I want to point out that David Hume, the empiricist philosopher, was a great defender of the establishment, and as such, he was also a defender of the core common sense notions of the establishment, the views that he defended against Descartes and rationalists in general, the same views that are at the core of his friend Adam Smiths understanding of capitalism and the way the economic world works.
Yes, journalists defend the establishment, as we can read here,
By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring.
and discussed by Glenn Greenwald, here, where Greenwald comments,
…in the name of consumer protection, television news shows and the largest newspapers ought to place that above-excerpted paragraph by Thomas as a warning at the top of every product they produce.
It is my concern today that philosophers are also, on the whole, working to preserve and protect the establishment from its critics. So, I want to put one of Greenwald’s warnings on the work of David Hume so that we can look out for the arguments which, when adopted, make us think the establishment, and its defender in Hume, is on the side of the angels, so to speak.
What is the context for my argument about Hume? I feel I have to point out that the context for considering Hume is our current economic mess despite the fact that Hume was writing in the early and mid 1700’s. Hume’s writing was directed at what I take to be our ‘mission statement’ and its ‘enabling clauses,’ where what the philosophers argue comes in contact with our lives and how we understand them. Hume just revisited the philosophers’ work to bring it up to date, and now, we are suffering from the fact that we have subsequently committed ourselves to the principles and arguments that Hume promoted.
Socrates did something of the same sort. What do we have to believe for people to be dupes and their handlers? Hume revised the argument that answers that question, to take into consideration some of the problems with the Socratic account.
We should pay attention to Hume, as well as his allies in modern philosophy, because it’s his argument that makes it possible for so much suffering in the world. To be Buddhist about this, Hume defends attachment, and we all know about what attachment causes.
The context. Listen to this discussion organized by Laura Flanders on Grit TV, (The nice phrase is where she talks about the ‘pipeline that carries money from we the many to just a few.’)
How could David Hume have anything to do with any of this?
My claim about Hume depends on the truth of my other claims about the nature of philosophy. The one won’t make sense unless you see the other is also true.
What is that view of philosophy? I believe philosophy is about there being a ‘mission statement,’ telling us what our ends and means might be, what our goal in life is, and, to go along with that piece, there is an accompanying ‘enabling clause’ whereby we connect up the mission with our lives. It is sometimes difficult for us to understand how some accounts of ends and means are actually carried out in our lives. The ‘enabling clause’ explains how that is done. Philosophers have been, in one way or another, been arguing about what the ‘mission statement’ should be, and how, given whatever mission statement they’ve chosen, the ‘enabling clause’ carries it out.
The reigning ‘mission statement’ and its ‘enabling clause’ has been that our purpose here is to survive, and that by any means necessary including the use of violence, stealth, and deception, to get it done.
I have my own ideas about this way of understanding things. It’s acceptance makes people vulnerable to their being used, and makes it acceptable to use them. In places where this way of understanding people is disputed, it’s characterized as an apt proposal from Satan the fallen and devious angel.
But, Hume defends this mission statement, not by arguing, like Socrates, that the ‘enabling clause’ should be adopted despite its tragic consequences, like how it feeds ‘pestilence, war, famine, and death.’ Socrates argued that despite whatever bad things might result from his account of our mission, or the way that he imagined such a mission was carried out in this world, we should stay the course, so to speak, because everything would work out well in the end. Yes, we cannot know anything, being the poor prisoners of the cave that we are, but if the Guardians would be able to climb out, find the ‘forms,’ and return, they would be able to save us with knowledge and true values. Barring that, some other “Socratic Hero’ will travel to us, carrying a message about what out true situation is, and give us a way to be saved from our sufferings. Rather Hume argues that we should not give up on the ‘mission statement’ and its ‘enabling clause’ because the skeptical questions out of which arise the ‘mission statement’ and ‘enabling clause’s’ critics arise inappropriate. The fact is, according to Hume, no matter what our understanding of ourselves might be, we live in a world of stuff independent of our own making or reason.
What is the view that Hume defends against skeptics like Descartes? It is the common sense view. The common sense view is the view that follows from people generally adopting the ‘mission statement’ promoted by Socrates and the ‘enabling clause’ that went along with it. Whereas Socrates argued, in the Allegory of the Cave, that the mission statement should be adopted despite its consequences, because, everything will end up alright, Hume argued that the skeptical arguments about it came from asking inappropriate questions. Whereas Socrates would have us think of ourselves as ‘cave people’ strapped down in a cave, able only to see shadows, I prefer the alternative metaphor, one which captures more of what Socrates meant, that people are zombies. Zombies as we are told in classic zombie films, are will-less beings, who roam around either driven by their insatiable hungers or the commands of their voodoo masters.
(People are having fun with the zombie idea. See here, “Don’t Eat My Brain”, and other sites and books.
The deal with all the zombies from Maya on Vimeo.
The criteria for being one of Hume’s metaphorical zombies has nothing to do with a virus or looking disheveled. It has to do with adopting the ‘mission statement’ and it’s enabling clause.’ If you think your goals would be better met by being a zombie, then you commit yourself to it, hook line, and sinker.)
The view that Hume defends is this philosophically central zombie view of people. He does it by arguing that we should not pay any attention to the claim that if we think of ourselves as zombies, there will be terrible consequences for us, not because, as Socrates argued about these matters, everything will be alright, but because our worries about what might be troubling about our being zombies is raised in our heads because of inappropriate questions. According to Hume, we should not worry about being zombies because it’s just the way things are. In fact, our concerns about zombies are shown to be nothing because as people, who happen to be zombies, we live in a real world which is there and is comfortable and true, no matter how we think about things.
Descartes argues, with his ‘dream argument’ and the ‘argument of the evil genius,’ that the common sense view that people are zombies involves what were, to him, unacceptable consequences. Descartes had to imagine that some supernatural God had to exist in order to save us from these consequences. Hume argued that, we did not have to abandon common sense, nor should we insist on there being some supernatural solution to the problems raised by skeptical arguments. Instead, according to Hume, we should understand that common sense is backed up by our experiences and no amount of fuzzy-headed arguments should shake us from our understanding of things.
According to Hume, we need to accept the common sense view that reason is a matter of logical argument. Our logical arguments are related to the world because they reflect truths about the world. The way we think about the world is a matter of logic and the way logical arguments relate us to what’s going on in the world. Our ‘moral’ considerations are matters of our ‘passions,’ according to Hume. When we want to understand our personal activities, we need to look at how our ‘passions’ move us. The problem with Descartes and other skeptics about our understanding of the world and the way things are, is that such questions arise out of our ‘moral’ or emotional response to reason. Whereas reason is related to truth, our passions are not and move us based on irrational concerns about our emotional responses. This is why skeptical philosophers can be safely ignored when they try to make us doubt our common sense.
Hume here puts forward a part of this view, where he argues that though our long lines of reasoning may include strange conclusions, like those of the skeptics, we would not on the basis of this problem give up on our reason as being able to give us truths about the world.
My intention then in displaying so carefully the arguments of that fantastic sect, is only to make the reader sensible of the truth of my hypothesis, that all our reasonings concerning causes and effects are deriv'd from nothing but custom; and that belief is more properly an act of the, sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures. I have here prov'd, that the very same principles, which make us form a decision upon any subject, and correct that decision by the consideration of our genius and capacity, and of the situation of our mind, when we examin'd that subject; I say, I have prov'd, that these same principles, when carry'd farther, and apply'd to every new reflex judgment, must, by continually diminishing the original evidence, at last reduce it to nothing, and utterly subvert all belief and opinion. If belief, therefore, were a simple act of the thought, without any peculiar manner of conception, or the addition of a force and vivacity, it must infallibly destroy itself, and in every case terminate in a total suspense of judgment. But as experience will sufficiently convince any one, who thinks it worth while to try, that tho' he can find no error in the foregoing arguments, yet he still continues to believe, and think, and reason as usual, he may safely conclude, that his reasoning and belief is some sensation or peculiar manner of conception, which 'tis impossible for mere ideas and reflections to destroy.
The problem with Descartes, and others who put our common sense understanding of things in doubt, is they fail to take into consideration all of what goes into our understanding of things, and so, makes it seem that reason fails us.
For Hume, reason and morality are two different things. As he argues here,
Reason is the discovery of truth or falshood. Truth or falshood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to real existence and matter of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason. Now `tis evident our passions, volitions, and actions, are not susceptible of any such agreement or disagreement; being original facts and realities, compleat in themselves, and implying no reference to other passions, volitions, and actions. Tis impossible, therefore, they can be pronounced either true or false, and be either contrary or conformable to reason.
This argument is of double advantage to our present purpose. For it proves directly, that actions do not derive their merit from a conformity to reason, nor their blame from a contrariety to it; and it proves the same truth more indirectly, by shewing us, that as reason can never immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot be the source of moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence. Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable: Laudable or blameable, therefore, are not the same with reasonable or unreasonable. The merit and demerit of actions frequently contradict, and sometimes controul our natural propensities. But reason has no such influence. Moral distinctions, therefore, are not the offspring of reason. Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.
Our understanding of ourselves, as zombies, has to include not only reason, which is about truth, but also our ‘passions, volitions, and actions,’ which are …insatiable.
One of the facts about zombies, according to Hume, is how relations between people are about cause and effect, and otherwise understood as being about power. The metaphor here is that some zombies are chickens, who lay eggs, and others are foxes, who eat chickens. Whereas for Hume, there are no universal standards of good and bad or right and wrong, there are, supposedly, agreements made between chickens and foxes about their needs and desires in the chicken coops we call our governments. The metaphor establishes that people are so understood and there are agreements to be made about how the weak will relate to the powerful.
And so, all the terrible consequences of ‘capitalism,’ for instance, understood as the conflict between the foxes and the chickens in the chicken coop, cannot be arguments strong enough to make us reject our understanding of it. We cannot reject the existence of the world understood as involving people as zombies, or as zombies understood as chickens or foxes, without being irrational.
If we have the concerns that Laura Flanders had about the ‘pipeline of money from the many to the few’ she is only expressing her ‘emotional’ reaction to things. According to Hume, no matter what her emotions might be, however, she has not formulated an argument that should challenge the existence of our understanding of people as zombies who are either chicken zombies or fox zombies, caught in a struggle in our own chicken coop.
Marx wondered about the distinction between a political culture that distinguished ‘political rights’ from ‘human rights.’ He thought that there were many good reasons to maintain a culture that promoted and defended ‘political rights.’ So, democracies as he knew them had a tendency to promote ‘political rights,’ like ‘freedom of speech’ or the ‘right of habeas corpus’ because the weak who benefitted from these rights had enough power to demand that the powerful maintain these ‘rights’ even if they did not want to. Marx was persuaded, however, that a better culture would be one where ‘political rights’ did not have to be demanded from the powerful. It would be a better culture because the powerful would always be striving to undermine these ‘rights’ and move on to a situation where they could again take advantage of the weak for their own benefit. So, Marx was persuaded that in order to create a culture where all people had ‘human rights’ that were not guaranteed by a struggle between the powerful and the weak, one had to get rid of the powerful. He called for the workers, who were weak but had numbers, to rise up and eliminate the owners, who were the powerful but were few. This was supposedly the plan in countries taken over by Marxists.
So, in terms of my metaphor instead of his, Marx thought that the conflict between the chickens and the foxes should be resolved by the chickens getting rid of the foxes. This was his thought, but, I want to add, he adopted the view I’m saying Hume made, which was, no matter what the problems one might find with thinking of ourselves as zombies or as zombie chickens in conflict with zombie foxes, like the fact that people will starve, there will be wars, or that corruption will be rampant, there will be no argument strong enough that could make us question the common sense that we are, in fact zombies or in a battle between the chickens and foxes among us.
There are others like Ayn Rand who don’t react to the facts about suffering the way that Marx did. They understand things differently, and instead of getting rid of the powerful because they are greedy, would say that the world is wrong because more people aren’t like them. They say things like this Gordon Gecko character in Wall Street, who said,
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good… Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
They would say, to be blunt, that the solution to suffering is to do away with the weak.
Whereas Marx argued the solution was to get rid of the powerful, the foxes, Rand and her allies argue that the solution, instead, involves getting rid of the weak, the chickens. I want it to be noted, however, that Rand, like Marx, agrees with Hume that no matter what problems we find with thinking ourselves foxes in conflict with chickens, we can never find enough reason to reject the claim that we are zombies or chickens in conflict with foxes.
I’ve been very interested in Chomsky’s work because he seems to inform us of the kinds of suffering that our government and corporations have caused which the main-stream media is unwilling for various reasons to tell us about. If you want to understand what’s going on in the world, you have to listen to Chomsky, and others like him, because otherwise you will only be told what those in power want you to hear.
But Chomsky’s argument is a sword of two edges. On the one hand he tells us that if you want to change the way our institutions treat the weak, then as an organized body, his activist audiences have to sort of muscle aside those who are controlling the policies of those institutions. They have to change policy in order to change institutional behavior. The other edge of his sword, unfortunately, is the idea that if the powerful create policies that are both credible, because they are enacted by Congress, for example, and tend to benefit them, like those policies that Flanders characterized as ‘pipelines channeling money from the many to the few,’ then there may be nothing that the organized weak could do to remedy the situation. You’d have a country of legalized corruption.
Glenn Greenwald is a lawyer and blogger who writes about our American predicament. He is one who argues for the ‘rule of law’ and tries to point out that the suffering we are now experiencing is because people in power have been able to undermine the ‘rule of law.’ Part of his solution involves defending and promoting a stronger rule of law in the face of these powerful forces against it.
Greenwald says this about the ‘rule of law’ in a PBS interview,
What you have is a two-tiered system of justice where ordinary Americans are subjected to the most merciless criminal justice system in the world. They break the law. The full weight of the criminal justice system comes crashing down upon them. But our political class, the same elites who have imposed that incredibly harsh framework on ordinary Americans, have essentially exempted themselves and the leaders of that political class from the law.
They have license to break the law. That’s what we’re deciding now as we say George Bush and his top advisors shouldn’t be investigated let alone prosecuted for the laws that we know that they’ve broken. And I can’t think of anything more damaging to our country because the rule of law is the lynchpin of everything we have.
Both Chomsky and Greenwald promote solutions that are predicated on there never being any challenge to the Humean defense of common sense, that we are zombies, that we are zombie chickens in conflict with zombie foxes.
I also want to point out that Hume’s work on religion is to show that it’s not reasonable to expect things to work out all right. It is not reasonable to expect miracles, or to have God suddenly, or at the end of time, or at some point during the second coming of Jesus, to make the consequences of our common sense view, as pointed out by skeptics, suddenly made right.
The point of his ‘philosophy of mind,’ where he relates the impressions to the passions, is to explain how as zombies our hungers relate to our commands.
Hume’s being a skeptic is really a misnomer in that his point is that as a skeptic you could argue that our entire way of understanding things is problematical, but because we are basically zombies in a world not of our making, no one in his right mind would consider rejecting the view regardless of what consequences one might draw from considering it.
So, Barry Stroud makes the same point in his essay, “Scepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge,” (Journal of Philosophy (1984) and reprinted in his Understanding Human Knowledge, Philosophical Essays, pub. 2000.)
Many would dismiss scepticism and defend not taking it seriously on the grounds that it is not a doctrine or theory any sensible person would contemplate adopting as the truth about our position in the world. It seems to them frivolous or perverse to concentrate on a view that is not even a conceivable candidate in the competition for the true or best theory as to how things are. I would grant – indeed insist – that philosophical skepticism is not something we should seriously consider adopting or accepting (whatever that means). But does that mean that it is silly to worry about scepticism? I think it does not. A line of thinking can be of deep significance and great importance in philosophy even if we never contemplate accepting a ‘theory’ that claims to express it.
Stroud wants to separate out one’s skeptical claims from what those philosophers who are skeptical were skeptical about. So, Descartes considered what he took to be our understanding of his being in a room and the evidence he had for knowledge that, and found that if he thought of what he was doing in a common sense sort of way, he had to conclude that he, in fact, did not know that he was in a room. From the evidence, he might actually have been at home in bed dreaming he was in a room. Hume also separated out the skeptical argument from that which prompted it so that he could say that it was motivated not by a consideration of our acceptance of the zombie view, but by the skeptic’s passions and other notions irrational.
Whereas someone might consider rejecting the idea that people are zombies driven by their hungers or the commands of their voodoo masters if there were actual problems with such a view, but not, if it could be shown that any such problems were the products of a skeptic’s faulty methodology. If I’m just crazy, or emotional, while talking about what Hume was defending, then my arguments, be they the ‘dream argument’ or the ‘evil genius argument’ or the claim that the view leads to human suffering, it’s entirely about me and my emotions than it is about the zombie view.
Hume is not wanting us to reject the view that people are zombies. He defended it from the skeptical arguments Descartes put up. He defended it in such a way that critics of his good friend Adam Smith could be put down when they argued against the view of ‘capitalism.’ The simple account there is that capitalism is just the idea that people are zombies and can be divided into the chickens and the foxes. According to Hume, no matter what problems you might find with capitalism, that it causes corruption, pestilence, famine and death, for example, there can be no argument strong enough in that vein that should convince you there is anything wrong with the underlying truth that capitalism depends on, i.e., that people are zombie chickens and zombie foxes battling it out for wealth and survival in our own chicken coops.
If we want to make people do better, where we might want to improve the fortunes of certain chickens, we might want to tinker with the balance of power in the chicken coop. We could load up the institutions of government with policy makers who would favor chickens for awhile. So, we could be Chomsky or Greenwald. But, according to all these writers who agree with Hume, there is no way that you could doubt the fact that people are zombies, chickens or foxes.
The reason that I want to talk about Hume is that in order to stop suffering and the impending doom that the zombie view of people will cause, we have to argue successfully, that Marx, Rand, Chomsky, and Greenwald, are wrong to allow Hume his point that the common sense view of people as being zombies is untouchable.
Our lives, our civilization on this planet, and the happiness of our loved ones, depends on showing Hume is wrong about us being zombies.