Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Principles

By David Hume


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.

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