Hume and Aristotle on Reason, Feelings, and Actions

Note: This is one of my undergraduate essays for the Philosophy Minor. I had great professors who used to engage me very effectively while giving me time to think and react. These great teachers are the reason why I definitely want to keep learning Philosophy.

Aristotle and Hume present two very different theories regarding reason, action, desires/passions and morality. Both of these philosophers have contributed immensely to our understanding of these issues. In this essay, I shall contrast two views upon which they differ. I shall first present two arguments which Hume gives in favor of his view that reason does not oppose passion. I shall then contrast it to Aristotle’s opinion regarding this matter. Then I shall provide Hume’s argument regarding whether actions and passions are reasonable or not. I shall compare this particular argument with Aristotle’s beliefs towards this issue. I shall end this essay by debating which aspects of these theories are better and why.

Aristotle believed that there are two kinds of reasoning[1]: Theoretical and Practical. He calls the later Practical syllogism. The purpose of theoretical reasoning is to know things.  The answer to theoretical questions is not under our control. For example: What is determinism? In contrast, practical reasoning is geared towards figuring out how to do things. For example, How to be good? According to Aristotle, a rational and virtuous person asks the right sort of practical question which is whether to perform an act or have a feeling towards another person. Such an agent would ask himself whether to get angry when provoked, not how to get angry. Aristotle believes that a good practical argument is one whose premises are true and logically imply a worth-pursuing end. He believes that a reasonable and rational agent will know which end is worth pursuing due to the excellence[2] of his character. Aristotle believes that the end which leads to Eudaimonia[3] is worth pursuing. Achieving Eudaimonia requires choosing well and striking the mean according to a rational principle, reason. Aristotle believes that reason is the faculty which guides us in action, feelings, emotions, and desires. Reason can recommend an action over another, and it can tell us what to care about. Do I care about apologizing to her? Should I apologize or simply walk away? Reason helps to answer such questions.

In contrast, Hume believes that there is no practical reasoning but only theoretical reasoning. He points out that reason only helps us discern what is true or false. It does not tell us what to do, what to care about etc. It does not tell whether to act or not but only tells the consequences of an action. Furthermore, he believes that reason is inert since it does not produce but only channels the impulse to act.  Hence, he concludes that there is no such thing as practical reasoning.

With the above in perspective, let us examine how Aristotle and Hume differ from each other with regards to passion and reason, their nature, and interplay.

Hume argues that reason cannot combat passion. He presents two different arguments for this particular viewpoint. I shall outline these arguments and discuss how Aristotle might respond to these. I shall further consider the way Hume would reply to Aristotle.

Aristotle divides the soul into three parts: nutritive[4], senitive[5], and rational. Aristotle further divides the rational part into emotional-desiderative part, calculative part, and contemplative part[6]. The emotional-desiderative (E/D) part is concerned with emotions, desires, and feelings whereas the calculative part is concerned with reasoning. Hence anger and anxiety originate from E/D and an agent’s ability to respond to a particular situation stems from his calculative part. Aristotle believes that humans function well if their E/D and calculative part are functioning well. The E/D functions well if it obeys the calculative part of the soul. The calculative part functions well if it reasons properly[7].  Aristotle believes that sometimes E/D pushes one away from the path which leads to Eudaimonia. In such a case, the calculative part (if working properly) fights back the desires. For example, an agent feels like stealing candy from a kid. His calculative part reasons with him not to do so since it is morally wrong. The calculative part wins this fight in a continent (strong-willed) person whereas the E/D is victorious in an incontinent (weak-willed) person (Aristotle, 1996).

Hume presents a different picture of this interaction between desires (E/D part) and reason (calculative part). He locates desires and reason inside the brain not inside the soul. He refers to everything present in the mind as perceptions. He believes that there are two kinds of perceptions: ideas and impressions. Idea is a copy of an object. My idea of K-2 is a copy of the actual mountain. The impressions are either of sensations (visual, auditory etc.) or of reflection (anger, joy, fear etc.). Hume refers to emotions and desires as passions. He believes that passion does not conflict with reason. His first argument proceeds as follows: Reason is inert; i.e., it cannot produce an action or give rise to will. Reason can only prevent the impulse of passion by providing a contrary impulse. This contrary impulse when operating alone should be able to produce volition. If this contrary impulse originates from reason itself, then reason should have an original influence on volition. But reason dose not have any affect on volition. Therefore, it does not oppose passion (Hume,1990).

Aristotle would object to the above argument as follows: Let us look at a drug-addict who is unwilling to take the drug. He has this strong urge to take the drug but he reasons that he should not do so. He tells himself the following “By taking the drug, I will only hurt myself more”. Hence, he decides not to take the drug. This sort of argument, which leads to his action, is produced by reason. It is thus safe to conclude that reason can oppose passion. Hume would reply to this as follows. Reason by itself does not oppose passion. It opposes only the judgment which forms the basis of passion. If the agent comes to know that his judgment is flawed, then his passion will yield to reason without any opposition.

In addition to above, Hume presents another argument in support of his conclusion that reason cannot oppose passion. He points out that passion is an original existence and not a copy or modification of something else. For instance, anger is anger in itself without reference to any other object. Beliefs are made up of ideas which are copies of objects. It is impossible to have an opposition between the two since such an opposition implies contradictory ideas. But we know that passion is not an idea (Hume, 1990). Aristotle would object to Hume by pointing out that he is making an unwarranted assumption. There is a fallacy of accident here. It is a general rule that only ideas oppose ideas but Hume is applying it to an unusual case. Passions are the kind of things that can be opposed by reason even though they do not have the same characteristics. Hume would reply to Aristotle by stating that when people think that reason has prevailed over passion, it is in fact their calm passion[8] which has. For example, all of a sudden I get this urge to scream in public. Innate to me is this calm passion of appearing normal in public. Together, this calm passion (in this case it’s called a background desire) and my belief that it is inappropriate to scream in public produces my action. Hume might further point out that since the agent has the ability to figure out that there is no correct reason (basis) to start screaming out loud, his desire will yield to reason without opposition.

In addition to the above, Hume and Aristotle also have remarkably different opinions regarding whether passion and action are reasonable or not. Hume’s argument concerning this problem proceeds as follows: What is reasonable is apt to be true. Passions are not the kind of things which are true or false. Therefore, passion is not reasonable. He believes that passions and desires themselves are not reasonable/unreasonable. It is the judgement upon which they are based that’s reasonable/unreasonable. Hume asserts that an act is causally produced by the interaction of both a background desire and a belief. A morally conscience and rational agent would have a background desire which is founded on some reasonable judgment.  For example, agent X sees a bracelet in an antique store and thinks that it belonged to his grandma. He now has a strong desire to procure the item. But if X is told that his grandma’s bracelet was never sold then he would know that his supposition for desiring to possess the bracelet was false. Hence such an unreasonable background desire (desire to have a memento which once belonged to grandma) will not cause him to act (Hume, 1990).

Aristotle will answer Hume as such. A reasonable background desire is one which leads towards Eudaimonia. It is reasonable to have a good life. Hence the desire to have a good life is also reasonable. Thus, according to Aristotle, what makes a desire reasonable or not is its goal (Aristotle, 1996). Aristotle will interpret the above example as follows. It is reasonable for agent X to want what he thinks he is getting (grandma’s memento); but, it is unreasonable to want what he is in fact getting (the bracelet is not his grandma’s). Having someone else’s bracelet will not make agent X happy. Therefore, it is unreasonable to have the bracelet. Hume would object to Aristotle by asking him how the agent knows that this desire to possess the memento and to achieve Eudaimonia is reasonable. It is the reasonableness of the judgment that forms the basis of a desire and not the goal of a desire which makes it reasonable. Aristotle would reply to this by mentioning that desires can be reasonable since they arise from reason. My desire to have a better life exists because I reasoned that it is better to have a good life. Hume would object to this by saying that desires are impressions that exist separately from ideas and hence from reason. They do not arise from reason.

Furthermore, Hume argues that action is neither reasonable nor unreasonable. His argument is as follows. Reason can be true or false. Actions by themselves are neither true nor false. Therefore action is not reasonable. Hume believes that factual statements (is-statements) can be true or false; but, the kind of statement which is relevant to moral acts is an ought-statement. For example, I ought not hurt the bird. He believes that ought is an impression of our sentiments. The act of stealing itself is not unreasonable. It is the notion of morality embedded within the sentiment which makes it unreasonable (Hume, 1990). Aristotle would reply to this by pointing out that the sense of ought is in fact captured in an is-statement. The is-statement “It is wrong to hurt a living being” captures in its the essence the ought-statement “one ought not hurt a living being”. Furthermore, an action is reasonable if it is consistent with the excellence of the character not because it is consistent with the notion of morality embedded in the sentiment (Aristotle, 1996). Hume would object to this by pointing out that Aristotle’s reasoning is circular. Aristotle specified that reasonableness of the act determines the excellence of character. Now he is claiming that the excellence of character determines the reasonableness of an act.

I shall now present my reasons for believing which aspects of each argument are better than that of other’s. I shall use biological and philosophical arguments to support my opinion. In my opinion, Hume’s argument is superior to Aristotle’s in some ways and Aristotle’s argument is better than Hume’s in certain other ways. Hume correctly locates desires and reason within the mind. Modern science has proven that the brain has separate centers designated for thought-processing, reasoning, and emotions. Science has proven that part of the mind that is involved in reasoning is far different than that which produces emotion. When a person feels anxious and his heart beat increases, Adrenaline is being released under the signals received from the brain. This same region of the brain is not active while one reasons things out. Aristotle was correct when he supposed that reason opposes passion. Consider a case where an agent who is used to living a life of luxury is exposed to extremely tough forest environment. He now has to survive without aid of any technology. Within him would rise a passion to understand how its surrounding works. He would now have a passion to observe the animals around him in order to learn how to survive in the wild. This passion was originally absent in him. It arose once he reasoned that he has to survive. If a biologist were to trace the molecules in his brain, he would observe that certain chemicals released from the reasoning centre are affecting his emotion centre via synaptic transmission. It can be biologically proven that reason can create passion. Hence, the reverse is also true. If reason can create passion, then it can oppose it as well. Not all passions arise from reason. For instance, a mother’s love for her kids is an innate irrational passion.

Hume was correct when he said that the idea of morality is inside the sentiment. Notice that the sentiment is closely related to the heart. If I am very happy, then my heart feels light. If I am very angry without a reason, then my heart feels at odds. When an agent does something wrong which he considers wrong, he feels a constriction of the heart. A heavy burden falls on the heart. This heaviness in the heart is evidence that the notion of morality is actually located within the sentiment which has close association with the heart.

Hume was also correct when he said that feelings and actions themselves are neither right nor wrong. Furthermore, he correctly concluded that passions create the impulse to act/feel and reason only channels it. I believe that this relation between will, reason, and action is more tightly interwoven than Hume visualized it to be. Consider a robot which has only feelings and sentiment but no faculty to reason. He thus has this notion of morality and immorality. If he is tempted to rob, then he would have an impulse not to commit robbery and yet another to commit robbery. But since he has no reasoning ability, he cannot know what to do. If he is now given such ability, he would be able to form an opinion such as “It is wrong to commit robbery since it is immoral”. Reasoning not only directs/channels the impulse, but it also gives it motion. Without the reasoning, he would be not be able to decide what to do. Hence he would not do anything. The impulse is there, but it is inert since it cannot produce an action. Only with the help of reasoning can the impulse produce an action.

Overall, Hume and Aristotle present different arguments regarding action, feelings, and will. They differ in opinion because of their contrasting assumptions. Each argument is better than the other in some sense. Hence one cannot justly regard one argument is superior than the other by comparing them.


Aristotle, “The object of life” from The Ethics of Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. pp 63-110, Penguin, 1996

Hume, David, “excerpts” from A Treatise of Human Nature, Pp. 413-418, 455-476, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1990


[1] Reasoning is defined as the process by which humans consider answers to a question by considering what is to be said for and against it.

[2] Aristotle defines excellence  as a virtue which makes the thing of which it is a part, function well. For instance, the excellence of a knife is a sharp, long blade.  According to Aristotle, the excellence of humans is in choosing well.

[3] Eudamonia is Greek for Happiness. Aristotle believes that it is living well, having and exercising excellence, functioning well as a human being, and having a wide range of choices to choose from and living a long life.

[4] According to Aristotle, this part is concerned with growth, nutrition and reproduction.

[5] Aristotle believes that the function of senitive part of soul lies in locomotion, motility, and feeling sensations (visual, auditory etc.).

[6] This part is concerned with thinking and contemplation.

[7] Aristotle believes that one is reasoning properly if one asks whether he should do something, in the deliberative mode. For example: Whether I should steal or not? He believes that this kind of reasoning leads to Eudaimonia.

[8] Hume divides passion into calm and violent passions. The former includes benevolence, kindness, and mercy. The later include anger, lust etc. A person is considered to have a strong mind if his calm passions prevail over violent ones.

Copyright © by Arzoo Zaheer. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “Hume and Aristotle on Reason, Feelings, and Actions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s