Hume's Moral Theory

Course Requirement Areas: 
History of Philosophy
Course Description: 

The primary goal of this course is to gain a better understanding of David Hume’s moral theory through careful reading and discussion of his work, with special reference to his Treatise of Human Nature. We will read his sentimentalist moral theory and try to interpret it within two broader contexts: the context of his broader philosophical project, and the context of a historical conversation with his predecessors about the nature of morality. Interpretative problems discussed will include Hume's view of what reason is and is not, the nature of "sympathy", the nature of the so-called "narrow circle" and “general point of view”, and Hume's famous distinction between "is" and "ought". We will also discuss some of the differences between his moral theory as expressed in the Treatise of Human Nature and that expressed in his later Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. The course aims at fostering the direct engagement of students with Hume’s views, therefore required readings will be drawn almost entirely from primary sources.

Learning Outcomes: 

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Perform careful reading of Hume's work, analyze and charitably reconstruct his arguments, and summarise them clearly and succinctly
  • Recognize and critically discuss the problems that Hume's moral philosophy was designed to respond to
  • Critically discuss interpretations of various aspects of Hume's moral theory
  • Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of Hume's moral theory


Regular attendance, careful completion of the assigned readings before class, active participation in discussions, and a 20 minute in-class presentation to start discussion will be expected from all students, whether registered for audit or taking the class for a grade.

The course grade will be determined as follows:

  • 25% seminar participation and 20 minute presentation
  • 75% term paper

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