Scientists who are dismissive of philosophers generally still have a soft spot for David Hume. He is one of those Enlightenment thinkers who is decidedly modern, not least because of his scepticism of religion.
"Hume was also a pioneer of what we now call evolutionary psychology, before there was even a theory of evolution," says Julian Baggini in The Great Guide, a new book on the Scottish philosopher. Hume recognised – long before Daniel Kahneman came along with his bestselling books – that human behaviour is largely governed by emotion rather than reason.
One of his many intellectual contributions is Hume’s Law – which dictates that you can’t infer the truth of moral statements from factual observation or, put simply, you can’t make an “ought” from an “is”. It is a “law” that is sometimes misinterpreted as a licence for rejecting all moral statements, and Hume – through a superficial reading – could be misconstrued as a kind of proto-Dawkins.
His reputation faces a greater threat today, however, than misrepresentation. Attention has focused on a notorious footnote in his essay Of National Characters in which he says he is “apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites”.
If that wasn’t bad enough, correspondence has surfaced in recent years showing he advised one of his patrons to buy a plantation that used slaves in the Caribbean, seemingly encouraged by a friend who was looking to invest there.
Last year, on foot of a petition from students, Edinburgh University renamed a building that had been known as David Hume Tower to erase any reference to the city's famous philosophical son.
Baggini believes that, in judging past prejudices, there is a balance to be struck. By all means criticise Hume for his racism, he says, but don’t lose track of the sight that modern slavery remains a problem in which many of us are implicated. According to the International Labour Organisation, more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking – servicing numerous global supply chains.
Baggini discusses the matter further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.
What should we make of Hume’s view on race today, and what should we do about it? Should his statue on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile be taken down for example?
“No I don’t think so. Hume said rather pithily that ‘the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue’ – there is hardly anyone who can completely rise above, particularly the prejudices of the time but also, personal blind spots.
“Hume’s implication in the slave trade is, I think, very thin and second-hand. In a way, he is probably not much more implicated in the slave trade than many of us are today by virtue of the fact that we tend to turn a blind eye to the slavery in a lot of our supply chains.
“There is effective slavery in the supply chain of Italian tomatoes. It’s as bad as that, you don’t even have to go to cocoa plantations.
“Hume was against slavery. He did, on behalf of a friend ask another friend about investing in a plantation. He would have known there was slavery there, but it was so much a part of the economic system that you would have to have taken a position almost as radical today as perhaps refusing to have anything to do with any company which has any connection whatsoever to fossil fuels. That’s kind of how principled you’d have to be.
What we should do is be particularly admiring of those people who did see through this at the time
“The point about his racism is it’s clear but it is marginal – and I don’t want to excuse it. It’s marginal in the sense that it’s absolutely not part and parcel of his system . . .
“In a footnote of an essay, he said he suspects – he wasn’t even saying he was sure – that the evidence was that the non-white races, as he calls them, were inferior on the basis of what their civilisations had achieved. Now that is a false empirical claim, and there were contemporaries of Hume who knew that and argued against him but they were by no means the majority.”
Do you think he'd have a different view today and would reject his prior "suspicion"?
“I think that’s true; I think it’s entirely consistent with his philosophy . . . When we do have this sense of self-righteousness, we should be able to imagine better how much of an influence culture makes.
“If we just think about sexism for example. In my lifetime, when I was growing up, the kind of way in which women were treated on television and game shows. You had Radio 1 DJs, all men, on Top of the Pops surrounded by young girls with their arms around them. We now think that’s creepy; no one blinks an eye at that 40 years ago, even 30 years ago.
“So if you’re going to go back a few hundred years and look at issues of race and think that Hume is going to be able to see these issues with the clarity that is so obvious to us now, it’s too much.
“What I think we should do is be particularly admiring of those people who did see through this at the time, rather than being particularly condemnatory of those who didn’t. And we should save our strong condemnation for those who were really building their lives around slavery and were actually trading in slavery and campaigning to keep it in place.”
Dealing with Hume’s philosophy, can you explain the is/ought problem and why it still matters?
“The basic principle is Hume observed if you are going to present an argument you can’t jump from making statements about how things are to how they ought to be. Oughts don’t follow logically from ares. . ..
“It remains important because people often do make these leaps from ‘something is natural therefore it’s good’, which is clearly nonsense. A tsunami which destroyed all those towns in [Japan a decade ago] was not good because it was natural.”
How do we know what is moral then?
“Some people say that you can never appeal to any facts about the world in a moral argument and that can’t be true either, and I don’t think that’s what he said . . .
“The thing for Hume is you can’t win a moral argument simply by appealing to the facts. If, for example, you are using slaves and I explain to you what’s going on. I explain to you why these people are suffering. I explain why the people you are keeping as slaves are no less human than you or I. If you understand all these facts and still say ‘I don’t care’ what’s missing to persuade you is not more facts. It’s that you’re not responding with the compassion and sympathy that is necessary to be a good human being.
“I think a lot of people are troubled by the idea that morality ultimately rests on that kind of empathy because a lot of people think that means it rests on something too fragile or too shallow.
Why do we think that a very strong a natural capacity for sympathy is a weaker basis for morality than logic?
“But it does beg the question: Why do we think that a very strong a natural capacity for sympathy is a weaker basis for morality than logic when we are always being told how humans are governed more by their motivations than by logic and logic is actually something that we find hard to follow? So I don’t think people should be as worried about this as they are.”
You end the book with a list of Humean maxims. Have you a favourite one – the sort of saying you might pin to the fridge door?
“There’s one I don’t have in the book which I literally have on my fridge door . . . a magnet that says – in the Scottish vernacular – ‘Ye ken I’m no epicure, only a glutton’. That’s quite nice because obviously it’s a bit self-deprecating. He was a bit of an epicure actually – but, like me, he was probably a bit of both; I really like my food and I could claim my love of food is entirely motivated by epicurean things but I know I’m also a bit greedy.
“There’s one [quote of Hume’s] people always go back to – it’s gendered but we can de-gender it – ‘Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a human being’. It’s that basic appeal to never get so caught up and lost in whatever our intellectual, or other professional, pursuit is; always try to retain that humanity, and I think he does that so well.”
The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well by Julian Baggini is published by Princeton University Press
Ask a sage:
Does it matter if tech moguls want to fly themselves to space?
David Hume replies: “It must be confessed that wherever we depart from equality we rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity, in one individual, frequently costs more than bread to many families, and even provinces.”