Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Quotes

  • Morality and Ethics

    What is honorable, what is fair, what is becoming, what is noble, what is generous, takes possession of the heart, and animates us to embrace and maintain it. What is intelligible, what is evident, what is probable, what is true, procures only the cool assent of the understanding; and gratifying a speculative curiosity, puts an end to our researches. (I.7)

    Here we have it folks—the perfect summary of Hume's moral theory. Hume isn't down on facts and reason, he just thinks that we use both our head and our heart when making moral judgments. Reason is cool and clinical, which is fine (it never did Sherlock Holmes any harm, right?), but it's our natural sentiment that spurs us on and shapes our ideas about what's right and good.

    Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favor of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to vice: render men totally indifferent towards these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions. (I.8)

    So, imagine what it would be like if we didn't use sentiment in our moral judgments. Could we even make moral judgments? Hume suggests that we could discuss morality in theory but it would be detached from real life. In other words, it'd be pretty much useless. It's only when we feel a reaction to virtues/vices that morality comes to life.

    Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues […] neither advance a man's fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? (XI.I.3)

    Some philosophers (especially religious ones) may believe that self-denial is a virtue. Even outside philosophy, people sometimes admire those who embark on periods of fasting, silence, or solitude. Hume, however, isn't on board with this idea. In his eyes, these things aren't useful or agreeable to anyone, so how can they be virtues? Hello?

    Utility is only a tendency to a certain end; and were the end totally indifferent to us, we should feel the same indifference towards the means. It is requisite a sentiment should here display itself, in order to give a preference to the useful above the pernicious tendencies. This sentiment can be no other than a feeling for the happiness of mankind, and a resentment of their misery. (AI.3)

    We shouldn't overlook the importance of reason, as it helps us size up whether something's useful or harmful. But what next? If we only used reason then we'd be like robots—we wouldn't feel anything and wouldn't care about anything. This is hardly the ideal way to view humanity, and that's why sentiment is so important: it gives us our motivation.

    When it is affirmed that two and three are equal to the half of ten, this relation of equality I understand perfectly […] But when you draw thence a comparison to moral relations, I own that I am altogether at a loss to understand you. A moral action, a crime, such as ingratitude, is a complicated object. (AI.8)

    When we're calculating a sum, we're dealing with hard facts and our answer is either right or wrong. Some folks have acted as though we can take the same approach to morality, but Hume sees this as a big no-no. Morality is way more complex and doesn't always stay the same in different eras and places. There are no grey areas in math but philosophy's a whole different ball game.

    The hypothesis which we embrace […] defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary. We then proceed to examine […] what actions have this influence. We consider all the circumstances in which these actions agree, and thence endeavour to extract some general observations. (AI.10)

    Here, Hume recaps and builds on his main ideas. He's already argued that morality is a matter of sentiment (rather than reason alone) and that virtue is swell; now, we need to look at real-life examples. By doing this, we can come up with some more general thoughts and remarks on the wide world of morality.

    While we are ignorant whether a man were aggressor or not, how can we determine whether the person who killed him be criminal or innocent? But after every circumstance, every relation is known, the understanding has no further room to operate […] The approbation or blame which then ensues, cannot be the work of the judgement, but of the heart. (AI.11)

    This quote highlights why we need start out by getting the facts. In any criminal case, it's important to try to find out exactly what went down rather than be ruled by our emotions. But once we've done that, there's no more to understand: intellectual inquiry hits a brick wall and our sense of humanity comes to the rescue.

    Ask a man why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires to keep his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a reason why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to any other object. (AI.18)

    Hume takes a moment here to show how reason can only go so far. If we ask someone why they exercise and they tell us it's for health reasons, that's our question answered. But if we start asking why they want to be healthy and why they hate pain, they're gonna struggle to answer (and get pretty cheesed off). C'mon, you don't have to be Einstein to see that hating pain is a natural response—not an intellectual thing.

    Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained […] The one discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition and diminution: the other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation. (AI.21)

    Reason and taste work in different ways, with reason giving us the lowdown on what's true/false and taste guiding our overall moral outlook. Reason focuses on things as they are but taste brings something new to the table. Hume conjures up the image of a paint brush sweeping across the landscape, adding color to the world. Like a finished artwork, sentiment builds on reason to create something new.

    Should we affirm that the qualities alone, which prompt us to act our part in society, are entitled to that honourable distinction; it must immediately occur that these are indeed the most valuable qualities, and are commonly denominated the social virtues; but that this very epithet supposes that there are also virtues of another species. (AIV.2)

    Okay, so we know there are virtues and vices, but are there different kinds of virtues and vices? Hume's answer is a definite "yep." Take virtues: some varieties are useful to society and are valued because of this. By using the heading "social virtues" for this category, Hume gives us a heads-up that there are other kinds of virtue worth checking out, too. Makes sense, right?

  • Principles

    Had nature made no such distinction, founded on the original constitution of the mind, the words, honourable and shameful, lovely and odious, noble and despicable, had never had place in any language; nor could politicians, had they invented these terms, ever have been able to render them intelligible, or make them convey any idea. (V.I.3)

    Unlike justice and property, which were set up because they were necessary/useful, some virtues are natural. Even before we had words for them, they existed and we recognized them: we know when something's agreeable/honorable and when something's unpleasant/shameful. If we didn't, then how would we be able to explain these things?

    And however poets may employ their wit and eloquence, in celebrating present pleasure, and rejecting all distant views to fame, health, or fortune […] A man of a strong and determined temper adheres tenaciously to his general resolutions, and is neither seduced by the allurements of pleasure, nor terrified by the menaces of pain; but keeps still in view those distant pursuits, by which he, at once, ensures his happiness and his honour. (VI.I.15)

    Poets sometimes like to bask in immediate pleasures rather than focus on practical stuff like planning for the future. This outlook may be fine and dandy in poetry, but Hume warns against extending it into real life. He recognizes that current pleasures may be tempting but argues that we should keep our long term goals in sight. If everyone was only interested in the here and now there'd be chaos.

    A man who [...] is fully, sincerely, and steadily convinced, from experience as well as philosophy, that the difference of fortune makes less difference in happiness than is vulgarly imagined […] may, indeed, externally pay a superior deference to the great lord above the vassal; because riches are the most convenient, being the most fixed and determinate, source of distinction. But his internal sentiments are more regulated by the personal characters of men. (VI.II.12)

    Can money buy happiness? Is being rich important? These questions have been asked countless times, and Hume's in no doubt about the answers. Sure, designer logos and top-of-the-range gadgets may be immediate signs of success, but, for Hume, what matters is what someone's like as a person. Okay, so his may sound like a total cliché, but Hume's got a point, dontcha think?

    That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions; and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions […] If his heart rebel not against such pernicious maxims, if he feel no reluctance to the thoughts of villainy or baseness, he has indeed lost a considerable motive to virtue. (IX.II.9)

    Ah, that age-old question: is honesty the best policy? Some may say it's wisest to keep to this rule for the most part but cash in on any exception. Why not put aside honesty if there's something to be gained? But, nope, Hume views this as a slippery slope. If a person loses sight of virtue then they're way more likely to go over to the dark side.

    Inward peace of mind, consciousness of integrity, a satisfactory review of our own conduct; these are circumstances, very requisite to happiness, and will be cherished and cultivated by every honest man, who feels the importance of them. (IX.II.10)

    In his version of a self-help mantra, Hume gives us the score on what's important. In his eyes, happiness isn't to be found in riches or by giving in to every temptation; it's about integrity, inner peace, and the ability to look at ourselves and think about how we act. In Hume's opinion, this is the model citizen.

    THERE is a principle [...] that all benevolence is mere hypocrisy, friendship a cheat, public spirit a farce [...] and that while all of us, at bottom, pursue only our private interest, we wear these fair disguises, in order to put others off their guard, and expose them the more to our wiles and machinations. What heart one must be possessed of who possesses such principles [...] Or if we should not ascribe these principles wholly to a corrupted heart, we must at least account for them from the most careless and precipitate examination. (AII.1)

    Hume may argue that self-interest is natural, but he's not buying the argument that all the virtues that seem benevolent are, actually, just masks. To imagine that everyone's constantly scheming and plotting is a pretty gloomy conclusion and doesn't give people much credit. Hume doesn't see this as the normal order of things and suggests that, when people do act in this way, it may be the result of careless or rash decisions rather than because they've become totally inhuman.

    I esteem the man whose self-love, by whatever means, is so directed as to give him a concern for others, and render him serviceable to society: as I hate or despise him, who has no regard to any thing beyond his own gratifications and enjoyments. In vain would you suggest that these characters, though seemingly opposite, are at bottom the same. (AII.4)

    Selfishness often gets a bad rap but is it always bad? People use "selfish" as an insult but we all have different sides to our character. It's not as though a person must either be totally selfish or have zero regard for their own life and happiness. That's what Hume is getting at here, stressing that we can care about ourselves and others. To slam self-interest as a whole is lazy and way off-base (just ask Ayn Rand).

    Nature must, by the internal frame and constitution of the mind, give an original propensity to fame, ere we can reap any pleasure from that acquisition, or pursue it from motives of self-love, and desire of happiness. If I have no vanity, I take no delight in praise: if I be void of ambition, power gives me no enjoyment: if I be not angry, the punishment of an adversary is totally indifferent to me. (AII.12)

    Building on his comments about self-interest, Hume again argues that it's in our nature to have a degree of ambition, vanity, and desire for recognition. These things shouldn't automatically be classed as vices, as they give us a sense of motivation. They will us on to succeed when we'd otherwise just shrug our shoulders and say "whatever."

    Good-nature and honesty, especially the latter, are so indispensably required, that, though the greatest censure attends any violation of these duties, no eminent praise follows such common instances of them, as seem essential to the support of human society. (AIV.4)

    There are some virtues that are rare and inspire a lot of admiration—acts of heroism, grand gestures of kindness, or sending your best friend silly cat videos, for instance. However, virtues are often just a part of day-to-day life. Hume sees honesty and a pleasant character as being expected of us all, with failure in these areas opening us up to criticism. Some folks may be lacking when it comes to these qualities, but they're seen as so essential that possessing them is no big whoop.

    And hence the reason, in my opinion, why, though men often extol so liberally the qualities of their heart, they are shy in commending the endowments of their head: because the latter virtues, being supposed more rare and extraordinary, are observed to be the more usual objects of pride and self-conceit; and when boasted of, beget a strong suspicion of these sentiments. (AIV.4)

    Just because some qualities are classed as virtues, we shouldn't assume that they're all on a level. Have you ever found that folks are more likely to praise themselves for their kindness and compassion than their intelligence? Hume has noticed this and believes that it's because the second type of virtue is seen as rarer and more of a big deal. People don't want to be seen as egotistical, so they shy away from blabbing about how brainy and amazing they are. Let's face it, we can't all be Mr. Fantastic.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Is it any crime, after a shipwreck, to seize whatever means or instrument of safety one can lay hold of, without regard to former limitations of property? (III.I.8)

    There's no doubt that justice is an important social virtue. Where'd we be without it? Well, we only have to look at a situation such as a shipwreck to get a taste of a justice-free world. When justice breaks down, self-preservation takes hold and it's dog-eat-dog (just check out Lord of the Flies).

    Suppose that several families unite together into one society, which is totally disjoined from all others [...] But again suppose, that several distinct societies maintain a kind of intercourse for mutual convenience and advantage, the boundaries of justice still grow larger, in proportion to the largeness of men's views, and the force of their mutual connexions. (III.I.21)

    As this quote shows, society isn't something that just springs up overnight. It's much more gradual and starts out on a small scale with families/small groups thinking "hey, how about we work together?" As time goes on, the network gets wider and, lo and behold, we have a fully-fledged society. If people didn't find it useful, it wouldn't have a reason to exist.

    Sometimes the interests of society may require a rule of justice in a particular case; but may not determine any particular rule, among several, which are all equally beneficial. In that case, the slightest analogies are laid hold of, in order to prevent that indifference and ambiguity, which would be the source of perpetual dissension [...] Many of the reasonings of lawyers are of this analogical nature, and depend on very slight connexions of the imagination. (III.II.10)

    Justice may be clear-cut in some cases but this isn't always how it goes. Sometimes, we may know that some kind of rule is needed but we're not sure exactly what it should be. It could be that various rules would fit the bill, so how do we decide which to pick? There's no simple answer to this, so folks may find themselves clutching at any analogy that fits the bill and puts an end to all the confusion and debate.

    In general we may observe that all questions of property are subordinate to the authority of civil laws, which extend, restrain, modify, and alter the rules of natural justice, according to the particular convenience of each community. The laws have, or ought to have, a constant reference to the constitution of government, the manners, the climate, the religion, the commerce, the situation of each society. (III.II.13)

    As well as the big, country-wide laws, communities can set up other rules that they find convenient. Still, we have to remember that communities exist within society rather than apart from it. This means that folks should keep in mind the government and the laws of society (rather than just doing whatever they please).

    It may appear to a careless view, or rather a too abstracted reflection, that there enters a like superstition into all the sentiments of justice; and that, if a man expose its object, or what we call property, to the same scrutiny of sense and science, he will not [...] find any foundation for the difference made by moral sentiment. I may lawfully nourish myself from this tree; but the fruit of another of the same species, ten paces off, it is criminal for me to touch. The same species of reasoning it may be thought, which so successfully exposes superstition, is also applicable to justice. (III.II.16)

    Justice and superstition may not seem to have much in common at first: one conjures up weird, mystical stuff while the other makes us think of laws and court rooms. Sure, folks may see superstitions as primitive (e.g., not eating a certain kind of meat on a particular day), but justice can be viewed as random too (e.g., why can we take fruit from a tree near us but one only a short distance away is forbidden?). We're used to rules of this sort, but, let's face it, there's nothing natural or inevitable about them.

    But there is this material difference between superstition and justice, that the former is frivolous, useless, and burdensome; the latter is absolutely requisite to the well-being of mankind and existence of society. When we abstract from this circumstance [...] it must be confessed, that all regards to right and property, seem entirely without foundation, as much as the grossest and most vulgar superstition. (III.II.17)

    Though superstition and justice appear to work in a similar way sometimes (and can seem equally random), Hume argues that there is a big difference: superstition is silly and useless while justice is a vital social structure. If we overlook this then, yeah, justice seems like another kind superstition.

    The necessity of justice to the support of society is the sole foundation of that virtue; and since no moral excellence is more highly esteemed, we may conclude that this circumstance of usefulness has, in general, the strongest energy, and most entire command over our sentiments. It must, therefore, be the source of a considerable part of the merit ascribed to humanity, benevolence, friendship, public spirit, and other social virtues of that stamp; as it is the sole source of the moral approbation paid to fidelity, justice, veracity, integrity, and those other estimable and useful qualities. (III.II.27)

    We keep coming back to the same theme: usefulness. The above quote sums up the importance of this quality and how big a role it plays in our lives. Just take a look at the virtues that Hume lists. They're all valuable and they're all pleasing but they have something else in common. Yep, they're all useful (if Hume guested on Sesame Street, this would definitely be the word of the day).

    It is indeed observable, that, among all uncultivated nations, who have not as yet had full experience of the advantages attending beneficence, justice, and the social virtues, courage is the predominant excellence; what is most celebrated by poets, recommended by parents and instructors, and admired by the public in general. (VII.15)

    We know that justice and the other social virtues are valued in the society we live in today. But, if we step outside modern, industrial society, we find that this isn't always the case. What about primitive societies and nations that aren't fully civilized? Here, different values are seen as useful, with courage being the cream of the crop.

    When Oedipus killed Laius, he was ignorant of the relation, and from circumstances, innocent and involuntary, formed erroneous opinions […] But when Nero killed Agrippina, all the relations between himself and the person, and all the circumstances of the fact, were previously known to him; but the motive of revenge, or fear, or interest, prevailed in his savage heart over the sentiments of duty and humanity. (AI.12)

    Okay, so crimes don't come much more serious than murder, but juries still have to weigh up the motive. In some cases, we're dealing with cold-blooded murder driven by revenge, self-interest, or all sorts of ridiculous reasons. In other cases, though, the killer may be ignorant of how things really are. Both are serious acts, but, using examples from mythology, Hume highlights the difference between making a big mistake and being a whacked-out murderer who's lost any sense of humanity.

    […] The case is not the same with the social virtues of justice and fidelity. They are highly useful, or indeed absolutely necessary to the well-being of mankind: but the benefit resulting from them is not the consequence of every individual single act; but arises from the whole scheme or system concurred in by the whole, or the greater part of the society. (AIII.3)

    Justice and faithfulness are useful values for society but they don't work on an individual level like some other virtues. Kindness, love, and loyalty may be important in one-to-one relationships or in smaller groups, but justice is a much bigger thing. It depends on rules that are set up to keep society running smoothly and ensure that everything's A-Okay.

  • Society and Class

    Who sees not […] that whatever is produced or improved by a man's art or industry ought, for ever, to be secured to him, in order to give encouragement to such useful habits and accomplishments? That the property ought also to descend to children and relations, for the same useful purpose? That it may be alienated by consent, in order to beget that commerce and intercourse, which is so beneficial to human society? And that all contracts and promises ought carefully to be fulfilled, in order to secure mutual trust and confidence, by which the general interest of mankind is so much promoted? (III.II.7)

    Would we have the same motivation to work hard if we weren't allowed to own stuff? The idea of property encourages folk to spend their time carrying out useful tasks. Likewise, if a house is passed down in a family, the new owners inherit this motivation. This doesn't mean there's no flexibility: property isn't something we're tied to, and we can exchange it and enter into contracts or promises that are beneficial. Once we've agreed to any promise of this kind, we trust that both sides will keep to the bargain. Why? Altogether now: because it's useful and beneficial.

    What other reason, indeed, could writers ever give, why this must be mine and that yours; since uninstructed nature surely never made any such distinction? The objects which receive those appellations are, of themselves […] totally disjoined and separated from us; and nothing but the general interests of society can form the connexion. (III.II.9)

    While some virtues/vices are natural, there are other categories that have been created because they serve a purpose. Think about it: the idea of ownership didn't just spring up from nowhere, and it's not something that's always been around. The idea that this is mine and this is yours makes up a social contract that we all recognize. There's no natural link between us and the stuff we own. It's only through shared ideas and language that the idea of property has come about.

    The imagination is influenced by associations of ideas; which, though they arise at first from the judgement, are not easily altered by every particular exception […] To which we may add, in the present case of chastity, that the example of the old would be pernicious to the young; and that women, continually foreseeing that a certain time would bring them the liberty of indulgence, would naturally advance that period, and think more lightly of this whole duty. (IV.7)

    Though folks may be more laid-back today, chastity has traditionally been classed as a virtue—especially for women. Don't worry—our inner feminists are bristling with disdain, too. But it's true: back in the "good" old days, failure in this area was seen as harmful to both the family unit and society at large. So much for sexual liberation. We could see this virtue as only applying to women of childbearing age, but, as Hume explains, the argument is that older women acting in an immoral way would set a bad example. We're not saying this is true, but it makes for a pretty interesting debate.

    But in ancient times, when no man could make a figure without the talent of speaking, and when the audience were too delicate to bear such crude, undigested harangues as our extemporary orators offer to public assemblies; the faculty of memory was then of the utmost consequence, and was accordingly much more valued than at present. (V.I.19)

    This is a point that Hume makes again and again: what's seen as useful and agreeable can depend on the society and time period we're talking about. Public speaking was a must for anyone seeking a rep in ancient times. Only the best would do, and audiences were seriously tough. That's why memory was so valued: it was vital skill for any public speaker.

    Sympathy, we shall allow, is much fainter than our concern for ourselves, and sympathy with persons remote from us much fainter than that with persons near and contiguous; but for this very reason it is necessary for us, in our calm judgements and discourse concerning the characters of men, to neglect all these differences, and render our sentiments more public and social. (V.II.27)

    This quote shows that Hume's a realist—he doesn't imagine we're living in some magical place where everyone's super-caring and nice. It's only natural that our strongest feelings should center on ourselves and those closest to us. What Hume's saying, though, is that it's precisely for this reason that we sometimes need to put aside our bias and think, "hmm, what's best for society?"

    In most countries of Europe, family, that is, hereditary riches, marked with titles and symbols from the sovereign, is the chief source of distinction. In England, more regard is paid to present opulence [...] Where birth is respected, unactive, spiritless minds remain in haughty indolence, and dream of nothing but pedigrees and genealogies: the generous and ambitious seek honour and authority, and reputation and favour. Where riches are the chief idol, corruption, venality, rapine prevail: arts, manufactures, commerce, agriculture flourish. (VI.II.13)

    Here's another example of culture clash. In Hume's days, status in most of Europe was all about family name and the riches that folks inherited; in England, though, it was more about a person's current wealth. We're not saying one is wrong and the other's right. When it's all about the family line, this can lead to people becoming lazy and entitled (boo!), but it can also lead to ambitious types seeking a reputation (yay!). When it's all about current riches, meanwhile, people can become corrupt and dishonest, but major industries can make a tidy profit. So, what we're saying is there are pros and cons on both sides.

    When a man denominates another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or depraved, he then speaks another language […] which he expects all his audience are to concur with him. (IX.I.6)

    This quote sums up the difference between the personal and the social. When someone sees another person as an enemy or rival, they've got a private score to settle. However, once they class someone as vicious or immoral, they're not just saying that they have a beef with them—they're making a judgment about this person's character and behavior, and they expect us to nod and say "you're so right!"

    Whoever has a high regard and esteem for me flatters my vanity; whoever expresses contempt mortifies and displeases me; but as my name is known but to a small part of mankind, there are few who come within the sphere of this passion, or excite, on its account, either my affection or disgust. But if you represent a tyrannical, insolent, or barbarous behaviour, in any country or in any age of the world, I soon carry my eye to the pernicious tendency of such a conduct. (IX.I.7)

    It's human nature to feel good about ourselves when others flatter us or to feel angry/upset when someone criticizes or looks down on us. The thing is, no matter how many friends we may have on Facebook, this is a tiny fraction of the human race. What about all the other stuff that goes on in the world? When we hear about brutality or oppression, even if it took place in a past age or a faraway country, we see it as bad. Sometimes, we have to go beyond our own private bubble to make a moral judgment.

    By our continual and earnest pursuit of a character, a name, a reputation in the world, we bring our own deportment and conduct frequently in review, and consider how they appear in the eyes of those who approach and regard us. (IX.I.10)

    Here, Hume points out that we don't just spend our days wandering around in our own private world, oblivious to how folk see us. Instead, we look at ourselves through other people's eyes and think about how we come across. This isn't always a good thing; especially if we start obsessing over what others think. On the flip side, though, it's by reviewing our behavior that we get an idea of how others see us and whether there's anything we need to work on.

    Thus, two men pull the oars of a boat by common convention for common interest, without any promise or contract; thus gold and silver are made the measures of exchange; thus speech and words and language are fixed by human convention and agreement. Whatever is advantageous to two or more persons, if all perform their part; but what loses all advantage if only one perform, can arise from no other principle. (AIII.8)

    Through the simple example of two guys rowing a boat, we get an idea of how useful cooperation can be. Throughout Enquiry, Hume emphasizes that it's natural for people to organize themselves into groups and societies: it's all about people working together to achieve something, and this has led to common languages and currencies. Pretty straightforward, no?

  • Rules and Order

    When any man, even in political society, renders himself by his crimes, obnoxious to the public, he is punished by the laws in his goods and person; that is, the ordinary rules of justice are, with regard to him, suspended for a moment, and it becomes equitable to inflict on him, for the benefit of society, what otherwise he could not suffer without wrong or injury. (III.I.8)

    Justice is all about fairness and, in an ideal world, everyone should be treated the same way. But what if someone crosses the line? That's when they're no longer allowed the same rights as other citizens. When a person commits a crime, it's seen as only right to treat them in a way that, usually, would be seen as immoral and unfair. That's the way the cookie crumbles.

    If we examine the particular laws, by which justice is directed, and property determined; we shall still be presented with the same conclusion. The good of mankind is the only object of all these laws and regulations. Not only is it requisite, for the peace and interest of society, that men's possessions should be separated; but the rules, which we follow, in making the separation, are such as can best be contrived to serve farther the interests of society. (III.II.1)

    If we narrow our focus from the law in general to individual laws, we can see that they work on the same principle. It's all about what's best for society. That's why we have rules about property—first, we recognize that the separation of property is necessary, then we set about putting laws in place to regulate it (otherwise, things would get pretty messy).

    The safety of the people is the supreme law: All other particular laws are subordinate to it, and dependent on it: And if, in the common course of things, they be followed and regarded; it is only because the public safety and interest commonly demand so equal and impartial an administration. (III.II.11)

    Just in case we haven't got the message, Hume flags the one thing that overrides everything else: safety of the people. There are heaps of rules and laws in society and, while there are always exceptions, they're generally understood and obeyed. The reason? People realize that they're for the good of society as a whole.

    What is a man's property? Anything which it is lawful for him, and for him alone, to use. But what rule have we, by which we can distinguish these objects? Here we must have recourse to statutes, customs, precedents, analogies, and a hundred other circumstances; some of which are constant and inflexible, some variable and arbitrary. But the ultimate point [...] is the interest and happiness of human society. (III.II.14)

    Property is something we take for granted, but philosophy is about exploring why things are the way they are. So, what about property? Well, this is something that the law recognizes as belonging to someone, and all kinds of bills, customs, and examples are used to back this up—some of which are rock solid, while others are temporary and changeable. The sheer number of rules and regulations can get confusing, but we always come back to what's good for society.

    What need of positive law where natural justice is, of itself, a sufficient restraint? Why create magistrates, where there never arises any disorder or iniquity? Why abridge our native freedom, when, in every instance, the utmost exertion of it is found innocent and beneficial? It is evident, that, if government were totally useless, it never could have place, and that the sole foundation of the duty of allegiance is the advantage, which it procures to society, by preserving peace and order among mankind. (IV.I)

    Here, Hume demonstrates the reasoning behind justice and the law. Some virtues are natural and, if that were the case with justice, then government wouldn't need to exist. The idea of freedom may be appealing but, in reality, there must be a need for some kind of order and regulation. If there weren't, these things wouldn't exist. So, why are they needed? Because, unlimited freedom would lead to disorder and inequality—Agent K had the right idea.

    Among nations, where an immoral gallantry, if covered with a thin veil of mystery, is, in some degree, authorized by custom, there immediately arise a set of rules, calculated for the conveniency of that attachment. The famous court or parliament of love in Provence formerly decided all difficult cases of this nature. (IV.17)

    In many nations, immoral behavior is either punished through the justice system (when a law has been broken) or criticized for the harm caused to society. But Hume points to settings where some kinds of behavior aren't automatically seen as vices and things get more tricky. These matters can't be decided in traditional courts, so alternatives such as courts of love have been set up to deal with these cases—kind of like an old-school Judge Judy.

    In societies for play, there are laws required for the conduct of the game; and these laws are different in each game. The foundation, I own, of such societies is frivolous; and the laws are, in a great measure, though not altogether, capricious and arbitrary. So far is there a material difference between them and the rules of justice, fidelity, and loyalty [...] The comparison, therefore, in these respects, is very imperfect. We may only learn from it the necessity of rules, wherever men have any intercourse with each other. (IV.18)

    When societies don't have clear, fixed rules, how do they function? We shouldn't assume that they have no regulation and that it's complete chaos. It may be that they do have rules, but these rules are flimsy or unsteady. In Hume's opinion, though, this isn't much better, and we can't really compare this setup with a society that has a proper government and rules of justice (just look at what goes down in Children of the Corn. Yikes!). All it tells us is that there's a need for rules in some shape or form.

    To carry the matter farther, we may observe, that it is impossible for men so much as to murder each other without statutes, and maxims, and an idea of justice and honour. War has its laws as well as peace; and even that sportive kind of war, carried on among wrestlers, boxers, cudgel-players, gladiators, is regulated by fixed principles. Common interest and utility beget infallibly a standard of right and wrong among the parties concerned. (IV.20)

    We may think that rules are overthrown when people commit crimes or in times of war, but nope. Even people like robbers have their own insider codes of conduct, and war is regulated, too. The same goes for the rules that govern sports like boxing, wrestling, and dodgeball. The point is, even when they're not laid down by the government, rules are set up wherever they're necessary and useful.

    Inanimate objects may bear to each other all the same relations which we observe in moral agents; though the former can never be the object of love or hatred, nor are consequently susceptible of merit or iniquity. A young tree, which over-tops and destroys its parent, stands in all the same relations with Nero, when he murdered Agrippina; and if morality consisted merely in relations, would no doubt be equally criminal. (AI.17)

    Remember Hume's argument that we can't study morality in the same way that we would math? He demonstrates this using an example taken from Roman history. You don't have to be a history geek to get his point, though. By comparing a tree destroying its parent to a human murdering another human, we see that that this comparison is an epic fail. Sure, it may work in principle but, on a moral level, we just don't see trees or objects in the same way that we do humans, unless you're a hardcore treehugger.

    By the laws of society, this coat, this horse is mine, and ought to remain perpetually in my possession [...] by depriving me of it, you disappoint my expectations, and doubly displease me, and offend every bystander [...] What injures the community, without hurting any individual, is often more lightly thought of. But where the greatest public wrong is also conjoined with a considerable private one, no wonder the highest disapprobation attends so iniquitous a behaviour. (AIII.11)

    Hume makes it clear throughout his enquiry that public harm is looked down on: when individuals act in a way that's not good for society, they're given a slap on the wrist. But this doesn't mean that the individual doesn't matter. If someone's suffering, we don't just think "oh well, they're only one person. Who cares?" Where public harm is accompanied by individual suffering, we feel all the more angry (and you won't like us when we're angry).

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Reduce a person to solitude, and he loses all enjoyment, except either of the sensual or speculative kind; and that because the movements of his heart are not forwarded by correspondent movements in his fellow-creatures. The signs of sorrow and mourning, though arbitrary, affect us with melancholy; but the natural symptoms, tears and cries and groans, never fail to infuse compassion and uneasiness. (V.II.3)

    While some folks may disagree, solitude isn't a virtue as far as Hume's concerned. Yeah, it gives us quiet thinking time, but not enjoyment. Hume believes that humans are naturally social and feel a sense of sympathy with others. Whether it's happiness or sadness, other people's emotions are transmitted to us via sympathy. Take away human company and what are we left with? Will Smith didn't do so good in I Am Legend (but then he did have vampire mutants to contend with. Cut the guy some slack!).

    Thucydides and Guicciardin support with difficulty our attention; while the former describes the trivial encounters of the small cities of Greece, and the latter the harmless wars of Pisa […] The deep distress of the numerous Athenian army before Syracuse; the danger which so nearly threatens Venice; these excite compassion; these move terror and anxiety. (V.II.18)

    You know the excitement you feel when watching an epic adventure movie? That's kind of what Hume is talking about here. Even when events took place centuries ago or in galaxies far, far away, we're drawn into stories of action, excitement, fear, and courage. So, whereas we might zone out when events are less dramatic and there are fewer people involved, our emotions kick in when the stakes are high.

    When a person stutters, and pronounces with difficulty, we even sympathize […] And it is a rule in criticism, that every combination of syllables or letters, which gives pain to the organs of speech in the recital, appears also from a species of sympathy harsh and disagreeable to the ear. Nay, when we run over a book with our eye, we are sensible of such unharmonious composition; because we still imagine, that a person recites it to us, and suffers from the pronunciation of these jarring sounds. (V.II.21)

    Because of our sense of sympathy, we feel compassion when other people are struggling—e.g., if someone has a stutter (The King's Speech didn't win an Oscar for nothing). We don't only feel this way when a person is right there in front of us—Hume explains that, if we read something that's badly written, we imagine a person reading it out loud and feel bad for them. For Hume, sympathy is finely tuned and sensitive to anything that suggests pain and unpleasantness.

    Virtue, placed at such a distance, is like a fixed star, which, though to the eye of reason it may appear as luminous as the sun in his meridian, is so infinitely removed as to affect the senses, neither with light nor heat. Bring this virtue nearer, by our acquaintance or connexion with the persons, or even by an eloquent recital of the case; our hearts are immediately caught. (V.II.28)

    Even though virtue is always a good thing, Hume recognizes that we don't always react to it on the same level. Sometimes, when it's at a distance from us, we understand it but don't feel much of an emotional response. Our sympathy only ignites when it either relates to us and our loved ones or is described in a way that touches us on a deeper, emotional level.

    It is requisite that there be an original propensity of some kind, in order to be a basis to self-love, by giving a relish to the objects of its pursuit; and none more fit for this purpose than benevolence [...] it would be difficult to show why a man is more a loser by a generous action, than by any other method of expense; since the utmost which he can attain by the most elaborate selfishness, is the indulgence of some affection. (IX.II.7)

    Think that self-interest and benevolence are incompatible? Well, Hume's response is "think again." In fact, Hume suggests that our sense of humanity provides the basis for self-interest—it's kind of like our emotional core that gives us our motivation. Selfishness alone is hollow. It's that old chestnut: we gain more by generosity than extreme selfishness. Charles Dickens would be proud.

    Again; attend to Cicero, while he paints the crimes of a Verres or a Catiline […] The orator may paint rage, insolence, barbarity on the one side; meekness, suffering, sorrow, innocence on the other. But if you feel no indignation or compassion arise in you from this complication of circumstances, you would in vain ask him, in what consists the crime or villainy, which he so vehemently exclaims against? (AI.16)

    Cicero was a philosopher, political theorist, and public speaker who prosecuted some famous Roman politicians. Cicero got a lot of attention for his speeches but this wasn't just because of the facts he presented. As Hume says elsewhere in the Enquiry, we respond to things like speeches, poetry, and historical events all the more when they arouse our sense of sympathy. Like any good storyteller, Cicero was a dude who knew how to engage his audience.

    To the most careless observer there appear to be such dispositions as benevolence and generosity; such affections as love, friendship, compassion, gratitude. These sentiments have their causes, effects, objects, and operations, marked by common language and observation, and plainly distinguished from those of the selfish passions. (AII.6)

    To support his argument that we're not totally selfish, Hume believes that we only need to look to ourselves and our everyday lives and emotions. It's a good point: we don't have to be a philosopher to see that kindness, friendship, love, and all kinds of other positive emotions influence how we act and that they've led to common ideas and language. Maybe Barney was right after all.

    Tenderness to their offspring, in all sensible beings, is commonly able alone to counter-balance the strongest motives of self-love, and has no manner of dependance on that affection. What interest can a fond mother have in view, who loses her health by assiduous attendance on her sick child, and afterwards languishes and dies of grief, when freed, by its death, from the slavery of that attendance? (AII.9)

    Still convinced that we're driven by selfishness? Hume isn't giving up. Here, he uses the love of a parent for their child to prove his point. Imagine that someone spends all their time and energy looking after a sick kid—they're clearly doing so out of love rather than just self-interest. If we think about other acts of kindness, love, and friendship, we can see this isn't just a one-off and that benevolence is part of our nature (well, unless you're a complete Grinch).

    Now where is the difficulty in conceiving […] that, from the original frame of our temper, we may feel a desire of another's happiness or good, which, by means of that affection, becomes our own good, and is afterwards pursued, from the combined motives of benevolence and self-enjoyments? (AII.13)

    Here's another instance where Hume refuses to see benevolence as being a disguise for selfishness. If another person is happy, then our natural sympathy transfers this to us. From then on, we experience a double-whammy of self-interest and benevolence. As with the role of sentiment in morality, Hume believes this should be pretty obvious—why do some folks still insist on this "selfish hypothesis"? Hume has a total facepalm moment here.

    The happiness and prosperity of mankind, arising from the social virtue of benevolence and its subdivisions, may be compared to a wall, built by many hands, which still rises by each stone that is heaped upon it, and receives increase proportional to the diligence and care of each workman. (AIII.5)

    Here, Hume uses the ever-popular example of people building a wall. Where it would be a long and exhausting task for one person, when a bunch of people work together it's much speedier and less of a slog. Remember folks: there's no "I" in team.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    Suppose [...] that it should be a virtuous man's fate to fall into the society of ruffians, remote from the protection of laws and government; what conduct must he embrace in that melancholy situation? He sees such a desperate rapaciousness prevail; such a disregard to equity […] as must immediately have the most tragical conclusion. (III.I.9)

    So being polite and orderly is valued in daily life, but what if we found ourselves in a society where there was no government, no rules, and we had to fend for ourselves? In these circumstances, self-preservation would take hold and we'd be forced to protect ourselves in any way we could.

    It seems evident, that where a quality or habit is subjected to our examination, if it appear in any respect prejudicial to the person possessed of it, or such as incapacitates him for business and action, it is instantly blamed […] Indolence, negligence, want of order and method, obstinacy, fickleness, rashness, credulity; these qualities were never esteemed by any one indifferent to a character; much less, extolled. (VI.I.1)

    All of us have our faults, yet Hume argues that, if these flaws are harmful or affect their usefulness to society, folks are gonna get bent out of shape. If someone's lazy, messy, quick-tempered, careless, or gullible, no way do we want them on our team; plus, these qualities don't add anything to a person's character. Nope, "virtuous" is the last word we'd use to describe somebody like this.

    And however poets may employ their wit and eloquence, in celebrating present pleasure, and rejecting all distant views to fame, health, or fortune; it is obvious, that this practice is the source of all dissoluteness and disorder, repentance and misery. A man of a strong and determined temper adheres tenaciously to his general resolutions. (VI.I.15)

    Basking in immediate pleasure is all good in poetry, but if we always take this approach to reality then we're likely to regret it. Planning for the future isn't the most exciting thing, but it's important. That's why Hume warns against abandoning our resolutions and giving into temptation. Look at it this way: Peter Griffin went from this to this. There's a lesson for ya.

    There is a sort of harmless liars […] who deal much in the marvellous. Their usual intention is to please and entertain; but as men are most delighted with what they conceive to be truth, these people mistake extremely the means of pleasing, and incur universal blame. Some indulgence, however, to lying or fiction is given in humorous stories; because it is there really agreeable and entertaining, and truth is not of any importance. (VIII.6)

    Is lying always bad? What if someone makes things up to entertain us? There's nothing sinister about this, but Hume argues that knowing something is true makes it extra compelling. To find out that it's not the real deal may leave us feeling bummed out. Still, when it's a funny story and we're under no illusion that it's true, it's okay for fiction to take the place of fact.

    Such a one has, besides, the frequent satisfaction of seeing knaves, with all their pretended cunning and abilities, betrayed by their own maxims; and while they purpose to cheat with moderation and secrecy, a tempting incident occurs, nature is frail, and they give into the snare; whence they can never extricate themselves, without a total loss of reputation, and the forfeiture of all future trust and confidence. (IX.II.11)

    Though he wouldn't usually wish misfortune on anyone, Hume has to admit that seeing a devious scheme backfire carries a certain satisfaction. It's like when we're watching a movie and the baddie gets their just desserts. As the saying goes: "don't do the crime if you can't do the time."

    But on the whole, it seems to me, that [...] when a man is called virtuous, or is denominated a man of virtue, we chiefly regard his social qualities, which are, indeed, the most valuable. It is, at the same time, certain, that any remarkable defect in courage, temperance, economy, industry, understanding, dignity of mind, would bereave even a very good-natured, honest man of this honourable appellation. (AIV.2)

    Getting into the topic of language, Hume notes that, when we call someone "virtuous," we're most often talking about their social values. This makes sense, since it's these that make a person useful and agreeable to society. But even when someone is honest and reliable, if they are totally lacking in stuff like courage and dignity then we can't call them virtuous—well, unless we're being ironic.

    Who [...] is not deeply mortified with reflecting on his own folly and dissoluteness, and feels not a secret sting or compunction whenever his memory presents any past occurrence, where he behaved with stupidity of ill-manners? No time can efface the cruel ideas of a man's own foolish conduct, or of affronts, which cowardice or impudence has brought upon him. (AIV.3)

    It's not only other people's vices that we disapprove of. Virtually all of us can think back on our past mistakes and cringe. They say that time's a great healer, and it's true that some stuff doesn't seem as dramatic when we look back on it. But if someone has acted in a way that was cruel or foolish, their mistakes can haunt them—maybe for the rest of their life… and nobody has time for that.

    What pretensions has a man to our generous assistance or good offices, who has dissipated his wealth in profuse expenses, idle vanities, chimerical projects, dissolute pleasures or extravagant gaming? These vices (for we scruple not to call them such) bring misery unpitied, and contempt on every one addicted to them. (AIV.8)

    Hume's all for being a Good Samaritan, but if someone's downfall is the result of their own vanity, foolishness, or corruption, do they deserve our help or pity? Hume isn't so sure. He may be a fan of kindness, compassion, and all that jazz, but he's no pushover.

    The precipitate flight and improvident negligence of Pompey, at the beginning of the civil wars, appeared such notorious blunders to Cicero, as quite palled his friendship towards that great man. In the same manner, says he, as want of cleanliness, decency, or discretion in a mistress are found to alienate our affections. (AIV.10)

    It seems that Cicero (Roman philosopher, political theorist, and all-round whiz kid) was on the same page as Hume when it came to morality. If someone made a major blunder, Cicero wasn't gonna let it pass and he felt the same about vices as a whole. This goes to show that, even though some beliefs can change, there are others that stand the test of time.

    In general, we may observe, that the distinction of voluntary or involuntary was little regarded by the ancients in their moral reasonings; where they frequently treated the question as very doubtful, whether virtue could be taught [...] They justly considered that cowardice, meanness, levity, anxiety, impatience, folly, and many other qualities of the mind, might appear ridiculous and deformed, contemptible and odious, though independent of the will. (AIV.20)

    Do we make a conscious choice to behave morally or is it more of a subconscious thing? Hume explains that the ancients didn't make any distinction of this kind—they were skeptical whether virtue could be taught. The same goes for vices like cowardice and impatience. Other folk, however, have seen these things as deliberate choices. This is a subject that's been up in the air but, hey, they call it philosophy for a reason.

  • Strength and Skill

    When Pericles, the great Athenian statesman and general, was on his death-bed, his surrounding friends [...] began to indulge their sorrow for their expiring patron, by enumerating his great qualities and successes, his conquests and victories, the unusual length of his administration, and his nine trophies [...] You forget, cries the dying hero [...] the most eminent of my praises [...] You have not observed that no citizen has ever yet worne mourning on my account. (II.I.2)

    Near the end of the Enquiry, Hume says that natural pleasures are way more valuable than possessions or any other stuff. From this quote, it would appear that Pericles had a similar view. When he was dying, his pals starting harping about his conquests and trophies, but, in his eyes, the fact that he'd caused no suffering to his citizens was much more important. See, this dude knew what really mattered.

    Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance [...] the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not […] lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. (III.I.18)

    In this quote, Hume chews on an imaginary situation: what if we lived alongside creatures that were rational and pleasant but had nowhere near our level of physical or mental strength? Hume's take is that we wouldn't subject them to tasks that they weren't fit for; however, we wouldn't give them the same property rights that we enjoy or feel that we were bound to them through systems of justice. In short, it wouldn't be an equal arrangement, but us humans have never been too good at the whole equality thing. Just look at racism.

    The tortoise, according to the fable, by his perseverance, gained the race of the hare, though possessed of much superior swiftness. A man's time, when well husbanded, is like a cultivated field, of which a few acres produce more of what is useful to life, than extensive provinces, even of the richest soil, when over-run with weeds and brambles. (VI.I.10)

    Fables are great for teaching us valuable life lessons, and the one about the tortoise and the hare is as well-known today as it was in Hume's time. Just in case it's somehow flown under your radar, its point is that being cautious and careful can pay off in the long run, whereas going headfirst into situations at full speed may not work out. It's about using our time wisely and thinking about what's practical and valuable.

    But in ancient times, when no man could make a figure without the talent of speaking, and when the audience were too delicate to bear such crude, undigested harangues as our extemporary orators offer […] the faculty of memory was then of the utmost consequence, and was accordingly much more valued than at present. (VI.I.19)

    Public speaking is still important for some folks today (like motivational speakers and politicians), but in ancient times it was much more of a requirement. If you wanted to make a name for yourself, you had to have both a flair for speaking and a first-class memory. Make no mistake, these guys were catering to a tough audience and only the best would do.

    Particular customs and manners alter the usefulness of qualities: they also alter their merit. Particular situations and accidents have, in some degree, the same influence. He will always be more esteemed, who possesses those talents and accomplishments, which suit his station and profession, than he whom fortune has misplaced in the part which she has assigned him. (VI.I.20)

    Like other virtues, certain skills or talents can be valued in some cultures or situations more than others. But what are the criteria for seeing something as valuable? Here, Hume returns to the magic word: usefulness. If someone has a head for numbers, they'd probably be a good accountant but wouldn't necessarily be a brilliant painter or actor. Hume acts like a career adviser here, emphasizing that skills have to be a good match for the job someone's hoping to succeed in.

    Broad shoulders, a lank belly, firm joints, taper legs; all these are beautiful in our species, because signs of force and vigour. Ideas of utility and its contrary, though they do not entirely determine what is handsome or deformed, are evidently the source of a considerable part of approbation or dislike. (VI.II.3)

    Usefulness doesn't just shape our views on people's behavior and personality traits. It also influences what we see as ideal physical features. Sure, it's not the only factor involved in defining what we may see as attractive/unattractive, but it plays a role. Since signs of fitness, health, and energy factor into our ideas about utility, it's only natural that we find them appealing.

    In ancient times, bodily strength and dexterity, being of greater use and importance in war, was also much more esteemed and valued, than at present. Not to insist on Homer and the poets, we may observe, that historians scruple not to mention force of body among the other accomplishments even of Epaminondas, whom they acknowledge to be the greatest hero, statesman, and general of all the Greeks. (VI.II.4)

    Though fitness is valued today, if we go way back to the ancient times, we see that being agile and strong was a big deal. War relied on brute force and physical skill more back then than it does today, and it's not just the old-school writers and poets (like Homer—no, not Simpson, this guy) who tell us this. Historians back them up, singling out Epaminondas as an all-round great guy whose strength would've put the dudes in Troy and 300 to shame.

    All men are equally liable to pain and disease and sickness; and may again recover health and ease. These circumstances, as they make no distinction between one man and another, are no source of pride or humility, regard or contempt. But comparing our own species to superior ones, it is a very mortifying consideration, that we should all be so liable to diseases and infirmities. (VI.II.6fn1)

    Despite the value of health and energy, people aren't totally ruthless (well, most aren't). Being sick on a temporary basis is no big deal: we're all human and we all have our down days. But no matter how strong we feel at other times, the very fact that we suffer with health problems makes us aware of just how fragile and human we really are.

    And can it possibly be doubted, that this talent itself of poets, to move the passions, this pathetic and sublime of sentiment, is a very considerable merit; and being enhanced by its extreme rarity, may exalt the person possessed of it, above every character of the age in which he lives? (VII.27)

    When we talk about virtues, we're not only talking about what's useful but what's agreeable. Some qualities are valued in all folks (such as politeness and compassion) but there are some values that we appreciate because they're agreeable and rare. Not everyone can be expected to be a poetic maestro, but that's okay; we admire artists, writers, and musicians who bring us pleasure thanks to their awesome talent.

    Hannibal, as drawn by Livy [...] is esteemed partial, but allows him many eminent virtues [...] Great boldness in facing danger; great prudence in the midst of it. No labour could fatigue his body or subdue his mind [...] These great Virtues were balanced by great Vices; inhuman cruelty; perfidy more than punic; no truth, no faith, no regard to oaths, promises, or religion. (AIV.17)

    Hannibal is another warrior whose feats have entered the history books—not surprising for a guy with enough skills to make Napoleon Dynamite green with envy. But he was far from perfect; in fact, he was treacherous and cruel. Just goes to show that having a bucketload of virtues doesn't always make someone a saint.