Apr 4, 2008

The ethics of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is often contrasted with that of David Hume (1711–1776). Hume's method of moral philosophy is experimental and empirical; Kant emphasizes the necessity of grounding morality in a priori principles. Hume says that reason is properly a “slave to the passions,” while Kant bases morality in his conception of a reason that is practical in itself. Hume identifies such feelings as benevolence and generosity as proper moral motivations; Kant sees the motive of duty—a motive that Hume usually views as a second best or fall back motive—as uniquely expressing an agent's commitment to morality and thus as conveying a special moral worth to actions. Although there are many points at which Kant's and Hume's ethics stand in opposition to each other, there are also important connections between the two. Kant shared some important assumptions about morality and motivation with Hume, and had, early in his career, been attracted and influenced by the sentimentalism of Hume and other British moralists.

My aim in this essay is not to compare Hume and Kant on all matters ethical. Instead, I intend to examine several key areas of ethics in which we can reasonably see Kant as responding to or influenced by Hume, or in which comparisons between their theories are particularly interesting. I will have more to say about Kant than Hume. I will include exposition of many of each philosopher's important arguments so that the reader can make comparisons herself.

Hume's main ethical writings are to be found in A Treatise on Human Nature (1739–40), especially books two and three, and in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Also relevant to Hume's ethics are various essays, such as “Of Suicide” (1777), parts of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).

Kant's main works on ethics, narrowly considered, are the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), which contains both “the Doctrine of Right” and “the Doctrine of Virtue.” Other works of importance to Kant's moral philosophy include the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793), and Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), in addition to student notes on lectures Kant gave on ethics and various essays on history and political philosophy, such as “Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History” (1786) and “Toward Perpetual Peace” (1795).

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