Ethical Subjectivism: Hume, Spinoza & Santayana

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  • 0:01 Why Stop Stomping?
  • 0:55 David Hume
  • 2:23 Baruch Spinoza
  • 3:26 George Santayana
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson focuses on whether any one person can know what is ethical. We'll look at three key thinkers on this topic and see how they agree there is no objective way for an individual to determine what is moral behavior.

Why Stop Stomping?

You have a five-year old child who loves to stomp on other people's feet for fun. If you had to explain to them why they need to stop stomping on other people's feet, how would you explain this to them? You might start by saying, 'having your foot stomped on hurts; you wouldn't want someone to stomp on your foot.' You could also say, 'if you stomp on someone's foot, I will put you in time-out and take away your favorite toy.' Eventually, you might also say, 'it's wrong to stomp on someone else's foot; you ought to stop doing it.'

In this lesson, we'll consider what ethical subjectivists might have to say about this topic. We'll look at perspectives of three key thinkers: David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, and George Santayana.

David Hume

David Hume, a philosopher from the 18th century, would look at the conversation you were having with the child and notice something in common with how most people make their moral arguments. We typically start with statements about what we believe is factually true. 'Stomping on someone's foot IS painful.' 'Stomping on someone's foot IS going to result in being punished.' These are our observations and experiences. But then, something interesting happens in our argument. We jump from saying what is and start to use the words should or ought to. 'You SHOULD NOT stomp on someone's foot.' Or, 'you OUGHT TO stop stomping on my foot right this minute!'

What Hume points out is that a person may start a moral argument by expressing statements they know to be accurate based on their experience in life, such as the pain you feel in your foot if someone stomps on it. But, often a person will then move to a statement of something that cannot be known as a fact: that a person simply should not do it. Hume doesn't argue that it's a positive thing to go around injuring other people. He just wants to point out that we can't know it is wrong in the same way we know that it hurts to be stepped on. We can only know our own personal version of what is and cannot claim to know what ought to be.

Baruch Spinoza

Another thinker, Baruch Spinoza, considered similar issues about a century earlier. Like Hume, he noticed how we think we can determine what should be, even though we don't have enough information to know this for sure. Spinoza recognized how imprecise our feelings are and how our senses can only get a partial idea of what human experience is like. He pointed out that the senses alone are only good for picking up information about what we experience in the moment.

The insights of philosophers, like Spinoza and Hume, are often classified as ethical subjectivism. This is the view that what we call ethical statements are just expressions of that which we disapprove, and that there is no actual objective standard for what is ethical. For Spinoza, we cannot know that foot stomping is objectively wrong. We can only know what we feel subjectively in our own minds.

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