Let’s pause for a moment. So far, we have these two thinkers’ descriptions of morality and virtue, supported by the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience.  Hume and Aristotle show us where they think we should look for virtue, how to recognize it, how to describe and explain it, and where it originates. In other words, they are engaged in metaethics. But as you may have noticed, this tells us only how people actually do think and behave; what about telling us what we should do? What are the criteria for deciding what’s right and what’s wrong?

Arete (Virtue)

I think Hume and Aristotle point us in this direction: human beings not only do, but should habituate themselves to those practices which form in us the best moral character. While both men don’t explicitly tell how we can definitely say what’s right and wrong, they go to great lengths to show us what an admirable character looks like, and how they think and behave. I think they do so in order to reveal to us not only how we could be, but how we should be. In his writings as well as by example (he was widely known to have a particularly admiral character), Hume emphasizes such virtuous sentiments as sympathy, sociability, amiability, beneficence, generosity, and so on, and advocates the cultivation of these traits, especially through conversation and spending time in the company of others, especially those who can broaden your understanding of the world, and by avid reading and study of philosophy, literature, and history. Aristotle emphasizes the virtue of moderation in all things, of wisdom, self-control, courage, and nobility. Both men emphasize, to the highest degree, the use of reason, and the value of its careful and consistent application in all matters of life. It appears that they go through all this trouble not only to show us what a good person looks like, but to offer us something to aspire to: the formation of an excellent, moral character, which leads to the best life a person can achieve.

So, finally, we return to the gun issue. What does all this have to do with owning them, and using them? What does this have to do with what we observe in human behavior when people own guns? How about when people value, or even glorify, guns?

Let’s return to the consideration of the evidence, which can reveal how attitudes and practices relating to guns manifest themselves in human behavior; in other words, what habit or habits does a gun-owning society promote?

There are conflicting statistics to when it comes to gun-related behavior. For example, people in the United States own almost twice as many guns per-capita as Canadians and Germans. Canada and Germany, in turn, have a much higher rate of gun ownership compared to most other developed nations. Yet among these three nations, the United States has a far higher gun-related death rate, about four times that of Canada, and about 8 times that of Germany, though the three share many key cultural and political traits: they are democratic, capitalistic, and culturally and historically Christian. There are also examples where lower gun-related death rates correlate with higher per-capita gun ownership. This is the case for some states in the U.S, and for Switzerland, a country that, interestingly, imposes a requirement on all households to own a gun.Yet given such outliers, most states in the US, and most countries in the world, see a strong correlation between lower rates of gun-related death and injury and lower rates of gun ownership. The U.S. ranks near the top in gun-violence rates, just under Mexico’s, a country overrun with trigger-happy drug cartels, and outranked almost entirely by countries with weak, unstable governments, poor human-rights records, and high rates of poverty and income inequality. The very lowest rates of all, by contrast, are enjoyed by those countries who possess a high degree of personal liberty and human-rights protections while at the same time restrictive gun-ownership privileges, or none at all. Even in Switzerland, often cited by gun-rights advocates as an example of how high rates of gun ownership can correlate with low levels of violence, there are 16 times as many gun deaths as in the U.K, and 64 times as many as Japan. The rates are low in Switzerland only as compared with the most violent countries, but not in comparison with the least violent.

Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Antique long guns at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

Returning to the liberty issue for a moment, it seems that overall, since you must be alive to enjoy any liberty at all, liberty is best served when there aren’t many guns around. When a fight ensues, or the home is broken into, or a child has figured out how to get into a locked cabinet, or a person goes on a violent rampage due to mental illness, few, if any, people actually end up dying or disabled when there’s no guns nearby to reach for. It’s relatively difficult and messy to kill someone with a knife and other non-gun weapons, and the planning that goes into other kinds of homicide, like poisoning, gives people more time to consider the consequences of their action, decreasing the chance they’ll go through with it, or decreasing the chances of success at homicide.

As we’ve seen, however, the liberty issue can’t be the only determining factor in deciding the gun issue, since liberty considerations conflict so sharply when one’s liberty interests run counter to another’s. There are still compelling arguments to be made that individual liberty requires the right for each person to make their own decision in the matter, from the right to self-protection and self-determination. There’s also the fact that there are some states and countries where higher rates of gun ownership do correlate with low gun violence, especially in places where the population is more homogeneous, ethnically, religiously, racially, economically, and so on, even if they are relatively few. Conversely, there’s the liberty considerations of those who wish to be free from the fear of coercion and bodily harm, ever-present dangers that usually result from a heavily armed population, as the statistics reveal.

This is where the law comes in. One main purpose of the law is to defend the rights and liberties of the citizenry at large, and this involves protecting citizens from each other. A population is always composed of people who have conflicting interests, needs and desires, so to keep a society functioning, prosperous, and harmonious as possible, the law (ideally) is crafted to balance the rights, responsibilities, and interests of each citizen, impartially, with the other.Another purpose of the law is to codify, universalize, and enforce the mores of a given society, or at least those that harmonize with the principles of justice, equality, liberty, and so on that are central to the political system of that society.And last but not least, the law encodes a system of rights, responsibilities, and prohibitions, the practice of which is requisite to being a good citizen. In other words, the law is a society’s (in a democracy, the people’s) way to habituate its citizens to those practices which form a virtuous, a good citizen.

Gun law is no exception. Prior to passing laws relating to gun ownership, there are societal attitudes towards guns that people possess, cultivate, and enforce not only through custom and discourse, but eventually through law. Famously, in the 1990’s, the Australian government, with widespread support from its citizens, collected and destroyed a large proportion of the country’s firearms, and imposed restrictive gun laws. These laws were a direct result of the public’s horrified reaction to a series of gun-related mass murders that had happened in the decade prior. The public’s new attitude towards guns was made manifest in the law. It’s still in debate whether the sharp decline in gun violence that followed the new laws were a result of the laws, or vice-versa. It appears most likely that it’s some combination of the two: after all, as we’ve observed throughout history, there’s a feedback loop between the law and a society’s moral progress.

Consider the history of civil rights legislation in the United States: desegregation and other civil rights protections happened gradually, with each disenfranchised group demanding the full rights of citizenship, despite the current will of the majority to keep those groups subjugated and oppressed. Over time, the use of reason (in these cases, legal reasoning) and consideration of the values underpinning the foundational political philosophy and documents (in this case, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) led to new laws which not only enforced better practices, but habituated citizens to more virtuous thought and behavior, often in spite of themselves. We see this time and time again in American history: the disenfranchisement and oppression of black people, religious minorities, the poor and non-landowners, women, Jews, gay people, and so on, once common practice, came to be looked upon with righteous distaste, worthy of contempt. In so many of these cases, it was the law that changed commonly held attitudes, more than the other way around, and the change in attitudes and behavior often happened far more quickly than it would have otherwise if the practice of virtue wasn’t inculcated through law.

In sum: Considering the lessons of history, the evidence of the current states of affairs in which high gun-ownership rates correlate strongly with destructive attitudes and behavior when the entirety of the evidence is considered, and how the wisdom of two of the greatest moral thinkers is confirmed by the findings of modern science, I think that laws restricting, even eliminating, gun ownership by most individuals help lead to a wiser, more prudent, more beneficent, more amiable, more free society.

What do you think?

A nearly identical version of this article was originally published at Ordinary Philosophy on July 18, 2014

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

– I’d especially like to thank Guy Fletcher, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who kindly gave me some of his valuable time (despite it’s being finals week), invaluable insights, and excellent pointers regarding the subjects covered in this essay, especially in reminding me to make clearer the distinctions between meta-ethics, morality, and ethics.


Sources and inspiration:

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. About 350 BC. 

Boseley, Sarah. ‘High gun ownership makes countries less safe, US study finds‘. The Guardian, Sep 18, 2013.

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist : In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.

Gopnik, Alison. The Philosophical Baby, 1998.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind, 2013.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Volume III – Of Morals. Printed for Thomas Longman in London, England, in 1740. (I had a glorious time referring to versions published in Hume’s own lifetime during my trip to Edinburgh!) Online version:

David B. and Stephen D’Andrilli. “What America can learn from Switzerland is that the best way to reduce gun misuse is to promote responsible gun ownership.” American Rifleman, Feb 1990

Kraut, Richard, ‘Aristotle’s Ethics‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014 

Morris, William Edward. ‘David Hume‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.

Saxe, Rebecca. ‘How We Read Each Other’s Minds‘. TED talk, 2009

Tucker, Abigail. ‘Are Babies Born Good?’ Smithsonian Magazine, Jan 2013.

Imagination is a Powerful Tool: Why is Philosophy Afraid of It? – By Amy Kind

Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, Salvador Dali, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland

Philosophers have a love-hate relationship with the imagination. René Descartes, for one, disparaged it as ‘more of a hindrance than a help’ in answering the most profound questions about the nature of existence. Trying to imagine one’s way towards metaphysical truth, he wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), is as foolish as falling asleep in the hope of obtaining a clearer picture of the world through dreams.

Yet Descartes also relied heavily on imagination in scientific and mathematical essays such as The World (1633), in which he tried to conjure up the details of the basic building blocks for structures such as humans, animals and machines. According to the philosopher Dennis Sepper at the University of Dallas, Descartes relied upon a kind of ‘biplanar’ imagination, pioneered by Plato, in which one level of reality could embody and display relations that existed on a different level, and vice versa.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was equally conflicted about the imagination – especially when compared with perception and memory. ‘When we remember any past event, the idea of it flows in upon the mind in a forcible manner,’ he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). But imagined images and sensations, he continued, are ‘faint and languid, and cannot without difficulty be preserved by the mind steady and uniform for any considerable time’. However, Hume also claimed that humans are most free when they’re engaging in imagination. Perception can show us only the actual, he said, but imagination can go beyond that, to the realm of the maybe, the what-if and if-only. Indeed, ‘nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible,’ Hume said.

What’s behind this apparent tension at the heart of the imagination? Hume put his finger on it when he talked about how our facility for fantasy helps us to move beyond and change our present reality. One need only think of how Leonardo da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines paved the way for the Wright brothers, or how H G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) inspired the first liquid-fuelled space rocket, to see the truth of this insight. But imagination is also restricted by the extent of our previous perceptions and experiences, Hume said. ‘Let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the Universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves,’ he wrote.

One way to resolve such ambivalence would be to divide the imagination into different kinds. Along these lines, towards the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant distinguished two forms of imagination: the productive imagination and reproductive imagination. The productive faculty is what helps to synthesise and transform sensory content into a meaningful whole. So the identification of something with pointy ears and fur, which meows and rubs itself against your legs, is brought together via the productive imagination into the form of a cat. This unifying tendency is implanted in every human mind irrespective of experience. For Kant, our productive imagination is what makes perception possible.

By contrast, the reproductive imagination is largely about recollection. When a story comes on the radio about a long-lost cat who has found its way home, you draw from the many cats you’ve seen before to picture the heartwarming scene; this would be the reproductive imagination at work. Because the reproductive faculty works only with materials previously provided to someone’s senses, it is subject to the kind of limits Hume discussed.

Kant’s bifurcation hints at why philosophers treat the imagination with both despair and delight. Perhaps the kind of imagination we despise is totally different from its more useful cousin. But in accepting this subdivision, we give up on the possibility of seeing the imagination as a unified mental faculty – which is perhaps more how we experience it.

When I think of all the wondrous things we can do with the imagination, I’m inclined towards a different way of unravelling its enigmatic duality. Rather than slicing up the imagination into distinct kinds, we might think about its distinct uses. I like to call these the transcendent and the instructive functions of the imagination. On the one hand, when we pretend, or fantasise, or escape into an engrossing work of literary fiction, imagination can take us beyond the here and now. On the other hand, when we imagine in an attempt to make sense of what other people are thinking, or to problem-solve or to make decisions, our speculations are used to help us understand the here and now. Whereas our transcendent uses of the imagination tend towards whimsy and fancy, its instructive functions point towards the practical and the concrete.

In both these modes, the secret to success seems to lie in the application of a kind of imaginative constraint. But what’s right for one use might not be fitting for the other. Perhaps the reason why philosophers have been conflicted about the imagination is that they haven’t grasped how limitations need to be tailored to circumstances. When we are writing fiction, or playing games of pretend, or making art, arguably we do our best imagining by setting the boundaries widely or removing the shackles entirely. In contrast, when we employ imagination in the context of scientific or technological discovery, or any other real-world problem-solving, we must allow our imaginations to be framed by the situation at hand.

Figuring out where to draw these lines isn’t easy. It can be extraordinarily tricky to know which factors should stay in play, and which should be eliminated. But by looking at how such constraints operate, not only can we see our way towards imaginative greatness – perhaps we can also purge philosophy of its anxiety about the idea. After all, as Hume observed, humans ‘are mightily govern’d by the imagination’.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Amy Kind is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. She is the author of Persons and Personal Identity (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Model Hallucinations by Philip Gerrans

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Psychedelics have a remarkable capacity to violate our ideas about ourselves. Is that why they make people better?


Psychedelic drugs are making a psychiatric comeback. After a lull of half a century, researchers are once again investigating the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’) and LSD. It turns out that the hippies were on to something. There’s mounting evidence that psychedelic experiences can be genuinely transformative, especially for people suffering from intractable anxiety, depression and addiction. ‘It is simply unprecedented in psychiatry that a single dose of a medicine produces these kinds of dramatic and enduring results,’ Stephen Ross, the clinical director of the NYU Langone Center of Excellence on Addiction, told Scientific American in 2016.

Just what do these drugs do? Psychedelics reliably induce an altered state of consciousness known as ‘ego dissolution’. The term was invented, well before the tools of contemporary neuroscience became available, to describe sensations of self-transcendence: a feeling in which the mind is put in touch more directly and intensely with the world, producing a profound sense of connection and boundlessness….

Read this excellent article in full at Aeon: committed to big ideas, serious enquiry and a humane worldview

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!