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Evaluating empiricism in ethics, considering Hume and Levinas


By David Reynolds

The question of distinguishing right from wrong is a question that every individual will face in their lifetime, but some philosophers have taken the question beyond its face value; it has been taken beyond differentiation, and the question has extended to discerning the source of morality and even the validity of morality. Directly tied to this search for morality is epistemology. Within the realm of what can be known, empiricism also asserts itself as a crux for ethical reflection.

Essentially, empiricism holds that all knowledge must be acquired through experience, a posteriori, and cannot be acquired by reason independent of experience, a priori. Philosophers have both asserted and denied empiricism’s tie to ethics, while the consideration itself entails some connection (even if that connection is empiricism’s lack of influence on ethics). Considering this dispute between empiricism and ethics, it is vital to evaluate the claims of both perspectives. The relevance and indispensability of empiricism to ethics become apparent through an analysis of the role of empiricism in the moral philosophies of David Hume and Emmanuel Levinas.

Hume’s moral philosophy strongly appeals to a posteriori methods. In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume asserts that “The understanding exerts itself after two different ways, as it judges from demonstration or probability; as it regards the abstract relations of our ideas, or those relations of objects, of which experience only gives us information” (Hume 413). This is representative of his empiricism. He recognizes that the faculty of reason can deal with concepts through deduction and induction. That is, our reason can consider deductive and inductive validity, but the truth must originate from experience. While reason can encompass the consideration of our experiences, Hume holds that it “never influences any of our actions” (Hume 414).

The philosophical stand Hume takes on epistemology supports empiricism. This empirical perspective shapes Hume’s views on ethics. Convinced that reason cannot by itself conclude a course of action, he insists “Since morals… have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv’d from reason” (Hume 457). He further presents his logic on the role of reason within morality quite clearly:

Reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood. Truth or falsehood 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. (Hume 458)

Hume makes a distinction here that while actions may yield praise or blame “they cannot be reasonable or unreasonable” (Hume 458).

After determining the utter impotence of reason in its capacity to move one to act, Hume attributes one’s sentiments or feelings as the motivation for action. Thus, as our sentiments can provoke and prohibit action, it also becomes the source of morality (Hume 457). From this he exposes the source from differentiating right from wrong as “the impression arising from virtue, to be agreeable, and that proceeding from vice to be uneasy” (Hume 470). For Hume, morality is not the dictation of a priori reasoning, rather he holds that morality arises from a posteriori sentiment; the distinction between right and wrong is directly in accordance with the subjects perception of pleasure and displeasure, respectively.

The moral philosophy of Hume is founded on his epistemological explorations that appeal to the a posteriori and empiricism. Hume’s empiricism in ethics is the prototypical representation of modern empiricism in ethics. In severe contrast to this empirical perspective is the post-modern moral philosophy of Levinas. Levinas’ philosophy takes a much different approach and asserts that ethics must actually be first philosophy and is recognized a priori before any experience.

Levinas developed his moral philosophy largely as a response to previous philosophies he found contrary to his own ideas. He clarifies his position on ethics in an interview stating that his philosophy “takes off from the idea that ethics arises in the relation to the other and not straightaway by a reference to the universality of a law” (Robbins 114). It should also be made clear that, even with “the relation to the other,” Levinas is asserting an approach founded in a priori reasoning. This a priori approach he justifies in his work, Totality and Infinity, where he declares that “the notion of face… brings to us a notion of meaning prior to my Sinngebung [meaning] and thus independent of my initiative and my power” (Levinas 51).

Levinas’ understanding of the face of the other person eclipses any social label we could ascribe to the other person (Levinas 50). While the other person can be labelled as father, son, brother, carpenter, and so on, he affirms that even the culmination of all such labels could not define what is the Other. Accordingly, he postulates, “For the presence before a face, my orientation toward the Other, can lose avidity proper to the gaze only by turning into generosity, incapable of approaching the other with empty hands” (Levinas 50). His revelation here is that in order to surpass the limitations of our labels and impositions of our experience we must embrace generosity. It is the transcendence and infinity in the face of the other that requires the subject to be for-the-Other, hence it compels us to act morally.

Levinas’ philosophy is founded upon the notion that the subject is for-the-Other. This notion leads to the subject’s responsibility for the other, and Levinas explains this connection in an interview with Philippe Nemo. There, Levinas affirms that:

…without even having taken on responsibilities in his regard; his responsibility is incumbent on me. It is responsibility that goes beyond what I do. Usually, one is responsible for what one does oneself. I say, in Otherwise than Being, that responsibility is initially a for the Other. This means that I am responsible for his very responsibility. (Nemo 96)

From the infinity encountered in the face of the other, a responsibility is commanded onto the subject to act morally.

This command for morality from the face of the other does not entirely conflict with Hume’s views on sympathy. In effect, both views lead to moral action. However, the Humean account of sympathy is likely where Levinasian philosophers would strongly object. While the effects of both sympathy and responsibility lead to moral action, their foundations are quite incompatible. Towards Humean sympathy, the Levinasian would likely object on the account that “Responsibility in fact is not a simple attribute of subjectivity, as if the latter already existed in itself, before the ethical relationship” (Nemo 96). Humean sympathy arises from the subject’s experience of the other as resembling himself (Hume 318), and this reduces the other to a limitation of inaccurate labels. To derive morality from this Humean sympathy is to embrace the other as a means to an end, as something that can either be pleasurable or anti-pleasurable. The Humean would likely concede that the ethical relationship as a social interaction between individuals is very important. Hume has remarked in the Treatise that “No enjoyment equals the satisfaction we receive from the company of those we love and esteem; as the greatest of all punishments is to be oblig’d to pass our lives with those we hate or contemn” (Hume 470). The Levinasian would be foolish to let this concession pass, as here lies a justification for immorality in Hume’s moral philosophy.

It is conceivable that the sentiments of one might regard the other with displeasure, as someone hated. As here the subject views the other as the embodiment of vice, then the subject has no inclination to act towards the other in a moral manner. In Humean sympathy, if the pleasurable sentiments toward the other are minimal or nonexistent, then there is no compelling force that would require moral behaviour. That is unacceptable. That sense of morality from the sentiments is founded in a posteriori elements. It is experience that causes sentiments to arise, and trusting the sentiments to determine morality equally allows the acceptance of immorality. With the responsibility for the other resulting a priori from an encounter with the face, morality is always incumbent on me (Nemo 96). The Levinasian philosopher would argue that furthermore, “The “relation” to the other man as unique – and in this way, precisely, as absolutely other – would be, here, the first significance of the meaningful” (Robbins 114). The ethical relationship is more than the social interaction of individuals; it is the foundation for further philosophical reflection.

With that, the Humean must begin the defence of empiricism. Hume had delved into the nature and capacity of reason quite thoroughly. His epistemology precedes his ethics, and his moral philosophy is based upon empiricism. A challenge of this nature cannot pass without severe retort.

The Humean, by questioning Levinas’ ethics, effectively questions Levinas’ entire philosophical perspective. To justify the importance of empiricism in ethics the foundation of Levinas moral theory must be refuted. One of Hume’s more recognized sayings is that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Hume 415), and it will be shown that Levinas’ moral philosophy is, in fact, reducible to a matter of sentiment.

In Hume’s Treatise, he makes an observation regarding other moral philosophies that he had encountered. Hume remarks that:

I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. (Hume 469)

This observation is what has come to be known as the naturalistic fallacy, and there is much consensus regarding its validity. Essentially, it means that descriptive statements about existence, or what is the case, cannot lead to a prescriptive conclusion. For instance, consider this deductive example:

I am standing in the middle of the street.
There is a bus speeding towards me along the street.
If the bus hits me, then it will kill me.
I must move out of the path of the bus.

While it is obviously sensible to move out of the way of a speeding bus, the conclusion necessarily contains a value judgement, and value judgements are based upon our sentiments, they are not an object of reason.

The Humean response to the legitimacy of his morality incites the questioning of Levinasian morals. So the Humean applies Levinas’ supposed a priori justification for morality to the deductive test of the naturalistic fallacy. Levinas holds that “For the presence before a face, my orientation toward the Other, can lose avidity proper to the gaze only by turning into generosity, incapable of approaching the other with empty hands” (Levinas 50). This statement can be equally represented in this logically deductive structure:

The face of the other is infinite and transcendent.
To encounter the face of the other is a priori.
I encounter the face of the other.
I am obliged to be generous towards the other.

What can be said of the conclusion based on these premises? The truth of the premises themselves is questionable. Can the face of the other actually contain something infinite or transcendent? While it is unlikely that someone could generate an exhaustive description of the other, it is not contrary to conceivability. Would an encounter with the face actually be a priori? It seems self-contradictory that an encounter could occur independent of experience. Could an individual encounter anything truly infinite? Any infinite object or material seems absolutely absurd, yet we can conceive infinity as an idea. However, whether one can truly experience the idea contained in another or not, seems the territory of belief rather than reason. Regardless of the consideration of these questions, even if the premises are accepted as true, it would not entail that the sentiments of the subject would be generosity towards the other. As much as that conclusion is justifiable, on those same grounds animosity towards the infinite, transcendent other is plausible as well. Levinas commits the naturalistic fallacy at the foundation of his philosophy, and that trickles down to taint the remainder of his philosophy.

In fact, the Humean would expose that what Levinas has done at the basis of responsibility-for-the-other is place a value judgement upon his “a priori” reasoning. Values are not formed from reason alone. No, they are dependent upon our sentiments derived through our experience, through empiricism, a posteriori. Levinas’ kind sentiment obligated him to feel generous when encountering the face of the other. If his sentiment were fearful of the infinite and transcendent, then his reaction to such an encounter would consist of aversion or hostility. Further, if the infinite face of the other could be encountered by the subject a priori and devoid of sentiment, it would follow, not that the subject be obligated to generosity or responsibility but, that the subject consider the other with indifference, objectivism. To have an a priori impression of the other as indifferent would then present the other as no more than a means to an end, devoid of intrinsic value.

The role of empiricism in ethics is very significant. It is from empiricism that ethical consideration becomes possible. The a priori offers nothing to moral philosophy as it is necessarily emotionally empty. Hume said it best with “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger” (Hume 416). Empiricism may lead us to moral relativism, but that is still more than reason alone can offer.


Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature – 2nd Edition. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Duquesne
Studies Philosophical Series. Ed. Andrew G. van Melsen & Henry J. Koren.
Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969.

Nemo, Philippe. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Emmanuel Levinas.
Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press 1985.

Ed. Robbins, Jill. Is it righteous to be?: Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas.
California: Stanford University Press, 2001.

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