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  • Thumbnail for Qualifying Hume’s Sentimentalist Defense Against Moral Relativism
    Qualifying Hume’s Sentimentalist Defense Against Moral Relativism by Hyde, Paxton

    This essay revisits David Hume’s argument for moral sentimentalism and qualifies his solution to moral relativism. Agreeing with Hume’s empirical thesis that emotional judgments are contextually-determined, I trace his argument showing it is impossible to ground moral judgment in pure reason because reason is impartial and thus cannot choose moral values. Moral judgment therefore must be grounded in emotion. It follows that moral truth is relative to one’s subjective position because the partiality of moral judgment that enables the preference of certain moral values simultaneously makes it impossible for those judgments to be impartial and universal. Hume and other sentimentalists defend against this relativism by arguing that people who have been exposed to a diversity of thought and maintain an open-minded and empathic attitude are able to make superior moral judgments. I support this defense on the grounds that it champions freedom of expression and provides a viable framework for resolving moral disputes. At the same time, I argue that the moral relativism implied by Hume’s sentimentalism is too strong for him to claim that open-mindedness and empathy are absolute moral standards.