a1 California State University, Northridge
The reappearance of Professor Alasdair MacIntyre's far-ranging and provocative article, ‘Hume on “is” and “ought”’, is the proximate cause of this short excursion to an old, well-scarred, and still fascinating battleground. Re-reading MacIntyre's brilliant offensive thrust led me to review the counter-attacks and diversionary movements that followed its first appearance. They in turn sent me back, inevitably and ultimately, to look again at the cause of this philosophic skirmishing: Section 1 of Part i of Book III of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, entitled ‘Moral Distinctions not deriv'd from Reason’. The battles of the past have been waged chiefly round the last paragraph of this Section (pp. 469–470 in Selby-Bigge's edition), but my primary concern here is going to be with those ‘reasonings’ that precede the celebrated ‘is-ought’ paragraph. Closer attention to the bulk of Book III, Part i, Section 1, to which ‘reasonings’ Hume says he ‘cannot forbear adding … an observation’ on ‘is’ and ‘ought’, and some selective attention as well to Books I and II of the Treatise, should help to scale down the exaggerated importance attached to the ‘is-ought’ passage. Unless this is done, one runs the risk of permitting a tailpiece to wag the body of the chapter, if not the whole Book ‘Of Morals’.