Hume's Theory of Moral Imagination

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David Hume endorses three claims that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion towards their plight, (2) adopting the general point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion towards those around us because associative sympathy causes us to mirror their pain and suffering, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of those remote from us involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect upon how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)255
Number of pages273
JournalHistory of Philosophy Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2010


  • Moral Emotivism and SentimentalismCognitive Sciences, MiscMoral ImaginationHume: ImaginationHume: SympathyHume: The Common Point of ViewHume: Moral Sentimentalism


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