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I've just started Hume's "A Treatise on Human Nature" and in the first chapter he speaks of a difficulty faced by philosophers, that physical scientists don't face. The problem being that when philosophical hypothesis are to be tested, it's difficult to form experiments. I've left the relevant quote down the bottom of the page.

My question is: do you think Hume would dismiss modern psychological experiments as useless based on the fact that they are inauthentic representations?

Any help, or discussion on the interpretation of this passage would be appreciated :)

"Moral philosophy has, indeed, this peculiar disadvantage, which is not found in natural, that in collecting its experiments, it cannot make them purposely, with premeditation, and after such a manner as to satisfy itself concerning every particular difficulty which may arise. When I am at a loss to know the effects of one body upon another in any situation, I need only put them in that situation, and observe what results from it. But should I endeavour to clear up after the same manner any doubt in moral philosophy, by placing myself in the same case with that which I consider, ’tis evident this reflection and premeditation would so disturb the operation of my natural principles, as must render it impossible to form any just conclusion from the phænomenon. We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures."

Edit:

After some reflection, I'm really just confused about why Hume writes "in collecting its experiments, it[moral philosophy] cannot make them purposely".

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    "modern psychological experiments" like, the Milgram experiment, or the Ash experiment ? If so, how are they "inauthentic representations" ?
    – armand
    Oct 4 at 10:40
  • "What do you think" questions are off-topic here, and there is no way for us to know what Hume would or would not dismiss when confronted with modern practices. But De Pierris writes, for example, in connection with this passage that Hume "has more in common with the approach to human psychology of a shrewd and compassionate moralist and historian... than with the modern - more properly experimental - approach to psychology that originated in the 19th century and continues today", Ideas, Evidence, and Method, p. 306
    – Conifold
    Oct 4 at 10:54
  • Modern psychology is much more "experimental" that it was in Hume's time... Having said that, Moral philosophy is a subject that is still hard to imagine "to be managed" with experiments. Oct 4 at 12:03
  • @armand: Asch experiments on men, all white-European ancestry, at university. Original Milgram experiment 65% went to the highest shock. In Poland in a 2017 replication 90% did. That's a massive difference. It's been shown people are good at guessing which psychology experiments won't replicate digest.bps.org.uk/2019/10/16/… & a good case says experiments risk being driven by 'culturally biased folk theories' if not enough theory work nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0522-1
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 4 at 13:21
  • @criglcragl who cares if Milgram experiment yields 64 or 90% ? The point is its shockingly high. What is the problem if Ash experiment was conducted in a narrow sample as long as it's not used to extrapolate conclusion outside of the sample ? Wouldn't a physicist making an experiment on water and drawing conclusion about all fluids be just as bad? Psychology experiments are difficult for practical, ethical and financial reasons, they require caution an scrutiny, but that does not mean they're inherently bad.
    – armand
    Oct 4 at 23:00
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You ask about psychological experiments, and the quote is about moral philosophy.

Moral philosophy has exactly developed it's experimental methods. Thought experiments, like the whole category of Trolley Problems, and many other examples like Peter Singer's Drowning Child In a Pond. We also have game theory, with experiments that can really be conducted for insights, like versions of the Prisoners Dilemma. These are examples of Practical Moral Philosophy. It's particularly useful for metaethics, and examining moral reasoning processes and moral structures. For instance we can address how biology has interacted with social dynamics that arise from game-like interactions: How do ethicists tackle the question "Is it immoral to have sex in public places?" Is it possible to use rational and empirical ideas to answer?

But as Hume pointed out, you can't get an ought from an is. Experiments can't answer for instance Is artificially generating images of minors in sexual positions unethical? Reasoning, the law, and local culture, all have to be related to what interventions or changes should be made for specific or wider net benefits for society. Analysis & observation, contemplation, pursuasion. But even if research indicated such images weren't harmful, what is considered unacceptable cannot be determined by that alone, because also involved is what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of society. Our whole worldview is involved.

Hume's 'A treatise of human nature: being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects', is considered a pioneering work of experimental psychology, and he anticipated Darwin in various ways like explaining the special social focus of society on women's chastity by regard to men being unable to confirm if children are theirs. We can conclude Hume absolutely would not condemn experimental psychology, but would temper it by regard to the fact that we need practical moral reasoning, towards goals determined by our entire philosophy, of what a meaningful life is and how best to achieve those objectives.

Hume anticipated scientific thinking about morality. But his thinking was deep and incisive enough to still be challenging it now - eg to the lazy scientism of Sam Harris, who assumed morality can be settled by science alone, discussed here: Is Sam Harris's view of morality innovating? What philosophers innovated specifics on morality?

Hume was really one of the deepest thinkers on morality, and should be read closely.

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  • "You can't get an ought from an is" - Hume didn't say this, he said that "in every system of morality, which [he has] hitherto met with" the author of the system of morality proceeds from is to ought without explanation. He did not claim the is-ought step is not possible - simply that philosophers prior to him had not justified it.
    – causative
    Oct 4 at 13:53
  • @causative: "the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason." He requires explanation, be bridge from is to ought, denying ought can follow from is alone: "a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it"
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 4 at 14:01
  • The full quote there is, "[I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason." He is saying it would subvert the vulgar systems of morality, and he is referring to the distinction of vice and virtue within these vulgar systems. He is not denying the possibility entirely - his argument is the idea that these particular vulgar systems of morality are unjustified, not that no justification is possible.
    – causative
    Oct 4 at 14:03
  • Supporting that interpretation, the point that he wishes we would give "small attention" to, is the point he previously made about the explanatory gap in the systems of morality that Hume has "hitherto met with" - a point that said nothing about whether the gap is essential to all possible systems of morality.
    – causative
    Oct 4 at 14:14
  • Thank you for your answer @CriglCragl. A couple of questions for you in response: 1. In your first sentence, were you implying that I am confusing moral philosophy and psychology and that I have made an error of some kind? (very possibly the case) 2. Are experiments in moral philosophy restricted to thought experiments? For instance, I could easily imagine some psychologist today conducting an experiment that resembles the trolley problem (without the murder obviously).
    – Zinn
    Oct 5 at 9:09
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"Moral philosophy has, indeed, this peculiar disadvantage, which is not found in natural, that in collecting its experiments, it cannot make them purposely, with premeditation, and after such a manner as to satisfy itself concerning every particular difficulty which may arise. When I am at a loss to know the effects of one body upon another in any situation, I need only put them in that situation, and observe what results from it. But should I endeavour to clear up after the same manner any doubt in moral philosophy, by placing myself in the same case with that which I consider, ’tis evident this reflection and premeditation would so disturb the operation of my natural principles, as must render it impossible to form any just conclusion from the phænomenon. We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men’s behaviour in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures."

In your quote, Hume's key problem with moral experimentation is:

this reflection and premeditation would so disturb the operation of my natural principles....

In other words, Hume is saying that if he were to personally dabble in moral or immoral acts for the purpose of investigation of morality, the fact that he is doing so in a premeditated way changes the "operation of [his] natural principles." The acts done in such a way are not the same, morally, as the same acts done by people who did not premeditate and reflect on them.

What is Hume not saying here?

  • He's not saying moral experimentation can't be done because it would be unethical. Maybe it is, but that's not his objection here.
  • He's not saying that empirical observation can never shed light on moral matters. In fact he says quite the opposite: "We must therefore glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life..." He is explicitly saying that cautious observation can shed light on morality.

The problem he raises is only that a premeditated act for the purpose of investigation has a different morality from the same act done without premeditation for that purpose.

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  • Thanks @causative. Your second dot point almost adresses what I was confused about, but not quite. I'd really like to know whether Hume is meaning that this 'careful observation' can only consist of observations of human's going about their business, unaware they are being observed, or if deliberate experiments (similar to modern day psychological experiments) can be used.
    – Zinn
    Oct 5 at 9:19

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