It Is Not Contrary to Reason to Prefer the Destruction of the Whole World to the Scratching of My Finger David Hume

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“It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger” is a legendary quote by one of the major figures in moral philosophy David Hume. In this quote Hume lays the groundwork for one of the most important truths in moral debates: that one cannot get an ought from an is.

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First thing is first, we’ll say the full quote by David Hume in context and then give some background information before going into detail about the quote.

It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.

David Hume, 1826
Did David Hume say it?

Yes, the Scottish Philosopher, Historian and Writer most certainly said this quote.

Where did he say it?

This can be found in his work Of The Passions.

When did David Hume say it?

This published series of essays were first published in 1826. Later digitized and made available online in 1826. Additionally, as Hume is Scottish, the work was originally published in English so there are no issues with translation (if you are a native English speaker).

David Hume Said It. What’s the story?

Though only a brief sentence, the quote perfectly illustrates and encapsulates a deep problem in moral philosophy and that is how do you ever justify an “ought” statement? Or, another way of rephrasing it, how do you ever justify doing anything?

Let’s start from the beginning. The focus of philosophy is the pursuit and to ask questions about how one arrives at knowledge. What Hume is going to realize, is that there’s no way to logically make the argument for why some fact of the matter necessarily commits one to do a certain action (at least on moral grounds). To flesh this out, we’ll need to explain the difference between ‘is’ statements and ‘ought’ statements. An ‘is’ statement is a statement about a fact:

“It is 82 degrees outside.”

“There are three people in this room.”

These are ‘is’ statements because they are simply making a descriptive claim about how the world is. Conversely, an ‘ought’ statement is one that attempts to suggest that someone should do something. Examples of ‘ought’ statements:

“You should respect your parents.”

“You should limit your alcohol consumption.”

“You should try to get 8 hours of sleep every night.”

These are ought questions. It may seem intuitive that the answer to all of these questions are ‘yes’, but Hume, and the history of philosophy, is going to argue that you can’t just say that. There’s no logical reason why you should do one action over another.

Now you may be saying that’s stupid for understandable reasons. If you drink incessantly or don’t get adequate sleep, you may lose your job or perform poorly on that philosophy test coming up. However that all assumes that keeping your job or acing that philosophy test are “good” things. They may be to you and critical for achieving some goal that you personally have, but that doesn’t mean they are ‘objectively’ good.

Can you make any moral claims?

Here’s the rub: to get around Hume’s claim here you have to adopt a normative ethical theory. A normative ethical theory is an overarching theory that instructs how you ‘ought’ to live your life. However normative ethical theories are going to have to defend themselves against this claim as well, and the different theories have different ways of attempting to address the claim. Let’s look at some of the major ones.

Consequentialism: Perhaps the most famous ethical theory argues that something is ethically just if it produces the best outcomes. For brevity sake, you can think of utilitarianism as the same idea (though technically one is a subset of the other). If your professor, thinks the distinction is important, then you need a new professor.

Deontology: A complex theory offered by Immanuel Kant which, through a series of logical leaps, is going to argue that actions are justified based on responsibilities we have to each other.

Virtue Ethics: A theory that emphasizes character and obligations to those closest around them (helps explain why we feel a stronger moral duty to our own children than others).

Now we haven’t exhausted the full list of the different normative ethics, but they all have a common theme when they try to defend themselves against Hume’s sentence. That is that the truth value of all logical claims (including why 1+1=2) come down to an intuition. Yes, 1+1=2 has predictive power but so do the different moral claims. Therefore it shouldn’t be surprising, or discounting of the theory, that at the end of the day the defense of the theory is based on intuition.

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