Liberty Matters

Hume as Non-foundationalist

I'd like to remark on Hume as ethical non-foundationalist. Reading him that way works, I think.
Nick's presentation of Hume seems to be in line with such a reading. But in that regard, some statements might be tweaked. Indeed, the commentaries by Chandran and by Mark may be seen as suggesting tweaking along such lines.
Nick writes: "practice always precedes theory." But that is too unidirectional. Likewise: "we do not reason from wholes to parts; … we reason from parts to larger parts."
Nick notes that our understandings "emerge midstream." Indeed. When the object of our understanding is human affairs, we must understand both those humans and ourselves as already involved in both practice and theory, in both parts and wholes. Already, understanding is working multidirectionally; it emerges amidst streams of practice/theory and part/whole.
Think spiral, with each loop of the spiral containing a "practice" and a "theory," each of which has a subscript corresponding to the particular loop, and likewise for "part" and "whole." The ends of the spiral trail off into ellipses.
Moving clockwise through the spiral, the looping path winds upward—that is, up from the page—or so we hope, and tend to presuppose.
Situated within the spiral, within one of the loops at the position of the 3 on a clock-face, and looking toward the center of the spiral, to our right we have "practice" and to our left "theory." Once we have moved clockwise along the loop, however, and now are at the 9 on the clock-face, to our right we have "theory" and to our left "practice." Talking in a non-contextualized way about "theory" and "practice," e.g., about the conflict between them, as for example Straussians sometimes do, is somewhat like talking in a non-contextualized way about "right" and "left." Such Straussian practice needs to graduate to a higher loop in their spiral (a.k.a., cave)!
It is likewise with facets of knowledge. As the saying goes, facts—those presumptive givens of our contextualized practice—are theory-laden:
What follows are some Hume passages with pragmatist flavor:
If we believe, that fire warms, or water refreshes, 'tis only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise. (THN, 270)Under what obligation do I lie of making such an abuse of time? And to what end can it serve either for the service of mankind, or for my own private interest? No: If I must be a fool, as all those who reason or believe any thing certainly are, my follies shall at least be natural and agreeable. Where I strive against my inclination, I shall have a good reason for my resistance; and will no more be led a wandering into such dreary solitudes, and rough passages, as I have hitherto met with. (THN, 270)The truth we discover must also be of some importance. 'Tis easy to multiply algebraical problems to infinity, nor is there any end in the discovery of the proportions of conic sections; tho' few mathematicians take any pleasure in these researches, but turn their thoughts to what is more useful and important. Now the question is, after what manner this utility and importance operate upon us? (THN, 449-50)[T]he pleasure of study consists chiefly in the action of the mind, and the exercise of the genius and understanding in the discovery or comprehension of any truth. If the importance of the truth be requisite to compleat the pleasure, 'tis not on account of any considerable addition, which of itself it brings to our enjoyment, but only because 'tis, in some measure, requisite to fix our attention. (THN, 450-51)Those who have a propensity to philosophy, will still continue their researches; because they reflect, that, besides the immediate pleasure, attending such an occupation, philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected. (EHU, 162)For here is the chief and most confounding objection to excessive scepticism, that no durable good can ever result from it; while it remains in its full force and vigour. We need only ask such a sceptic, What his meaning is? And what he proposes by all these curious researches? He is immediately at a loss, and knows not what to answer. (EHU, 159-60)
Where Nick writes, "Hume gave the best philosophical foundation for modernity," again I would tweak, changing "foundation" to "outlook." It is true that Hume sometimes talks "foundation":
It appears, that there never was any quality recommended by any one, as a virtue or moral excellence, but on account of its being useful, or agreeable to a man himself, or to others. For what other reason can ever be assigned for praise or approbation? Or where would be the sense of extolling a good character or action, which, at the same time, is allowed to be good for nothing? All the differences, therefore, in morals, may be reduced to this one general foundation, and may be accounted for by the different views, which people take of these circumstances. [EPM, 336; boldface added.]
But here, in lieu of "foundation," we may see "framework." Hume teaches that his four-factor account of merit or virtue—four, as in Jim's conduct is (1) useful to Jim, (2) agreeable to Jim, (3) useful to others, (4) agreeable to others—is an account that lacks foundation for resolving important disputes over incidents of usefulness and agreeableness (Matson et al. 2017). Rather, the "different views" involve taste and propriety at each sympathy, in a swirl of images and reflections, and, as the swirl ascends upward, "'tis difficult to distinguish the images and reflexions, by reason of their faintness and confusion" (THN 365). 
It is reasonable to say, as Nick does, that Hume is a moral pluralist. But in a way Hume transcends the distinction between moral pluralism and moral monism (Brennan 2016). Hume's four-factor account might be said to constitute a moral monism, but inside of that account there is a rich pluralism as to the reckoning of usefulness and agreeableness.
Likewise, Smith may be reckoned a moral monist in the sense that he formulates virtue so as to have it correspond to serving the impartial spectator's universal benevolence; but reckoning such correspondence is a pluralistic and non-foundationalist affair (Klein 2016).
Hume and Smith inspire the transcending, or dissolving, of common distinctions, including consequentialism vs. deontology, utilitarianism vs. natural law, relativism vs. absolutism, nominalism vs. essentialism, positive vs. normative, and is vs. ought. I think Nick tends to agree, and, if so, he might consider a few tweaks at the next loop. As Nick says: "There is no final and definitive revision and reformulation."
Brennan, Jason. 2016. "Moral Pluralism." In Arguments for Liberty, ed. A.R. Powell and G. Babcock: 301-338. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. <>.
Klein, Daniel B. 2016. "Adam Smith's Non-foundationalism." Society 53(3): 278-286. <>.
Matson, Erik W., Colin Doran, and Daniel B. Klein. 2017. "Hume and Smith on Utility, Agreeableness, Propriety, and Moral Approval." George Mason University Dept. of Economics Working Paper 17-01. <>.