Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

By David Hume

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Introduction

Do you ever feel as though people just don't get you? That's kind of how David Hume feels about his moral theory. To him, it's super obvious that morality involves not just reason or rationality, but sentiment too—and he doesn't just mean sentiment as in getting teary-eyed over Bambi. What he means is that making a moral judgment or decision isn't the same as calculating a sum—there's way more to it than that.

Other people may argue that when it comes to morality, reason isn't just a piece of the pie; it's the whole darn thing. For Hume, though, this is just the beginning: it lays the groundwork, but it's not the whole shebang. We don't just think something's right or wrong; we feel it.

Hume thought this was clear enough, but, apparently, other philosophers in his day didn't see it that way. In fact, one of the reasons why Hume wrote this book was to set the record straight. Not only did Hume see some of the existing theories as confusing and out of touch, he believed they put way too much emphasis on reason and completely snubbed sentiment.

But, wait, there's more: Hume was peeved that some of these theorists saw human beings as totally selfish. Sure, we care about ourselves, but why can't we care about others, too? Why does this have to be an either/or scenario? No, Hume wasn't buying it.

This wasn't the first time that Hume had tackled this subject: he'd discussed it before in "Of Morals," which was part of his A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1738. Unfortunately, the public reception to this work wasn't so hot, which was why Hume set about making his stuff more accessible.

Fast-forward a few years to 1751 and voilàAn Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals was born.

What is An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals About and Why Should I Care?

You know the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover"? Well, we can say a similar kind of thing about this text. Eighteenth century? Philosophy? Long, serious-sounding title? Let's be real—it doesn't exactly scream "must read." But stick with us because it's way more relevant than you might think.

Some things may have changed since Hume's time, but one thing that hasn't is the importance of morality and ethics in our lives. We may not think about it every day but, sometimes, when we're faced with a difficult decision, we realize how epic this subject can be.

Morality isn't just about the big decisions, though. Hume talks about things like kindness, honesty, politeness, loyalty, justice, property... if we look at it this way, we can see just how important a role it plays. Even if we don't think about it 24/7, it's part of who we are and how we act.

Philosophy may have a reputation for being stuffy, but some of the most popular movies and TV shows of our time like to chew on philosophical questions: the debate about cloning in Jurassic Park, Spock's "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" line in Star Trek, Peter Parker learning that "with great power comes great responsibility" in Spiderman. And that's just for starters.

From Buffy to The Simpsons, moral philosophy is a big deal. So check out Hume's Enquiry for the lowdown on just how essential it is to our lives—we promise you won't be disappointed.

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Resources

Websites

Hume HQ
If you're hungry for more on the man's life and work, you've gotta check out the official site.

Fan Club
Keeping the love alive.

Read All About It
In the mood for more of Hume's work? Liberty Fund has the goods.

Moral Message
There are loads of general sites on Hume, but this is your go-to for info on Hume's moral philosophy.

The Lowdown
Mosey on over for an intro to Hume's life and work, plus some handy links.

Movie or TV Productions

Into the Darkness
A reenaction of the final meeting between Hume and his pal James Boswell. Includes discussions of death, faith, identity, good and evil, the universe, existence... y'know, the usual, everyday chitchat.

Articles and Interviews

Philosophize This
Hume may have had his fair share of critics, but this article argues that he's still relevant to philosophy today.

The Final Curtain
Hume's buddy James Boswell describes his last discussion with the dying philosopher. Get set for some insider info—including Hume's thoughts about life, death, and religion.

Dearly Departed
Another pal, Adam Smith, weighs in on the philosopher's final days, sharing snippets of Hume's letters and paying tribute to his "wise and virtuous" friend.

Video

Hume in Sixty-Eight Seconds
If you're looking for a quick intro on Hume, check out this vid.

An Enlightened Fellow
Everything you need to know about the Enlightenment—including Hume—in one neat playlist.

Hume 101
Whether you need a solid intro/overview or are looking for a master class on Hume, this site has you covered.

Getting Sentimental
Okay, so you've got a handle on this guy's life and thinking. If you want to get the lowdown on his moral theory, you can watch a full Oxford lecture on the subject—without even leaving the house!

Audio

Happy Anniversary
Marking Hume's 300th birthday (wow, that's a lot of candles), these podcasts give an intro to the philosopher and explain some of his main theories. Pick and choose or listen to them all—it's your call.

Here's Talkin' About Hume
A bunch of modern-day academics get into a roundtable discussion on one's of philosophy's big names.

The Man and the Myth
Respected scholar Isaiah Berlin once said that no one had influenced the history of philosophy "to a deeper or more disturbing degree" than Hume. Wow, that's some claim. Luckily, we have this podcast to explain what gives.

Campaign Trail
Not only does this page feature a bite-sized biography of Hume, it also includes a short-but-sweet campaign speech on why Hume should be voted the greatest philosopher of all time.

A Dog's Tail
Rousseau's Dog is a book exploring the turbulent relationship between Hume and his frenemy Jean-Jacques Rousseau (think Professor X and Magneto). Head to this site for a taster and an audio interview (plus transcript) with the authors.

Images

Portrait of a Gentleman
Check out the big guy in all his grandeur here.

First Edition
Hume's moral enquiry has been republished countless times but head here for a look at the real deal.

Statue of Greatness
There's no doubt about it: having a public statue of yourself means you've hit the big time. Check out a pic in the link below (plus find out more at this site).