Fall 2022 Colloquium Series 18 November: Inaugural Alumni Lecture

November 18, 2022

Lauren Kopajtic, Fordham :: Failure to Feel: The Problem of Affective Difference for Hume’s Moral Theory
Friday November 18, 2022

Abstract: While it is often noticed that Hume is committed to a universal moral psychology, and especially to the universality of the capacity for sympathy, this paper shows that there is another presupposition of universality upstream from this one. Because of the way Hume builds the sympathy mechanism, in order for sympathy to work, all humans must be capable of feeling the same set of feelings, a requirement I call affective universality. But there are good reasons, some offered by Hume himself, to doubt that this presupposition is met. After establishing both the commitment to affective universality and Hume’s admission of cases of affective difference and incapacity, I argue that there is a significant tension here, and that the possibility of affective incapacity has serious consequences for Hume’s moral theory. Depending on the kind of incapacity an individual experiences, they may be totally excluded from the Humean moral community or blocked from certain kinds of participation. My failure to feel a specific affect will produce a cascade of further failures and I will be excluded from the important moral practices of sympathetic spectatorship, “extensive” sympathizing, and judgment, at least for those sentimental tones that I cannot hear. In response, I consider whether there is a way of mitigating the problem posed by affective incapacities, drawing on recent scholarship on the differences between the Treatise and the second Enquiry. If the sentiment of humanity provides a sympathy-independent, universal basis for moral evaluation, or is enabled by a conception of sympathy different from that in the Treatise, then the second Enquiry may offer resources for someone committed to the broadly Humean project of refining a naturalist, sentimentalist, and humanist ethics, but with a keener attention to diversity and variation in human psychology.