Comments on 'Hume's Master Argument'

In Hume on Is and Ought. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan. pp. 128-142 (2010)
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This is a commentary on Adrian Heathcote’s interesting paper ‘Hume’s Master Argument’. Heathcote contends that No-Ought-From-Is is primarily a logical thesis, a ban on Is/Ought inferences which Hume derives from the logic of Ockham. NOFI is thus a variation on what Heathcote calls ‘Hume’s Master Argument’, which he also deploys to prove that conclusions about the future (and therefore a-temporal generalizations) cannot be derived by reason from premises about the past, and that conclusions about external objects or other minds cannot be derived by reason from premises about impressions. Heathcote raises an important question. Having (apparently) argued that our inductive inferences are not justified by reason, Hume puts them down to Custom, and seems to suggest that we OUGHT to indulge this propensity but NOt the superstitious propensities that lead to religious belief. (Query: Why is it right to indulge one non-rational propensity but not the others?) Finally Heathcote argues that just as there are valid, but not formally valid, arguments taking us from claims about inferential relations to claims about what we ought to believe, so there may be valid, but not formally valid, arguments taking us from factual claims about some situation to claims about what we ought to do. I reply that Hume does indeed have a Master Argument and that it does rely on logical principles but not on the logic of Ockham which had been largely forgotten by Hume’s day. Instead Hume relies on the idea widely believed in the 18th Century and taught to Hume at Edinburgh by his logic Professor Colin Drummond, that in a logically valid argument the conclusion is contained in the premises. I reconstruct Hume’s Master Argument using this principle. I draw a careful distinction between two theses: 1) that we cannot get from non-moral premises to moral conclusions with the aid of logic alone and 2) that we cannot get from non-moral premises to moral conclusions with aid of analytic bridge principles. Hume believed the first but not the second. What then is the role of NOFI in the larger argument of the Treatise? To show that the truths of ethics cannot be derived via logic from self-evident truths of some other kind and thus that they are not demonstrable. How can we make sense of Hume’s apparent belief that it is sometimes right to transcend reason and sometimes not? In the case of Custom, we live in a world governed by causal regularities, and, in such a world, induction is in fact a fairly reliable belief-forming mechanism. Thus a suitably qualified spectator (one aware of the kind of world we live in) would tend to approve of indulging it, even if it cannot be justified by reason. However, our superstitious propensities are (and can be known to be) unreliable, since they produce different and inconsistent results in different people. Thus it is it is wrong (something a suitably qualified spectator would disapprove of) to indulge the faculty of Superstition. I also take issue with Heathcote’s penchant for valid, but not formally valid, inferences. I supply the missing premises for Heathcote’s Is/Ought inferences and argue that they are either not true or not necessary

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Charles R. Pigden
University of Otago


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