Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Foolishness and Folly

By David Hume

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.

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