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Professor examines Hume's writings on how morality applies to specific people

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

LAWRENCE — Oftentimes conversations about what morality requires of people or the right thing to do center around generic or uniform rules. People tend to see these decisions in black-and-white terms.

However, a University of Kansas researcher says we can get guidance from the work of 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, especially on how questions of morality apply to specific people.

"What I draw out from Hume is that when we're talking about what it means to be a virtuous person and do the right thing, we have to be talking about who the person in question is," said Erin Frykholm, assistant professor of philosophy. "Someone who is a public leader, for example, has very different kinds of responsibilities that do play into their moral requirements than someone who, say, is more out of the public eye."

Frykholm authored two recent essays on Hume's philosophy of virtue ethic in the journal Philosophical Studies and the Pacific Philosophy Quarterly.

The idea of particulars in philosophy claims that how people know what is right to do or what they should do requires them to look at a specific situation, she said. This line of thought makes sense as to why leaders or public figures often receive criticism or ridicule for things that no one likely would care as much about to a person who isn't famous, such as most sex scandals involving politicians.

"This is a tricky situation in that someone in a position like that has a variety of responsibilities to a large number of people, and it's harder to draw a line around something that says 'oh, this just affects his personal life,' when you stand in that kind of position," Frykholm said, "because this person actually directly affects so many people's lives."

Presidents or leaders of nations often have to make decisions touch such a broad range of issues, but they also as individuals have responsibilities to their own families, for example.

"If we ask ourselves if it is wrong to kill our own child, we'd like to say 'yes, absolutely.' But in Greek mythology should Agamemnon have killed Iphigenia in order to give his fleet the chance to take on Troy? That's at least worth debating," Frykholm said. "What you do in any one of those domains might conflict with what you might do if you were just considering another area. What you might do in the interests of national security versus what you might do in global humanitarian efforts could be two very different things, and I don't think there's a clear prioritization or hierarchy of those demands."

She said her research on Hume has sought to establish the idea of not thinking about moral requirements or obligations in isolation.

"When we're talking about moral requirements or obligations, we shouldn't view ourselves in isolation as some kind of abstract moral agent," Frykholm said. "We really have to view ourselves as the people we are in the positions that we are in. I think that emphasizes importantly the extent to which we have various sets of people who depend on us or are influenced by us in various ways that require us to think of ourselves as members of these communities."

Her work also addresses the idea that morality questions aren't often straightforward or prescriptive.

"It is just more complicated than that," Frykholm said. "It's not that there aren't answers, but the answers are much more nuanced and require a little bit more careful attention."

Image: "The Sacrifice of Iphigenia," Leonaert Bramer, 1623. Via WikiCommons.