Utilitarianism vs The Universal Law Formulation

The concepts between the Universal Law Formulation (ULF) and Mill’s version of Utilitarianism is not as straightforward as one would consider at first blush. Mill does not make a strictly consequentialist assessment of utilitarianism, and the universal law theory must take into account consequences when evaluating whether an action can be acceptable as a universal law. I will be examining the similarities between the two concepts, and determine whether the universal law formulation and Mill’s account of utilitarianism are in fact compatible as ethical theories.

In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant develops a deontological theory of morals which states requires one to use a priori knowledge to establish whether an action is right or wrong. This theory relies on his conception of the categorical imperative which states, “act only according to that maxim in which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant 4:421) The act of willing requires one to adhere to natural laws, the will cannot desire something that would be contrary to nature. A maxim is a subjective desire one has for a given end. According to the categorical imperative, in order for one’s action to be right, which are the only actions one should perform, their maxim must be able to be willed as a universal law. Kant argues that actions should be performed from duty, not simply in accordance with duty.

The determining factor of duty is intent, if a person performs an action that is considered right, but does so on the premise of personal gain, their intent determines that action is performed in accordance with duty rather than from duty. If an action is performed from duty, an agent will perform the act with altruistic intentions. Kant uses the example of the shopkeeper to demonstrate this premise:


It certainly conforms with duty that a shopkeeper not overcharge his inexperienced customer, and where there is much commerce, a prudent merchant actually does not do this, but keeps a fixed general price for everyone, so that a child may buy from him just as well as everyone else. (Kant 4:397)



As Kant argues in his example, a shopkeeper who chooses not to overcharge inexperienced customer, regardless of intention, is acting in accordance with duty. However, for Kant, acting in accordance with duty is not enough, therefore the shopkeeper who sets fair prices for the sake of receiving further business, is not acting properly, but the shopkeeper who sets fair prices so as to allow for fair treatment for all of his customers is acting from duty, and as such acts rightly.

There are two imperatives that Kant uses to describe actions as what an agent ought to do: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives are determined subjectively based on an agent willing a particular outcome. In order to achieve that outcome, a hypothetical imperative determines what the agent ought to do in order to achieve that particular end. Categorical imperatives are objective insofar as they are what an agent ought to do without having willed any particular end. Without having an end in mind an agent is not acting in order to achieve any particular purpose, and should therefore be performed from duty.

According to Kant, the Universal Law Formulation requires an agent’s action must only act in accordance with what the agent can will to be a universal law. (Kant 4:421) According to this principle, any action that cannot be willed as a universal law in morally impermissible, and cannot be performed from a good will at any time.  One aspect that is of importance for the ULF is that a rational agent must have free will. An agent must be rational so as to be able to rationally develop the distinction of whether or not a maxim is universalizable. They must have free will so as to be able to have done otherwise, for if they were unable to do so, Kant would not argue that they are culpable for their actions. A maxim is not universalizable if the rational agent cannot consider the action right in all cases by all agents. The intent of the action is part of the maxim and as such, narrows the scope of the action, and makes it necessary to consider more than just the consequences of the action, but also what affect the intent has on the end.

The major competing theory for Kant’s deontological theory is Utilitarianism which is first argued for by Jeremy Bentham. This theory is commonly considered consequentialist, and determines an action to be right or wrong based on whether the result of an action creates more happiness or more pain. If an action nets more happiness, the classical view of utilitarianism says that the action is morally permissible, but if an action ends up resulting in a net loss of happiness, then the action is wrong to commit. Therefore, according to utilitarianism, an agent must consider the consequences of an action before he performs it, so as to ensure that they will not end up causing more pain as a result. A problem the classical utilitarian faces is demonstrated in a thought experiment called Transplant. A doctor has five patients who all need organ transplants in order to live. One needs a heart, one needs a liver, two need kidneys, and one needs a pancreas. The doctor also has a patient who is there for a checkup, and just happens to be a match for donation. According to the classic utilitarian, the doctor has an obligation to harvest organs from the healthy patient to save the five dying patients so as to maximize happiness.

John Stuart Mill, assesses the situation differently. He presents a different version of Utilitarianism where one’s actions are not determined solely by the consequences of their actions, or at least that is what Daniel Jacobsen argues in Utilitarianism without Consequentialism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. Jacobsen explains Mill’s theory of utilitarianism is not consequentialist because Mill takes into account more than the consequences of an action, and also uses a different valuations than classic utilitarianism. Jacobsen argues that when determining right and wrong, one must make the distinction between whether an action is morally wrong or foolish. For if one causes pain, but the act is not morally wrong because it is not punishable.


“In short, the good of promoting the agent’s own happiness does not justify compulsion, and the bad of causing the agent’s unhappiness does not give others grounds to inflict punishment. Prudent action is not right action, even if it maximizes utility; and self-destructive action is not wrong action, even if there is an available alternative with better consequences. (Jacobson 189)


An act that causes harm always decreases utility, and by traditional utilitarian accounts, is not morally permissible. Jacobsen argues that Mill does not agree with this aspect of utilitarianism, but says that in order for an act to be immoral, it must be punishable. Given the fact that an agent could cause harm to themselves and decrease utility doing so, but generally would not be considered punishable by many standards, the self-harming agent is not acting in a morally impermissible way.

The differences between the classical account of utilitarianism and the commonly interpreted account of Kant’s Universal Law Formulation make the two theories incompatible. For the ULF, despite taking into consideration the consequences of an action in the universalizability of a maxim, also considers the intent of a maxim. A classic utilitarian would argue that regardless of an agent’s intent, the consequences of an action determine whether an action is right or wrong, for a well-intentioned act that causes a net decrease in utility is always wrong. Both accounts do not leave much room for interpretation, and both theories are very strict to their words. However, both theories have also been interpreted in several ways so as to allow for the two to be compatible. Andrews Reath argues that Kant’s ULF can be interpreted to allow an agent to will badly. L.W. Sumner argues that John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism takes into account the individual liberties of agents. Daniel Jacobsen argues that Mill’s utilitarianism factors intention into determination of whether or not an action is truly right or wrong. Given these various interpretations of the ULF and utilitarianism from Joh Stuart Mill’s perspective, I will argue that the two theories are compatible insofar as both, in determining the morality of an actions actually take into account the same information during their rational deliberations.

In Andrews Reath’s paper “Did Kant Hold that Rational Volition is Sub Ratione Boni?” Reath discusses aspects of the ULF that he believes demonstrates that despite a rational agent’s will being good, allows for the agent to will badly. Throughout the paper, Reath discusses varies reasons in which the common interpretation of Kant is flawed, specifically the belief that a rational agent would be unable to will badly because by being a rational agent, they take into account the goodness of an action before performing it. Reath argues that wills act in accordance to laws which, according to the ULF would suggest that rational agents would only be able to perform acts that the rational agent perceives as being a good action. However, given the fact that rational agents do not always reason perfectly, and have a bias towards seeking their own end, we can argue that through bad reasoning a rational agent can make an improper judgement about the goodness of an act.


According to the elective conception, Willkür is the capacity for choice that is independent of and floats free of Wille (in the narrow sense) in that it involves the further decision whether or not follow the judgement of practical reason. Willkür is the capacity to act from universalizable maxims, but (though it ought to follow pure practical reason) it has no constitutive aim or formal principle and thus does not operate sub ratione boni. (Reath 249)


The elective conception says that Willkür is what controls decision making, and it operates on its own accord separate from the rational analytical wille. Given the independence of the decision-making part of the will and the analytical part of the will, it is plain to see that a rational agent could make a decision based on flawed intent. The flawed intent could stem from the agent holding too high a valuation on their ends causing their actions to reflect the flawed reasoning behind their actions. The rational agent could also act contrary to what the rational Wille determines to be right resulting in an agent performing bad acts from the Willkür which would be contrary to the idea that an agent always performs the actions they know to be right.

In “Mill’s Theory of Rights” by L.W. Sumner, Sumner writes about Mill’s Utilitarian ideas that require one to take into account the individual liberties that each rational agent has by nature. Sumner suggests that Utilitarianism, at least from Mill’s perspective, must take into account people’s rights when determining whether an action is right or wrong because by violating a person’s rights, utility is harmed. The harm that stems from violating peoples’ right has a greater impact that on the individual who had their rights violated, but also reaches to others because they perceive the harm that they could themselves receive in regards to not having their rights acknowledged.


This complex strategy thus consists of asset of moral rules with thresholds above which direct appeal to utility is called for. The justification for this indirect decision procedure is itself utilitarian: In the long run its adoption will have better consequences than would a direct procedure. However, there is no guarantee that it will lead agents to do the best. -i.e., the right – thing on every occasion. On the contrary, it will sometimes require agents to conform to a rule even when defection would be utility maximizing. (Sumner 194)


Sumner argues that the long-term effects of respecting an individual’s rights will maximize utility better than the act-utilitarian belief that each action must be considered on a case by case basis. By analyzing each case before acting, act-utilitarians do not consider the consequences of anything beyond the current case they analyze. By not considering long-term utility as part of their analysis, act-utilitarians may often cause a net loss of pleasure which, at least according to rule-utilitarians, would be counter intuitive based on the premise of utilitarianism that is to maximize utility.

Daniel Jacobson explains Mill’s Utilitarianism in a manner that is much more compatible with deontological accounts of ethics insofar as one must take into account the intentions and punishability of an action before deciding whether it is right or wrong in his paper “Utilitarianism without Consequentialism.”  In order for someone to judge an act as morally wrong they must consider the act as having harmed utility (which is where the utilitarian aspect of his theory comes from), but also must justify that the action is subject to punishment.


Although Mill’s sanction-based moral theory is a form of indirect utilitarianism, his sentimentalist metaethics differentiates the view from ordinary rule-utilitarianism because the moral sentiments distinguish the moral realm from the prudential and the aesthetic. In short (and too crudely): things we cannot feel guilty about doing, or resent other people for doing, cannot be wrong—though they may be amenable to other forms of criticism. (Jacobson 185)


According to Jacobson, if an action would not cause an agent to feel guilt, or to seek sanctions against another individual based on the action not being ill intentioned or causing harm to uninvolved party, then the action cannot be considered wrong. This varies from the common interpretation of utilitarianism because often utilitarians believe that if an act, regardless of intention or who the action hurts, results in a diminishing of utility, the action is wrong. By common utilitarian standards, that are unwavering, an agent who hurts themselves accidentally acted wrongly. However, no one would seek sanctions against that individual because they did not seek to cause anyone harm, nor did was his pain malicious in any way. Jacobson argues that this distinction is important for Mill because it causes us to make decisions that are best suited for long-term utility rather than case by case utility.

The accounts of utilitarianism given by both Sumner and Jacobson regard Mill as a rule-utilitarian who seeks to promote individual liberty and long-term utility maximization. Taking this into account with Reath’s argument for a rational agent being able to act against what is always right makes the two conceptions of the ULF and utilitarianism at least partially compatible. Given Mill’s considerations of intent, or at least punishability, of an action one can see that his view is able to work alongside Kant’s ULF insofar as Mill would consider it important for an agent to reason well in order act only from actions that would properly value the liberties of other individuals. By considering the rights of others, an agent would be considering whether the intent of his actions were compatible with respecting the rights of others which is similar to aspects of the ULF needing to consider whether a maxim is able to be willed as a universal law. For if an action would violate the rights of others, a rational agent would therefore not be able to will that the maxim be a universal law, and therefore the action is wrong. Jacobson would necessarily agree with this sentiment given the fact that violating the rights of an agent, assuming the agent were not themselves, would be subject to punishment, and as such would be wrong. By taking into account the punishability, one must consider the intent of an action which also falls in line with the maxim principle of the ULF.



Works Cited

Jacobson, Daniel. 2008. “Utilitarianism without Consequentialism: The Case of John Stuart Mill.” Philosophical Review 159-191.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2001. Print.

Reath, Andrews. 2014. Did Kant Hold that Rational Volition is Sub Ratione Boni.

Sumner, L. W. n.d. Mill’s Theory of Rights.



Does Hume’s Political Analysis Withstand the Test of Time?

In book 3 of Hume’s Treatise of Human Understanding, he talks about people’s motivation for action. I will be focusing primarily on section 10 of book 3 in which Hume discusses the objects of allegiance, or in other words, why we pledge our allegiance to a specific leader of governing body. In order for a government to rule effectively, they need to maintain the control of the population. Hume argues that the best way to do so is for the governing body, which he refers to as the prince, to win the allegiance of those who they govern. Hume gives five distinct reasons for which people pledge their allegiance to a governing body, which will be discussed later, but I will be assessing the legitimacy of his claims in the world today, which is, needless to say, very different from when Hume wrote his Treatise.

David Hume takes a contractarian approach to his understanding of government, society, and political philosophy. In his analysis, he is influenced by aspects of both John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government as well as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hume says,


’Tis no less certain, that ‘tis impossible for men to consult their interest in so effectual a manner, as by an universal and inflexible observance of the rules of justice, by which alone they can preserve society, and keep themselves from falling into that wretched and savage condition that is commonly represented as the state of nature. (Hume


Hume maintains a similar belief regarding the state of nature as Hobbes in that in the state of nature, life is of a lesser condition than by society. He supports this belief with the fact that people do not regard other’s interests equally to their own, and without a ruling body to maintain justice, there would be no justice amongst men. People, do however, hold moral beliefs of things that are considered good, and value justice even in the state of nature, there just simply is no institution in place to protect individuals from those who do not value the rights of others. Hume also shares a less pessimistic view with John Locke, at least insofar as people have natural rights.


“When men have once perceiv’d the necessity of government to maintain peace, and execute justice, they wou’d naturally assemble together, wou’d choose magistrates, determine their power, and promise them obedience. As a promise is suppos’d to be a bond or security already in use, and attended with a moral obligation, ‘tis to be the original sanction of government and as the source of the first obligation of obedience.” (Hume



As is stated in this quote, Hume argues that the purpose of creating a government to rule over people is for the purpose of ensuring peace within a society and enforcing justice. Hume believes that given people’s passions towards agreeableness or favorableness, they are able to make moral distinctions. Given those distinctions, those whom the people put in charge (contractually) are to uphold the core values of the civil societies. In return for their role in enforcing justice, the people in return promise to remain obedient to their governors.

The first source of allegiance, according to Hume, originates in the original contract from the state of nature. “The first of those principles I shall take notice of, as a foundation of the right of magistry, is that which gives authority to almost all the establish’d governments of the world: I mean long possession in any one form of government or the succession of princes.” (Hume Per long possession one comes to hold power via usurpation, and over time the taboo that is associated with the usurpation of power fades causing the governance of the usurper becomes custom and widely accepted within a society. Hume argues that the length of time to legitimize one’s claim to obedience differs based on comparisons we draw. Our sense of morality does not justify the actions of a government who takes power immediately at the time allegiance changes, for we consider their actions to be immoral. However, as we grow accustomed to the rule of new leadership, generations considerations change and accept the government in place as having a legitimate ethical claim to their obedience. Long possession then does not draw from a specific length of time; but depends upon how one comes to power, and similarity of that to other existing governments.

Hume’s second claim to obedience comes from the lack of a standing government having taken control via long possession he calls this present possession. “When there is no form of government establish’d by long possession the present possession is sufficient to supply its place, and may be regarded as the second source of all public authority.” (Hume Like long possession, present possession stems from the common interest in justice, which is believed to not take place within the confines on the long-standing government. At the abandonment of those in control via long possession a new leader must take control. This new leader has earned the obedience of society having gained power through an ethical means, and the people of the nation don’t bother to question the legitimacy to their government’s claim to power. Hume says, “No maxim is more comfortable, both to prudence and to morals, thn to submit quietly to the government…” (Hume 3.2.10. 7) It is more comfortable to accept those in power, who are causing no harm to citizens, than to ensure the government’s origin stems from a legitimate source.

The third source of allegiance is the forceful taking of power. “The right of conquest may be consider’d as the third source of the title of sovereigns.” (Hume According to Hume, if one comes to power through force, and is viewed as a superior force, they have a claim to obedience from the people living within the nation they conquer. So long as the conquering force is the sovereign of a different nation, they will be looked on with admirability rather than detestation because the act will be considered honorable. However, if a rebel force were to take control, they would not have a rightful claim to power because they would be considered unfavorably given their lack of right to obtain power.

Succession is the fourth means in which a person can come to obtain the allegiance of a nation.


“When neither long possession, nor present possession, nor conquest take place, as when the first sovereign, who founded any monarchy, dies; in that case, the right of succession naturally prevails in their stead, and men are commonly induc’d to place the son of their late monarch on the throne, and suppose him to inherit his father’s authority.” (Hume


When a monarch who has come to power through any of the first four sources of allegiance comes to die, the next monarch in line to obtain power comes from the means of succession determined by the original monarch. Hume claims that frequently the case is that the son of a late monarch resumes the role of king, however, there are instances when a king chooses a different successor. The monarch’s successor has a legitimate claim to the obedience of the nation, and according to Hume, power transfers from the old monarch to the new.

The final way a government can legitimately obtain power is through a legislation’s creation of executive office. “This leads us to the fifth source of authority, viz. positive laws; when the legislature establishes a certain form of government and succession of princes.” (Hume The legislature that establishes the new leader and governance must come to exist from one of the four prior sources of allegiance. Hume argues that positive laws have a less legitimate claim to obedience because those who lived in a society are less apt to accept the new form of government and as such will not adhere to the new laws.

Hume makes five distinctions about how monarchs come to obtain power, and gives legitimacy to each. In order to determine whether his claims continue to remain valid in society today, we must first determine if his arguments are as distinct as he writes them to be. His claims for short and long possession seem to be similar insofar as the difference relies on the time in which a government stands. Using time as a distinction to determine the legitimacy of a government does not seem to be a valid distinction. If a nation decides to follow a leader that comes to power through an original contract, and said government has held power for a thousand years, the government has earned the allegiance of the people, and they have created a custom in which they will continue to follow. However, the same can be said for a nation that follows a leader that comes to power through an original contract, but has only held power for a century. The longer lasting government was at one point had the same exact circumstance as the latter. Given the lack of genuine distinction between present and long possession governments, Hume’s claim is flawed. Hume’s third source would seem to be just a means in which to establish a present possession government, and his fourth source is a means to take a present possession government and make it a long possession government. The distinctions made are essentially simply parts of a whole picture.

However, Hume’s fifth source for allegiance seems to hold validity in the world today, more so than that of the other four. Positive law, would be source in which the government of the United States was established. The problem with my claim according to Hume would lie in the fact that the government established for the United States was not established on the grounds determined by Hume to be legitimate sources of allegiance. If Hume was right in how obedience came to be, early U.S. citizens would have looked upon the revolution with scorn given the fact that it formed through the rebellion against a long possession government. The government of the United States has however developed into its own long possession government, at least in comparison with many of the standing governments globally. If a country can build a long standing government from the rebellion of commoners against a long standing monarch, Hume’s theory for the source of obedience does not stand up against the test of time. There are aspects of government that we continue to observe in societies today; specifically that there is greater comfort in quietly accepting the rule of government than in fighting for what should be considered justice.





Hobbes, Thomas, and E. M. Curley. Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1994.

Hume, David, David Fate. Norton, and Mary J. Norton. A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Locke, John, and C. B. Macpherson. Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1980.

When Should a Fideist Teach Theology

In David Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” Hume has three characters discuss the existence of God, and the manner in which one knows a deity exists, and also characteristics of God’s being. Cleanthes, who’s pupil narrates the story, uses the argument by design to demonstrate an empiricist argument for God’s existence. This argument also lends itself to the belief that God has a mind similar to man’s and that is demonstrated by the intelligently designed universe and the way it resembles a machine which is made up of many smaller machines. Demea uses a fideistic argument saying that one can discover God’s existence by using proper rationalization. Philo makes a skeptical argument to show that God’s existence can’t be proven.

Part I of the “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” begins with a discussion of how Demea has decided to educate his children as a comparison to that which Cleanthes uses for Pamphilus. Demea has decided to follow the advice of an undisclosed ancient philosopher and taught his children many sciences before teaching them theology. Hume shows Demea’s educational method in the following quote:

The method I follow in their education is founded on the saying of an ancient, ‘That students of philosophy ought first to learn logics, the ethics, next physics, last of all the nature of the gods.” This science of natural theology, according to him, being most profound and abstruse of any, required the matures judgement in its students; and none but a mind enriched with all the other sciences can safely be entrusted with it. (Hume 1998, 3)


Philo questions Demea’s method of education citing a concern that Demea’s children could simply reject religion because they had not been introduced to it until they have had a chance to develop an understanding of the other sciences, which, according to Philo could be a basis for doubting theology. However Demea goes on the explain:

“ít is only as a science, replied Demea, subjected to human reasoning and disputation, that I postpone the study of natural theology. To season their minds with early piety is my chief care; and by continual precept and instruction I hope too, by example, I imprint on their tender minds an habitual reverence for all the principles of religion. While they pass through every other science, I still remark on the uncertainty of each part…” (Hume 1998, 3)


Demea, despite not teaching his children about theology until they have explored the other sciences, does however, impart the principle of piety upon them so as to prepare them for the subject before being introduced to it. While teaching each other science, Demea also makes sure to cause his children to doubt the validity of the subject so as to make it easier to teach the theology as being the one true science in the world. For in the apparent weaknesses of each of  the other sciences that Demea teaches his children, he leaves a gap that will be filled once they are taught the lessons of theology.

Given the approach Demea uses to school his children, it is interesting that h decides to follow this ancient’s advice at all. For if one of his children were to study the subjects more properly than Demea had intended, he may find that the mysteries he left to be solved by theology could perhaps be determined by his children if not taken at the face value they are taught. However, the fact that Demea does in fact leave these gaps in the education of his children, in order to strengthen the resolve of the lessons he plans to teach in theology, does make sense insofar as he makes the point for human error being the cause of any fallaciousness of the other sciences. Given Demea’s belief that God can be understood through rationalization, he creates an environment where this makes the most sense. A Priori knowledge must come from somewhere, and if not through means explained in the sciences, then Demea demonstrates that God is the source of all knowledge and understanding which creates a base for understanding of logic, ethics, and the like.

I will be exploring the idea of what the benefit would be to teaching theology last, as a supplement (or basis of) logic, ethics, and physics. I will be look to for the answer to whether, without Demea’s piety being taught as the basis of education, if theology would be the natural underlying principle of the sciences, or if by studying each subject as its own, without a dependency on theology would cause one to believe differently? Is Demea’s approach the most beneficial method for teaching one’s students the true nature of piety, or does he do them a disservice? Would theology be better being taught as a first subject rather than last if it is the be the basis of each other science?

The first subject that Demea elects to teach his children is logic. Given that in many circumstances, especially from those with rationalist intuitions, it is commonly believe that logic is the basis of knowledge, it makes perfect sense to begin by teaching one the basics of formal logic. For by lerning logic, one is able to better understand arguments that are being made, and discover fallacies in invalid arguments. Having a basic understanding of logic enables one to study other fields of study with more confidence as they learn, which as a result can cause one to spend less time second guessing themselves, and more time applying the knowledge they have to developing solutions to other problems they may encounter.

Demea’s teaching logic, if taught without the focus on piety (which one could argue is an improper method), could lead to the development of a skeptical understanding of theology when it is finally taught. The lessons learned in logic could be used in the study of theology to determine that faith is an invalid base for understanding, and as a result cannot be a legitimate basis for religious belief.

After Demea teaches his children logic, he has them learn ethics. Learning logic before ethics is reasonable because it helps one understand the strength of arguments being made for different beliefs in the field of ethics. It allows one to find fault with fallacious ideas, and perhaps develop that problematic feature of an idea into a more well designed argument for ethical belief. Gaining insight into ethics is important and should be taught early so as to ensure that people understand what behaviors are acceptable, and how to determine if they are acting in a manner that is suitable in society. Also, by having one develop an understanding of ethics, one is better prepared to defend their beliefs against those who call them into question, because through the study of ethics, one is able to better understand why they believe actions are right or wrong, not just that they are.

However, like logic, ethics could be better served having had prior knowledge of theology given the fact that it can be said that theology is the cause of ethics. For without religion, would people have developed a notion of right or wrong at all, or is the basis of right and wrong developed as a way to appease the deities that early civilizations worshipped. Those ethical customers then could have been passed along and developed further for each religion.

Physics is the third subject that Demea teaches his children after logic and ethics. The reasoning for this being third makes sense simply in that logic can be used a s a basis for understanding other subjects, and ethics has a practical application within a society. Physics is of also an important subject, however, ethics does seem to hold a more important place in societal function. Understanding the natural world could certainly be a good basis for developing an understanding of God, as the natural religionist would certainly argue that physics is the basis for an empirical understanding of God and God’s nature. It does therefore make sense to learn of physics before studying theology, because by having an understanding of physics can cause one to question how things have come to be.

However, like every subject mentioned before, having a working understanding of theology could certainly benefit one in their study of physics. Knowledge of God would make for a strong basis for where to start one’s search for answers in physics. Having that sold basis on which to develop knowledge is always a supplement for one’s learning.

It would seem that the benefits of studying theology after the other sciences has its merit, however, from the viewpoint of a fideism it would perhaps be most beneficial to study the other sciences after having a working knowledge of theology. For once one understands the basic principles of theology they will better understand the other sciences. The greater mysteries of theology don’t necessarily have to be discovered in the introduction of the subject, but like with the teaching style already employed by Demea, can be further explored as each new science is introduced. However, by introducing theology early, one wouldn’t have to tiptoe around, and discredit each science as the student learns it, which would ultimately create a stronger base of knowledge.





Hume, David. 1998. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.


Impressions, Ideas, and Dispositions


Are Hume’s Explanation of Ideas and Impressions Metaphysical?

In seeking for phenomena to prove this proposition, I find only those of two kinds; but in each kind the phenomena are obvious, numerous, and conclusive. I first make myself certain, by a new review, of what I have already asserted, that every simple impression is attended with a corresponding idea, and every simple idea with a correspondent impression. With this constant conjunction of resembling perceptions I immediately conclude, that there is a great connexion betwixt our correspondent impressions and ideas, and that the existence of the one has a considerable influence on the other, Such a constant conjunction, in such an infinite number of instances, can never arise from chance; but clearly proves a dependence of the impressions on the ideas, or of the ideas on the impressions.  (Hume 9)

I will be focusing primarily on what Hume says about impressions and ideas in Book 1 Part 1 Section 1 of his A Treatise of Human Nature.  Hume begins his Treatise by discussing aspects of knowledge in which he makes clear that he is an empiricist and believes that knowledge comes from experience. He does this though the concepts (and distinctions) between Ideas and Impressions. He argues that when one perceives, specifically in regards to sight and sound, they will experience an Impression. These impressions leave a lasting impact on the individual, and as a result, ideas are formed. These ideas, by my understanding and interpretation, are what each person’s memories and imagination are made up of. Any thought a person has is made up of things (events, objects, sounds; perceptions) that the person has experienced, and are formed either through a representative means or through a means that combines the representations of multiple ideas to form the conception of a single idea. Hume argues that there is a significant connection between ideas and impressions so much so as to believe that they are the basis of all human knowledge.

Hume makes the distinction between complex and simple impressions and ideas. “I venture to affirm, that the rule here holds without any exception, and that every simple idea has a simple impression, which resembles it; and every simple impression, a correspondent idea. That idea of red, which we form in the dark and that impression, which strikes our eyes in the sun-shine, differ only in degree, not in nature.” (Hume 8) Simple impressions and ideas have a direct resemblance in each other, and when the resemblance differs, it is in degree only. Simple impressions therefore are what we use to develop knowledge because they are interpreted easily and when becoming an idea, they remain wholly representative of what they develop from. “I observe that many of our complex ideas never had impressions, that corresponded to them, and many of our complex impressions never are exactly copy’d in ideas. I can imagine to myself such a city as New Jerusalem, whose pavement is gold and walls are rubies, tho’ I never saw any such. I have seen Paris, but I shall affirm I can form such an idea of that city, as will perfectly represent all its streets and houses in their real and just proportions?” (Hume 8) Hume explains ideas in a manner that distinguishes them as differing by more than simply degree, but also by nature from their impressions. One’s idea of an object varies further than the shade or ferocity in which it was first impressed upon them; rather the object, of a complex idea, does not necessarily have a strict representation at all. A complex idea is formed from a number of simple ideas that merge into a more complex unrepresentented object. Just as complex ideas can form from a variety of simple impressions, complex impressions are misrepresented when forming simple ideas. Complex impressions still form ideas; they are just remembered differently than they are perceived. The impression may have too many intricacies, or the agent may be in a state that alters their ability to perceive correctly, which would ultimately alter the ideas that they form. These impressions could form multiple ideas, or simply form incorrect ideas which would explain how different people remember events (they each attended) differently.

The field of metaphysics has made great strides from the time Hume wrote his treatise. With the current emphasis lying in the concept of dispositions, one can make a connection between Hume’s explanation of ideas and impressions, and the field of metaphysics. Between his writing personifying the experience of impressions, and one’s subconscious to draw out ideas from impressions, the conception of Hume’s ideas and impressions has a very physical implication to it. Hume explains impressions as a physical experience, one that would be experienced if an agent held the dispositions necessary to be impressed upon by it.

Understanding Hume’s impressions and ideas as metaphysical will alter how one understands his empirical view, and the necessity for perception in the pursuit of knowledge. Hume explains, throughout the first section of Book 1, that one must perceive in order to learn anything, and if one’s perceptions are cut off, they can clearly not have an understanding of that which they learn through those perceptive traits. This belief relies heavily on the physical aspect of understanding, for if one would lose their sight, and as such their access to visual aspects of learning, they would not be able to properly understand the details of the physical world. This lack of understanding would have a profound effect on how we perceive the world. For if Hume’s ideas and impressions are in fact a metaphysical phenomenon, and other fields of study were to recognize these aspects of understanding, then we could interpret Hume from a less psychological standpoint, and we could make strides towards developing a way for those with perceptual handicaps to gain access to the same knowledge as those without.

Every one of himself will readily perceive the difference betwixt feeling and thinking. The common degrees of these are easily distinguish’d; tho it is not impossible but in particular instances they may be very nearly approach to each other. Thus in sleep, in a fever, in madness, or in any very violent emotions of soul, our ideas may approach to our impressions: As on the other hand, it sometimes happens, our impressions are so faint and so low, that we cannot distinguish them from our ideas. (Hume 7)

Hume argues that the difference between impression and ideas is, generally speaking, easy to distinguish the difference between. However, he does acknowledge that there are exceptions, and goes on to cite examples such as violent emotions. The fact that the difference between ideas and impressions would suggest, to mem at least, that perhaps there isn’t such a clear cut difference between the two. Hume, in recognizing the exceptions, suggests that when one perceives an impression in an altered state, they are unable to process the information clearly. This is the case because the agent’s faculties are not working properly. Like a handicapped person, these impressions get misconstrued and processed incorrectly. If impressions weren’t metaphysical phenomena, they would be more difficult to misinterpret perceptually. For when one is in a rage, their bodily faculties are altered, this alteration affects the way that sense perceptions receive information, and any information that is not processed physically would be less affected by the changes in bodily functions. “Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we name impressions” (Hume 7) It seems that Hume considers perceiving to be a very first hand, very physical experience. His word usage suggests that when an agent experiences an impression, they experience very intensely, they absorb the knowledge enough that it creates a lasting effect and creates an idea.

These ideas, having forced their way into the consciousness of an agent through impressions, effect the agent’s dispositions. The more an agent learns, the more dispositions they will obtain, and the more dispositions an agent obtains, the more they will change who they are, and their interactions to the world, and the way they perceive it. This alteration to perceptions however, does not cause a physical change to the agent’s sense perceptions, which would mean that impressions are still processed in the same manner. However, despite the manner in which the impressions are perceived remaining the same, the ideas formed from the impressions could change insofar as the agent has more information about their perceptions given the ideas they have formed from prior experiences.

I would argue that the very manner in which an agent comes to be impressed upon is, in itself, dispositional. For those with sight are disposed to see when their eyes are open, but those who lack sight, do not share that disposition and therefore cannot experience the same impressions or form the same ideas. Similarly, a deaf person does not share the disposition to hear with a person who can, however, they are more disposed to feel the vibrations caused by sound. In this way, each agent would experience different impressions given their disposition to experience different perceptions.

Commentary on Akrasia

   Jessica Moss uses the paper Akrasia and Perceptual illusion  to explain Aristotle’s view of Akrasia (Weakness of Will). She uses material across Aristotle’s works: de Anima, de Divinatione per Somnum, de Memoria, de Motu Animalium, de Insomniis, Eudemian Ethics, Nicomachean Ethics, Physics, and Rhetoric and as a result she is able to compile a strong assessment of what Aristotle means when he refers to Akrasia. I, however, will write primarily about her argument in section 4, in which she focuses primarily on what Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics Chapter VII Section 3 given that it is the only work with which I am familiar.

    Moss begins section 4 by quoting Socrates belief that an individual cannot knowingly act in a manner that runs contrary to their own interests. However, Aristotle breaks the question down and makes several distinctions about what is meant by “Knowing.” An example is made that “one may act against the dictates of knowledge one is not presently exercising.” (Moss 140) and Moss goes on to use an example of a person not eating a morsel of dry food, despite it being good for them to do so. However through this distinction, Moss explains, is not Akrasia because there is no inner struggle about what to do. The agent simply lacks the knowledge that the eating the morsel is actually in their best interest.

    Next, Moss explains that an individual that is Mad, drunk, or asleep can be akratic because they are subject to a pathos that alters their ability to accurately use their knowledge. The struggle comes from the fact that, if their faculties were working properly, they would have the knowledge of what is right and wrong, and would, assuming all other conditions were “right” the agent would make the choice that works most heavily in their favor. But as Moss says, “While under the influence the pathos they are literally unable to exercise their knowledge.” (Moss 141) I would argue, then that despite being under the influence of the pathos, that would make the action not applicable to akrasia based on the fact that an akratic action (according to statements made earlier in the section) require one to have an inner struggle. The influence of the pathos on decision making, if it renders the agent completely unable to reason logically against an action, would suggest that the will is not so much weak, as it is ignorant.

    An action can also be a result of akrasia if it comes from an agent that speaks knowledge on a basis that they cannot comprehend. I agree with this point that Moss makes because being able to ignorantly speak knowledge is a symptom of a weak will insofar as the agent has not willed themselves to gain the appropriate knowledge so as to become familiar with that which they speak. Subjecting oneself to a state of not truly knowing what one is saying, provides enough evidence to proclaim an agent akratic. For if they had a strong will, they would be certain of their knowledge and not speak outside of their means intellectually. Moss’s argument differs from mine in that she argues that one’s ignorance in this only results from akrasia if it stems from a “strong bodily pathos” (Moss 142) However, I maintain the belief that if a pathos causes akrasia, it is not truly akratic. For akrasia, by my understanding prevents one from being at conflict with oneself, which was the basis for denying that a person that lacks knowledge of what is best will not do what is best from akrasia.

    I find Moss’s next argument to be the most appealing, for in her explanation, the inner struggle is apparent, and there seems to be no pathos to cause the agent to remain ignorant to their best interests. “But there is something else that ‘happens to be present’ in her, and appetite, and as we find out a few lines below, ‘the appetite is opposed […] to the correct logos’” (Moss 143) According to this line of argument, the appetite is opposed to the (correct) logos, which causes an inner struggle outside the presence of a pathos. When one’s appetite is contradictory to one’s correct logos, they find themselves deciding between what will better serve them, and what will better serve their appetite. By choosing to follow one’s appetite, they make a decision based on their motivational state, which is at odds (in this example) with their cognitive state. Moss explains that these states are actually pairs of states in that they are rational as well as motivational or cognitive. By making the point that each of the states are in fact rational as well, Moss makes it clear that the agent knows, at a cognitive level, that the decision they are making is either better for them or worse.

    I do confess that as I review this chapter that perhaps I misunderstand what pathos actually is, and in doing so I would misunderstand the arguments being made. However, in in my acknowledgement of this, I find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that there are cases in which one’s ignorance still causes a conflict within themselves. According to my intuition conflict requires a disagreement which is prevented by the pathos in the arguments made by Moss.

Fall 2016

So, I have decided that as this semester progresses, and I delve further into my philosophical inquiries, that I will periodically (or frequently) need to keep track of my ideas. If I wish to pursue a graduate degree, this may end up being a hugely valuable tool for keeping track of my thoughts, opinions, and stances. And the journey begins.