The world of philosophy has been plagued by false ideas about morality. Both ancient and modern philosophers have come up with theories that are confusing or out of touch with reality. Hume's goal is to clear these muddied waters and outline a model that's based not only on reason but sentiment. Sentiment is something that folks have often overlooked, but Hume's here to shake things up and shift that balance.
Hold on to your horses because this is where the story gets pretty crazy. Just kidding—this is a piece of philosophical analysis; everything is laid out in astonishingly methodical detail and there are no big plot twists. Womp womp. But we do embark on a journey when Hume starts out by discussing two main "social virtues": benevolence and justice. Using examples from different cultures and eras (the equivalent of a helpful guide), Hume battles against the sometimes abstract theories of other philosophers. Benevolence is a virtue that's clearly agreeable to everyone, and Hume avoids the temptation of babbling on about something so obvious. On the topic of justice, Hume explains that this virtue has been created because it's vital for the smooth running of society. In both cases, though, these virtues are valued because they're useful.
Arrival and Frustration
Hume has now discussed two of the major social virtues and emphasized the importance of utility. However, he still has to deal with the claim that all our actions stem from selfishness. Psht, as if. Hume recognizes that self-interest is part of our nature but he argues that it's not the root of every thought and action—that's why we can praise/criticize actions that occurred in faraway times and places. Hume applies the same rule to theater and poetry, which draw us in and (fingers crossed) cause us to share the characters' emotions. For Hume, we have a natural sympathy—a benevolent principle.
The Final Ordeals
All this talk of benevolence leads us to ask: what if a person's totally indifferent toward others? For Hume, though, this "fancied monster" (VI.I.5)—what we might call a sociopath—isn't worth dwelling on. More important are usefulness and agreeability in all areas—any philosopher who thinks otherwise must be out to lunch. Hume has no time for stuff like fasting and self-denial, but he's not a fan of greed, vanity, or cut-throat ambition either. Sure, these can be strong passions, but Hume argues that they're not as common as our sense of humanity. Still, one thing nags at Hume: he sees the foundation of morals as being obvious, yet some folks dispute it. Consequently, his confidence wobbles...
Despite this blip, Hume is convinced of the role of usefulness/agreeableness in moral judgments. Some people may believe that selfish and social sentiments are opposed, but this isn't the case. It's true that some individuals give in to temptation (e.g., greed), yet most people aren't villains by nature. Those folks who do give in have lost out, as they've failed to see the value of natural pleasures.