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If we have less control over our moral actions than we think, David Hume can help, philosopher says

Friday, July 13, 2018

LAWRENCE — Recent findings from moral psychologists suggests we might have very little rational and intentional control over how we perceive many situations and how we respond to them.

Does this mean we all get a pass when it comes to judging moral actions? No, says a University of Kansas philosophy professor, because we can look to the work of 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume's work on virtue to accommodate this new data.

"I think it shifts some of that responsibility to a broader social responsibility," said Erin Frykholm, associate professor of philosophy.

Frykholm authored the essay "Spontaneity, Intuition and Humean Virtue" as a chapter in a recent volume, "Hume's Moral Philosophy and Contemporary Psychology," edited by Philip Reed and Rico Vitz.

"Recent literature in psychology gives us lots of reasons to think that what motivates us to act in the ways that we do is not what we think it is," Frykholm said. "It seems like we are unaware of the things that motivate us, and it's not clear how they could be in our control. One response would be to throw our hands in the air, but we don't want to let people off the hook for that."

A person's reaction to a child kicking the back of his or her seat on an airplane could elicit an explicitly or subtle reaction of anger, for example, or a reaction of patient sympathy with the child's parent. The person's response very well might indicate something about the person's character, Frykholm said. However, it might not be something the person is conscious of, she added.

Hume's views of virtue is uniquely suited to address the issues of these more recent findings, especially because he wrote about habitual mental associations — which are often nonconscious — to be constitutive of character traits, she said.

"There is a way to hold us responsible, but a person can't say 'I can fix it on my own,'" Frykholm said. "We have to look at broader cultural factors."

Hume's writings on moral philosophy would instead remind us of the role of our environment in sensitizing us to moral actions.

"It is more than just knowing the rules and following them," Frykholm said. "I do think there's a role to play for social groups to help us as individuals."

Photo: Scottish philosopher David Hume, public domain via Allan Ramsay, Wikimedia Commons.