THE GREAT GUIDE: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well

Julian Baggini

ISBN 978-0-691-20543-4  Princeton  £20.

 reviewed by Alan Dent

Hume was a racist who expressed the view  coloured people must be inferior as they produced collectively no great civilisations nor individually any great intellectual accomplishments. He was upbraided for his sloppy thinking in this regard by his contemporary James Beattie, who unfortunately, in a weighty tome, dismissed the entirety of his work. It’s worth bearing this bad mistake and poor thinking by Hume in mind as it illustrates two of his cautions: avoid extremes and stick to the evidence, and don’t slavishly accept the ideas of even the best thinkers.  

Though he wrongly thought white people superior, he would never have advocated cruelty or exploitation of their putative inferiors. On the contrary, it’s probable, had he elaborated ideas about how white people should behave, he’d have exhorted them to kindness towards those less fortunate. Hume made a mistake in thinking but he had nothing of the KKK or the EDL about him. He recognised that our emotions are a “great guide” and that human sympathy is universal. Logic, Hume spotted, tells us nothing about how the world functions. This is part of what makes him so distinct from many philosophers. In a sense, he dispenses with philosophy and plumps instead for thinking. As Baggini says, he cut philosophy down to size in the Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740) by insisting on the limits of human understanding. His effort was always to stay within the limits nature has prescribed. No point railing against the facts. We haven’t been granted total lucidity and it does violence to our nature to pretend we have. Hume is the enemy of hubris. What might he make of those who suggest we should colonise other planets when we have finally made this one uninhabitable? Perhaps he would have seen it as an example of the unfortunate human inclination to believe our possibilities are endless. 

Hume identified two fundamental forms of thinking: about ideas and about facts. The first is purely abstract, the second requires experience. All Ps are Qs but not all Qs are Ps can be grasped without any experience of the world;  all apples are fruit but not all fruit is apples requires knowing what an apple is, and that can’t be done purely abstractly. Anyone who has sat in a philosophy seminar while the tutor asks how we can know the table our files rest on exists, will find Hume congenial. There can be no abstract, absolute certainty about the world of reality we inhabit; we have to accept experience and to begin our thinking from it. 

Ethics, in Hume’s conception, is a matter of what is agreeable or useful to ourselves and others. Obviously, that implies we must avoid absolutes. Everything is a matter of degree. Hume roots ethics in circumstance, the only sensible procedure. Interestingly, that makes him dissolve the distinction between voluntary and involuntary vice or virtue. The judgement as to whether an action is vicious depends on how agreeable or useful it is, not on intentionality. This begs the question of how we should respond to unintentionally harmful actions. For example, drivers of diesel vehicles may not intend to harm the respiratory systems of children, but if they do, is that a vice? In Hume’s view, yes. We inhabit a culture where conscious intention is taken to be the hallmark of vice or virtue. The law insists on intent to establish guilt in certain crimes, even the most serious . The Freudian notion of unconscious motivation has engendered a belief that attributing guilt to those suffering from putative neuroses or disorders is misplaced. Surely Hume is right: even if an action is performed with complete unawareness of its negative consequences, if they follow, the action is a vice. That doesn’t imply punishment, of course; but it does suggest correction, whether by education, admonition, explanation or some other benign form.  

The famous problem of induction is Hume’s argument that the past can’t predict the future. No matter how many times we heat water at sea level and measure its boiling point, we can’t prove the same result will prevail in the future. We assume it will, but that is a matter of experience. In this way, Hume recognizes the limits of our understanding. A kindred point is made by the billiard ball example: purely by thinking, it’s impossible to predict what will happen when one billiard ball hits another. The cue might return to its original position, both balls might shatter into pieces, the target ball might fly off the table. Without experience we can’t know, but from experience we can take measurements, start thinking and work out how to win snooker matches.  

Is thinking the same as reasoning? Baggini makes a distinction between reason and logic but perhaps the latter is a better term for establishing the difference between purely abstract thinking and thinking which flows from experience. Hume exhorts us to “reason” modestly. He recommends scepticism even about our doubts, yet he’s no Pyrrhonist. Their unwillingness to draw any conclusion leads to stasis. We have to draw hedged conclusions and avoid dogmatism. “Nature” he says “is too strong for principle.” By this he doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace values nor stick by them, but they should be grounded in experience. “A wise man will proportion his belief to the evidence.” That’s not to say, don’t have beliefs. It’s perfectly sensible to believe global warming is leading to climate change and to campaign for serious action. It’s attention to the evidence which matters.  

In the deterministic universe revealed by science ( in Hume’s time there were no scientists, they were natural philosophers; the term scientist was coined in 1833) is there such a thing as chance? Hume believed it was merely apparent: behind all seeming randomness was an unseen determinism. The argument goes on, as it has since the dispute between Bohr and Einstein. Baggini identifies the other meaning of chance: that things happen to us through no fault of our own. Misfortune is often not deserved and by implication therefore, neither is good fortune. Hume has bad news for the rich: their wealth is largely a matter of luck. You might say he believed he lived in a luckocracy. The important conclusion he draws is that people overestimate their merit and underestimate their luck. Would he have mocked the notion of “meritocracy”? Employed as a serious political doctrine, the term began, of course, in satire. Hume would almost certainly have identified with the latter. The notion that the distribution of wealth and income fits neatly some alleged distribution of whatever “merit” is supposed to mean is risible. Hume’s view reminds us to avoid an arrogant assumption of our right to good fortune and to see the misfortune of others as something we should have sympathy for and which might befall us. He was long dead, of course, before a politics of equality was elaborated, but it’s probable he’d have supported measures to attenuate poverty and to reduce the discrepancy between the rich and the rest without embracing any self-defeating dogma.  

As a determinist, Hume has no belief in absolute free will. He makes a distinction between “liberty of spontaneity” and “liberty of indifference”: the former is merely the ability act without restraint from any outside agency, the latter is the capacity to act outside cause and effect, an impossibility. Thus, how can we be held responsible? If Hume is right, wasn’t Hitler fated to create the Jewish genocide? Ironically, Hume arrives at the opposite conclusion: “Where would be the foundation of morals, if particular characters had no certain and determinate power to produce particular sentiments, and if these sentiments had no constant operation on actions.” What this implies is that our motives impinge on our behaviour in a regular manner. It’s when we are capricious that we deny this. Caligula, Hitler, Stalin, any tyrant you care to mention are characterised by capricious behaviour; it is almost a hallmark of tyranny. Hume sees our moral sentiments as arising from our nature, part of our biological inheritance. The implication is that though there are variations, there is an underlying constancy (what you might call a universal morality). He has confidence in our moral sentiments. When we diverge from them in ways which appear unruly or whimsical, we recognise something is wrong. Of course, this can suggest there is a “normality” and anything which doesn’t fit is a deviation. This is essentially Hume’s position: just as it’s our nature to have two arms and legs, so it is to have shared moral sentiments. Does this imply discrimination against “difference”? Not at all. The prevalent contemporary view (usually typified as post-modernism) that there is nothing but difference, no given regularities is obviously tendentious. At the very core of Hume’s philosophy is the acceptance of the regularities of nature. It is through them, through our experience of them and our thinking about them that most of our knowledge is derived.

 In the Treatise, Hume wrote: “Nothing has a greater tendency to give us an esteem for any person than his power and riches; or a contempt than his poverty and meanness.” He’s right that people tend to confuse quality and quantity but in suggesting they’re right to do so, he makes as great a mistake as in thinking white people are superior. He makes the same kind of mistake in The Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals when he argues against equality, economic or political. He defends property on the grounds that it gives due recognition to effort and responsibility and that equality could  exist only if enforced by tyranny. Given his emphasis on experience, he might have recognised that anthropology reveals many egalitarian cultures where tyranny did not prevail. Hume was misled by the nature of his own society. He was too close to it to achieve the perspective which could have granted him the possibility of seeing that a rough equality of economic condition can perfectly well coincide with devolved power.  

His critics have picked up on what might be an unfortunate formulation: that we are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions.” As Baggini points out, the universe is, looked at reductively, nothing but a collection of atoms. That our bundle or collection produces language, maths, science, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Frida Kahlo and Jane Austen is more aw-inspiring than the notion of some indefinable spirit which putatively provides our creative faculties. The formula is connected to Hume’s difficulty with the idea of self; Baggini points up the similarity of his view to that of Buddhism: self is a delusion. Antonio Damasio in Self Comes to Mind tries to show how the brain establishes an enduring sense of self. The attempt is partly successful, which probably illustrates Hume’s principle of the restricted scope of human cognition; but what Damasio and neuroscientists like him can establish is that the sustained sense of self is not an illusion. It does depend on the firing of particular neurons in particular patterns, and when disease disrupts, the sense of self can be lost; but  it is real:  our brains are set up to create a continuous sense of biography, even if we are ultimately no more than a bundle of perceptions.  

Perhaps Hume’s history of Great Britain was a distraction from his major work in philosophy, but it permitted an important insight. As Baggini puts it: “History is a means to discover what is constant and unchanging in human nature and what is subject to alteration.” To discover this distinction is crucial. It is, in a sense, what Hume’s philosophy is driving at. What is unchanging we can define as human nature. What is subject to alteration as cultural. Defining the former permits us to dismiss many misconceptions, the idea that white people are superior for example. Hume’s view that our knowledge derives from experience of the regularities of nature suggest that our brains are wired to pick up on the regularities. Perhaps we are predisposed to compute statistical regularities in the environment (physical and social) and impelled to compliance (in a descriptive sense). That might make sense given that whatever looms large in the environment could have significant survival advantages or disadvantages. Hume suggests this may be the way our minds (brains) work. If so, then the second dimension ie the impelling towards compliance might be crucial. It could help to explain, for example, why deprived circumstances are so difficult to escape from: if the brain computes the statistical regularities in an environment typified by poverty and its attendant ills and impels towards compliance, it could make a conscious effort to escape those circumstances very difficult.  

Unity and variety might appear contradictory, but Hume recognises that great variety is not only compatible with universal endowment, but intrinsic to it. Perhaps language provides an example: out of Universal Grammar come the six thousand languages, or so, of today. It’s in the nature of the language faculty to provide this variety; the security of the faculty, as it were, makes the huge variety of the infinity of possible sentences no kind of threat to unity, but rather a necessity. If there were only one language, it wouldn’t be language but grunts. Language is, by definition various and produces an infinite array of sentences.  

There’s a nice story in Hume’s The Natural History of Religion which pokes fun at Catholicism: when the convert who has taken communion which Catholics believe to be the body and blood of Christ is asked the next day how many gods there are replies there are none because he has been told there is only one and he ate him the day before. Hume viewed religion as essentially superstition, but he avoided intolerance or bigotry. Rather he took a tolerant attitude while sticking to his guns.  

The Francophile Hume was well-received in France. He had something in common with the philosophes and was friendly, for a time, with Rousseau but finally viewed him negatively. That an easy-going and cheerful person like Hume should clash with a paranoid egoist like Rousseau is hardly surprising. What is interesting philosophically, is the question of emotion. Rousseau seemed to put his trust in it. Hume too expressed the view that reason alone was no guide.  Doesn’t the fact that it led Rousseau to his poor treatment of Hume suggest he was wrong? As Baggini explains, Hume’s position is subtle and balanced: ethics must embrace human nature and we are composed of reason and emotion. In this regard, Damasio is worth referring to once more. His exploration of the case of Phineas Gage who suffered serious brain damage in a dynamiting accident on the US railway shows that the previously upright, hard-working, responsible, charming Gage, became a foul-mouthed waster when the part of his brain responsible for emotion was blasted, while his intellectual faculties remained intact. Perhaps the case could be interpreted as a vindication of Hume’s faith in the rational role of emotion.  

Baggini is forgiving of some of Hume’s wayward views about women. He praises him for having adumbrated today’s evolutionary psychologists in arguing that infidelity in women should be treated more harshly than in men as a man needs to be sure the offspring he is bringing up are his own. The argument is flawed. We know of cultures where the reproductive function of sex was unknown and in consequence the men responsible for bringing up children were the mother’s brothers. The dual-standard has nothing to do with men needing to know the offspring they labour for are there own and everything to do with conquest, control, the intrusion of economic and social class, the concentration of power and the need to pass on wealth in the male line. Baggini is here a little to quick to grant Hume’s genius and a little too slow to recognise that genius has its limits. 

Superstition and enthusiasm were Hume’s bugbears: “Nor does the wolf molest more the timid flock, than superstition does the anxious breast of wretched mortals.” He saw the first as the asylum of the wretched ( an idea Marx picked up on) and the latter as the bane of society. Both were rooted in ignorance. Here he looks to be astute. His enthusiasm is what today we might term fanaticism or fundamentalism. The world is beset by fanatics of one sort or another: communists, neo-liberals, Jihadists, Zionists, white supremacists, extreme nationalists. What is lacking is Hume’s middle-way, his willingness to accept the limits of our thinking and his insistence that our ideas, feelings and practices must be in keeping with the way nature has made us. A fanatic is someone who insists on their position however much it may clash with the evidence of our experience. “It is needless to push our researches so far as to ask, why we have humanity or a fellow-feeling with others,” writes Hume. Or to ask why we have one nose and two ears. The fanatic is characterised by an inability to accept what we have to take for granted and who insist on trying to force reality to fit a pre-existing theoretical grid. Thus, the Zionist insists god gave Palestine to Abraham when experience dictates such certainty is impossible.

 If it is incredible to believe that matter can think, why should any other sort of substance, least of all something as nebulous as “spirit” be able to? Once again, Hume invokes the limits of our cognition: we can’t know for certain how matter produces thought but that shouldn’t make us flee to some certainty about “soul” but rather encourage us to live with a degree of uncertainty.  

“’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” What Hume means by “reason” here is logic whose purpose is to reveal what is contradictory or impossible. Relying on logic alone divorces us from the feelings which are part of our biological endowment and without which we aren’t fully human. The formulation is pertinent to our condition: we have arrived, through the application of logic, which is the  customary form of modern public debate, at the threat to our survival from nuclear war or climate change. Hume recognises the pre-eminent value of the softer emotions: “The merit of BENEVOLENCE….the very softness and tenderness of the sentiment….its engaging endearments….its fond expressions…its delicate attentions…and all that flow of love and friendship…being delightful in themselves are communicated to the spectators and melt them into the same fondness and delicacy.” In contradistinction to this acceptance of our nature, we have elaborated a prevailing ideology which claiming hard-headedness (though it is soft-brained) rejects everything which can’t be measured. It is a dangerously psychopathic culture which elevates people like Donald Trump who are so far from Hume’s wise man who will proportion his belief to the evidence they can seriously suggest drinking disinfectant. 

Hume takes what would be today an unfashionable view of aesthetics. He questions the cliché that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”: “though this axiom, by passing into a proverb, seems to have attained the sanction of common sense” he suggests an opposing form ie that there are objective standards of judgement. As Baggini explains, Hume would dismiss as ridiculous the idea that Salieri is as good a composer as Mozart. Today, this judicious common sense has all but evaporated under  pressure of the post-modern insistence on extreme subjectivity: if I prefer Donny Osmond to Mozart, then who is to say the latter is a better composer? That this empty- headed idiocy is embraced by intellectuals is a measure of how distorted and denatured our culture has become through its manic pursuit of lucre.  

Hume accepts taste, but he refuses the extreme view which proposes taste does not need to rely on some quality in the appreciated object: “there are certain qualities in objects which are fitted by nature to produce …particular feelings.” Of course, people can always impersonate genuine response. For whatever is genuine in human feeling, there is a phoney counterpart. Also, people can confuse realms: they can, for example, listen through rather than to music, using it as a means of group identification or putative sign of certain inner qualities, just as they can read through literature, which accounts for the huge sales of trash like Fifty Shades of Grey and the utter of obscurity of some supremely good prose writers.  

Hume isn’t suggesting a single response, a kind of aesthetic totalitarianism. He recognises there will be difference of emphasis due to a variety of factors and inevitable debate; yet his position rejects the modern collapse into “anything goes and nothing matters”; a view, of course, which serves to suggest moral judgements are also utterly subjective: if there is nothing but subjectivity, why shouldn’t people be reduced to technological ants, made mere servants of the economic machine geared to the interests of the rich? It’s easy to see why Hume’s insistence on a given universal human nature from which our moral sentiments arise is barely present in contemporary political debate.  

Hume may not be an infallible guide (he would surely have scoffed at the possibility) but the essence of his work, the argument that humans everywhere and always display moral sentiments, that these must arise from our given nature, that our emotions are indispensable in telling us how to act and that experience is the source of most of our knowledge make him an indispensable thinker. Baggini knows his subject thoroughly, explains his work in clear prose and adds biographical detail which is as illuminating as it is interesting. Perhaps we could even hope that a few of our venerated leaders might spend a bit of time with Hume. It might make them slightly more congenial, and even save us from annihilation.