Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Genre

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Philosophical Literature, Fable, Parable, Quest

Philosophy doesn't take anything for granted and is all about tackling heavy issues. This Enquiry is no exception, with Hume taking a critical lens to such epic topics as morality, justice, and the role of the individual within society.

Though he asks lots of questions, Hume has his views pretty much settled from the get-go; e.g., he's convinced that sentiment plays a key role in our moral judgments (though, being human, he's subject to the odd moment of doubt). He hasn't just decided this on a whim though, and he doesn't expect readers to accept it because he says so. As the word "enquiry" suggests, this is an exploration of ethics and morality, with Hume responding to the kinds of questions we're likely to ask.

While the Enquiry isn't a fable in itself, Hume sometimes refers to fables to demonstrate his argument. So when he states that it's important to be cautious and diligent rather than rash and hot-headed, he refers to the classic example of the tortoise and the hare. This is helpful to us, as it takes philosophy (which has a reputation for being a tricky subject) and puts it in terms that we understand.

As well as fables, Hume sometimes uses parables to make his point. The difference is that, while fables typically use the example of animals or objects, parables describe a simple situation involving people and compares this to a more complex scenario. What they have in common is that they're both meant to teach us valuable life lessons. For instance, Hume uses the example of people building a wall to demonstrate the importance of teamwork.

This book may not be a quest in the traditional sense, but it is a quest for knowledge. Setting out with the goal of outlining a theory of morals—and correcting all the errors that other philosophers have made—Hume embarks on an epic journey that spans the centuries and the continents. He has many obstacles to overcome, like the arguments that benevolence is a front for selfishness or that reason alone shapes our moral judgments. Still, despite occasionally doubting himself, Hume keeps his goal in sight, using a whole bunch of examples to back up his points. Hume knows the kinds of questions that we may be asking while reading the Enquiry, and he does his best to answer them. Morality may be a big, daunting subject, but Hume won't rest until he's gotten the job done.

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