Garbage In, Garbage Out


e̳̳̺͕ͬ̓̑̂ͮͦͣ͒͒h̙ͦ̔͂?̅̂ ̾͗̑
"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." -David Hume

People often condemn others for using emotion as opposed to reason to make ethical determinations. Sometimes this seems justified: as in a case where someone ignores evidence that suggests their intended actions will have an outcome they'd find undesirable. I will not dispute that reason has an obvious and desirable role in predicting the consequences of our actions. I will demonstrate why emotion is necessary for determining what's desirable in the first place.

Imagine a robot placed in a field. It can't help but act logically, so what will it do? What is a reasonable way for the robot to act? It's clear that it will simply do as it's programmed and designed to do. Despite its supposed utter lack of emotion, and the necessity of its actions being dictated by a logical algorithm, it seems incapable of making reasonable choices. As is said by computer programmers: "garbage in, garbage out." Only, in this case, everything seems to be garbage.

Like the robot above, men do as dictated by an algorithm. We can't determine what we ultimately should do without simply making assumptions to that effect. We are necessarily guided by unreasonable passions. That men dispute what should be done at all, is evidence that these passions or desires aren't the same for everyone. As such, it is impossible to reasonably determine an objective set of rules that all men should follow.

The normative foundation upon which any man determines what should be done does not hold fast for all men. Ethics--all claims as to what anyone should do--are subjective.

Nobody has been able to provide an explanation of how we can determine what men should do from only facts about what is true of nature. Lets take a normative statement like "I shouldn't shoot people at random." Any sensible man will agree that such a statement is a good ethical rule. Why? Consider the following:

Premise: (A complete description of the universe.)
Conclusion: I shouldn't shoot people at random.

A description need only consist of descriptive statements. The premise above will not contain the conclusion, as the conclusion is clearly a normative statement. Thus, the statement above isn't tautological: it isn't the opposite of a contradiction. All sound statements in propositional logic are tautologies. Thus, the above statement isn't sound.

So why is it true that I shouldn't shoot people at random? Only because I feel that it is. Any attempt to logically justify the statement will come from our desire to do so. It will be born of our passions. So what, then, is the purpose of reason? David Hume figured that out back in the 18th century, and though many metaphysicians have tried, none have been able to convincingly refute him since. When pushed as to why they suspect that he may have been wrong, they simply say that they feel he is. Case in point.


Registered Member
Is that why the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Today we have misplaced reason being a slave to skewed passions. I feel it, therefore it is logically a good thing to do.

I shouldn't shoot people at random is true because you feel it is true. The same logic and reasoning is used by others who say I should shoot at people at random. I feel it is the right thing to do. It is a complete expression of my feelings, therefore it is logical that this is what I should do.

David Hume is right and he will never be wrong. People use reason to justify acts taken wholly out of passion even when those acts are completely unethical and evil. They will always behave that way, the same way another man will use reason to justify acts of selflessness and sacrifice.
Mm. What Hume says, I think, is that we have expectations about our actions - but that they aren't perfect. Therefore, in response to the empiricists, he suggested that our actions truly are governed by imperfect emotional guidance. Even if we of course can strive to make morally good actions. Which Hume describes as considered acts based on careful examination of the problem, with philosophically sound methods (or so he says, at least). While acts that are not of this sort - predictions based on class, on physical properties, or a priori truths or abilities you're assumed to be born with - are acts without consideration - and therefore genuinely evil.

So while he argues that emotion guides any action. He primarily rejects the idea that the world is so predictable that we can make categorical statements about human behaviour. He doesn't really argue that all actions are necessarily good and moral because they are based on feelings alone.


e̳̳̺͕ͬ̓̑̂ͮͦͣ͒͒h̙ͦ̔͂?̅̂ ̾͗̑
fleinn said:
He doesn't really argue that all actions are necessarily good and moral because they are based on feelings alone.
I didn't mean to imply as much. My point isn't that all actions are equal, but only that they're all equal when looking at them from a naturalistic skyhook.
I didn't mean to imply as much. My point isn't that all actions are equal, but only that they're all equal when looking at them from a naturalistic skyhook.
Right, I understand now. Good point (and one I agree with ;) ).

..It's good to see Hume has appeal in the new world as well. I wonder how much it has to do with the situation Hume was in? Beset by hegelistic historical imperatives, moral absolutism, as he were. And how much it's parallell with the backwash from the situation he was in, when science had began to prove itself, but nevertheless didn't explain everything?

..very strange. (Sorry, just thinking out loud).


Undead Intellectual
Everyone may have a different idea what may and may not be ethical, but when it comes to something like, "shooting people at random" most people will have the same thoughts.

If one doesn't find it immoral, they they'll at least be smart enough not to do/believe it because of the consequences.