Research Article

The Fiction of “Moral Sentiment”: The primacy of language in Hume’s moral philosophy

Shinya Aimatsu [PDF]

Article information
Vol 3, No 1
RAP0003 – Research Article
Recieved: June 9, 2020
Accepted: January 25, 2024
Online Published: February 15, 2024
DOI: 10.18494/SAM.RAP.2023.0003
Cite this article
Aimatsu, S. (2023). The Fiction of “Moral Sentiment”: The primacy of language in Hume’s moral philosophy. The Review of Analytic Philosophy, 3(1), 63-97. Japan: MYU.


David Hume is one of the classical moral sentimentalists, famously claiming that moral judgments are constituted by a certain kind of feeling, or moral sentiment. In this paper, however, I argue that Hume’s moral theory ultimately separates moral judgment from sentiment and, consequently, places the nature of moral judgment in language. To begin with, keeping in mind the so-called Moral Attitude Problem, I show that it is unclear until the end what kind of sentiment Hume’s “moral sentiment” is. Then, I will examine what is really connected with moral judgment in Hume’s theory in the following steps. First, it is confirmed that some moral judgments based on the “general point of view” that Hume introduces are merely verbal judgments without any perceptible sentiments. However, since it is possible that moral language—a set of moral terms—may shoulder the sentimental aspect of such verbal judgments, I trace back the genealogy of moral judgments to see what kind of sentiment was tied to moral language. It is found that when people repeatedly experience that agreement in their reactions to a person is achieved by ignoring the feelings of their sentiments, they establish the general point of view, based on which moral language is created. This origin of moral language suggests that it cannot have any emotional meaning. Thus, insofar as some of what Hume counts as moral judgments do not involve substantive sentiment in any sense, sentiment does not determine the extension of moral judgment. When Hume nevertheless says that moral judgment is constituted by sentiment, that sentiment is merely a kind of fiction, retrospectively assumed from the use of moral language. Finally, given the above, I further argue that it is language that essentially determines the extension of moral judgment in Hume’s moral philosophy.


David Hume, Moral sentimentalism, Moral attitude problem, General point of view, Moral language


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