Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Compassion and Forgiveness

By David Hume

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.

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