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A “sifting humour”

Musing on his colliding billiard balls, Hume writes,

Such is the influence of custom, that, where it is strongest, it not only covers our natural ignorance, but even conceals itself, and seems not to take place, merely because it is found in the highest degree. —An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Sec. IV, Part I.

Something reminiscent of this occurs in moral consciousness: so geared we are to action and providing information as to motivations for it that we fail to see that we rarely if ever know what they really are. On the surface, this ought to be the easiest thing to determine. And indeed for the superficial social and legal purposes the enquiry typically serves it may be. We are supposed to know, better than anything we might know about the external world, why we act, surely. Others can only infer. We have inside information. But when the stakes are highest and complete certainty demanded because our moral worthiness and that of our acts are called into question and anything less that perfect transparency is inadequate, consciousness begins to undermine rapidly its claim to know… Because of Kant’s insistence on knowledge of inner states, this haunts his moral theory in particular. Though its dynamic is different, it is a scandal in his ethics analogous to the problem of induction for the empiricist. Where a rabid strain of what Hume called a “sifting humour” [Sec. IV, Part II] may be ignored in epistemology (and usually is), it bears, in Kantian ethics, an unrelenting normative urgency.

Posted by luno in Moral Consciousness, epistemology, Deontology, Hume, Kant, Moral Theory (Saturday October 15, 2005 at 1:28 pm)
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