David Hume Sympathy Analysis Essay

Sympathy, under Hume’s definition, clearly varies in terms of degree with the different connections the objects of sympathy have with us: we are more able to sympathize with a person close to us than with an indifferent stranger, and we sympathize more readily with our compatriot than with a person from another country with a different color of skin, as implied by the principle of association of ideas.

Moral evaluations, on contrary, should not vary with the relationships the person, whose character trait is being evaluated, has with us. It is therefore counterintuitive for Hume to have his account of morality based on sympathy, which apparently possesses such a biased character. When two persons, with different relationships with us, share some same morally good character trait, they should receive equal approbation from us .

Hume’s Response Hume himself is not unaware of the problem of the subjectivity implied by his account of sympathy. When we look at an action or its motive at first sight, Hume admits, our judgement may be altered by the resemblance and contiguity that person has with us, but as soon as we find that our judgement is biased, we will start to give up such a view, and look for a more general one .

We would in the end sympathize with the people in the narrow circle which the person, whose character trait is being evaluated, has close interactions with, so that we can feel what those people with whom he closely interacts feel, and thereby praise or blame that character based on considering what effects such motives or character traits have on others. Such a position is referred to by many philosophers as the “general point of view”. The original sentiment is said to originate from “unregulated sympathy”, and it is the general point of view that “regulates” our sympathy so that the resulting sentiments are moral ones .

Without the general point of view, sympathy is said to be unregulated because it results in sentiments that would differ greatly from person to person due to their different ability to fully sympathize with the object; but with it, sympathy becomes regulated because a position where everyone could reasonable reach, and thus give moral judgements on an equal basis, is provided . “Virtue in rags” In Hume’s understanding, when we morally evaluate a motive or a character trait, we look at its effects (the pain or pleasure produced in others or in the person possessing such qualities).

Yet, a morally good motive does not always bring about good outcomes due to bad luck or lack of chances. It is therefore argued that, with Hume, sympathy, such good motives could hardly be appreciated, which contradicts with our daily experience. How Hume could account for this with the idea of sympathy in mind, therefore, remains a question to be answered by Hume. Hume’s Response Again, Hume did not overlook this potential challenge to his theory. Hume argued, that although sometimes a good motive does not bring about pleasurable outcomes, we are able to appreciate it .

This is made possible by our imagination and our belief of cause and effect, with which we are able to visualize thus appreciate the supposed good outcomes of such a good motive under normal circumstances, and thereby approve of the motive, even if the imagined good outcomes are not realized in the reality . A good motive with good resulting effects realized certainly strikes us more strongly, but when the good effects are not resulted, we tend to correct our sentiment because luck carries no moral value .

Such a correction is indeed another regulative feature of the general point of view . It is inevitable that we might initially have a biased sentiment on motives due to differences of contiguity and resemblance (as discussed in the first challenge), and might be unable to accurately judge the motive when the usual outcomes are not realized (as discussed in the second challenge), we are indeed able to correct our sentiments through regulated sympathy and thereby “pronounce in general concerning the degrees of vice and virtue” .