An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Summary
Is morality based on reason or on sentiment? Hume believes that philosophers have produced some confusing theories, but his big gripe is with the idea that morality is based 100% on reason. Seriously, what's up with that?
Hume describes the ideal citizen as reliable, compassionate, thoughtful, and fair. Yep, if we were making a wish list, those are definitely the boxes we'd tick. Still, it's not just about niceness but what's useful to society.
In an ideal world, folks would have everything they needed and envy—the green-eyed monster—would never rear its head. When everything is freely available, there's no need for rules. But there are some places and scenarios where things like land and water aren't freely available. That's when we need to lay down some ground rules.
Hume explains that rules of justice and property have been created because they're useful. He then describes some situations where justice gets put on hold, like after a shipwreck (which was probably much more of a threat back then than it is today), but adds that everyday society is more of a happy medium.
Hume argues that justice isn't defined from up above but is more of a practical thing. Take property: the idea of mine/yours isn't something that's always been around but we've recognized that it's useful and have set up laws to maintain it.
Though we have rules about justice and property, Hume states that the bond between nations isn't as strong as the bond between individuals. When cooperation isn't useful, a nation may decide to bail.
Hume then explores some other social structures and characteristics. For example, the family unit helps make sure that kids are cared for and raised as social beings. He sees commitment in marriage as another virtue, though chastity is seen as more important for women than men.
While some vices are always bad, others depend on the situation. Loyalty is important in close relationships but not so much in casual ones. It's about what's convenient and useful (yep, it's that word again).
Some argue that moral codes are established by schools and politicians, but Hume disagrees. He believes that they can have an influence but there's something in our nature that responds to ideas about morality. Hume recognizes that we may feel most strongly about issues relating to us and our loved ones, but he argues that we have a natural concern for others, too.
Along with emotional and intellectual qualities, Hume discusses physical characteristics. Signs of health and energy are positives, but, other than that, it's a question of how well someone is suited to a task.
Other qualities seen as valuable are good-humor, self esteem, courage, and philosophical tranquility. Hume adds that virtues aren't always based on usefulness but on agreeableness and pleasure. Either way, they endorse happiness, and who is going to argue against that?
Hume's next topic is qualities that produce an immediate type of pleasure. These include politeness, wit, modesty, cleanliness, and decency. Hume rejects "monkish virtues" (XI.I.3) like solitude and self-denial because he doesn't see them as useful or agreeable.
Despite recognizing that we sometimes feel strong passions toward ourselves and those close to us, Hume uses examples such as protests and public uproar to show that folk can have strong emotions about social issues, too.
Returning to the subject of self-interest, Hume argues that selfish emotions aren't always bad. If we want to do well in life, we think about how other people perceive us. This encourages us to monitor our behavior and act in an agreeable way. Makes sense, right?
The Enquiry ends with four appendices. The first recaps Hume's argument that sentiment shapes our moral thinking. The second emphasizes that self-interest isn't a fault so long as it doesn't overrule our concern for others. The third explains that benevolence is immediate and instinctual (e.g., a parent's concern for their child) while justice is concerned with society. The fourth admits that it can be tough to find the perfect words to define virtues and talents (or vices and defects) but that this is just verbal confusion and isn't a big deal.
Of the General Principles of Morals
- Hume starts out by outlining two character types that can be super annoying: people who are into their principles to the point where it gets OTT, and people who don't even believe what they're saying but just want to stir up controversy. As far as Hume's concerned, folks like this are just trolling—all we can hope is that they eventually give it up.
- What is worth spending some time on is morality; chiefly, whether morality is based mainly on reason or on sentiment. Plus, we need to ask whether morality is a universal thing where everyone sees eye-to-eye or whether it's more complicated.
- Hume points out that the ancient philosophers claimed to be all about reason but, actually, seem to have viewed morals as deriving from taste and sentiment. On the flip side, modern enquirers have talked about "the beauty of virtue, and deformity of vice" (I.4) but seem to have based their ideas on abstract thinking. See, we're dealing with a tangled web of disagreement and confusion.
- Hume's main beef is with the idea that morality is based purely on reason. Sure, there are areas in which facts and reason are most important (hello, geometry), but if we consider how we react to poetry or to emotions such as love and humor, it's clear that we're not just dealing with facts.
- This isn't an either/or thing though—Hume points to a criminal trial as a scenario where we need to get the facts and then call on sentiment to decide whether something's morally right or wrong.
- Hume ends by giving us an idea of what to expect in the following sections. His overall aim is to consider the roles that reason and sentiment play in real-world scenarios and viewpoints. By looking at particular examples, Hume believes we can reach wider conclusions about what's commonly seen as moral and immoral. Sounds like a plan to us.
- Hume notes that taking the opposite approach—starting off with commonly held views and then looking at specifics—may technically be more perfect, but, hey, the human race isn't perfect. He then stresses that we can't apply abstract ideas to morality but need to focus on everyday, lived experience.
- Hume finishes off by introducing the next section, which will focus on "the social virtues": benevolence and justice. He sees this as good starting point because it lays the groundwork for discussing other kinds of virtues. So, let's hop into it.
Section II, Part I
Of Benevolence, Part I
- Hume begins this section by recognizing that, when it comes to things like friendliness, kindness, and gratitude, it may seem pointless to examine why they're valued so much. C'mon, it's pretty obvious, right?
- Hume adds that we generally have an even higher opinion of folks that have not only these qualities but strong abilities that they use for the good of all; y'know like Superman, Spiderman, and all that crew.
- Hume uses the example of Pericles (a great Athenian general) to sum up his key argument. Hume explains that, when Pericles was on his deathbed, his pals talked glowingly about his many awards and victories. Pericles, however, replied that these "vulgar advantages" (II.I.2) were far less important than the happiness and contentment he'd brought to his citizens.
- Far from being important only to the likes of Pericles, Hume argues that social virtues like benevolence are even more important to us ordinary folk since we don't usually have epic achievements and successes to fall back on. In general, cut-throat ambition is a less likable trait than "softer" virtues such as kindness and compassion.
- The theme here is that, ideally, we don't just brag about our own achievements and good points but extend our thoughts and feelings toward other folks, too.
- In the final paragraph, Hume remembers that his current aim isn't to gush about the charms of these social virtues; it's to explore how morals are formed and come into practice.
- He sums up that no qualities are looked on more fondly than those that relate to sympathy and concern for others, as they play a big role in creating a connection between individuals (after all, friendship is magic).
Section II, Part II
Of Benevolence, Part II
- This section begins with Hume setting out his idea of the ideal moral citizen. In both their private life and public life, this individual is caring, reliable, and fair. Likewise, if they hold a position of authority, they're a thoughtful and compassionate leader rather than a boss from hell. This isn't just about niceness, but usefulness too.
- To illustrate this, Hume points out that we sometimes talk about the usefulness of plants or animals: when we see fields full of corn or cows grazing, we know that they're not just part of the scenery but have a purpose. Similarly, we might notice whether or not a machine, a house, or a piece of furniture is suited to its purpose. Speaking of which, check out this couch—ouch!
- Hume emphasizes that usefulness isn't limited to certain jobs. For sure, it's important when we're talking about manufacturing items that are necessary or helpful to us, but Hume points out that a monk would be irked if we suggested that his order was useless or harmful. Equally, writers cares about the responses to their work.
- Hume gives a bunch of other examples. For instance, he notes cases where utility—or lack of—has been used as the basis of praising or slamming religion. His overall argument is that morality is mostly based on usefulness to the public.
- If we first overlook this or if we first think something's useful only to find out otherwise, this causes us to readjust our views. So, if we give money to someone thinking that we're helping them, only to find out that they've blown it, we're not exactly gonna be jumping for joy.
- People's ideas about the public good have sometimes changed over time: Hume notes that assassinating cruel princes was celebrated in ancient times but folks realized that this doesn't work out well in the long term. Hume adds that we may applaud princes for acts of generosity but that, if the receivers squander the cash or get greedy, we start to get hacked off.
- Hume isn't down on luxury, though he recognizes that it can have its pitfalls. He explains that luxury has often been associated with corruption, civil wars, and oppression, and has been seen as immoral. However, if we think of it as leading to an increase of things that are beneficial to humankind (like industry and the arts), we see that it's not all bad.
- Hume rounds off by emphasizing the importance of benevolence, describing this as a social virtue that's useful in securing people's happiness and wellbeing. Yep, Ebenezer Scrooge learnt a valuable lesson.
Section III, Part I
Of Justice, Part I
- To demonstrate the role of justice, Hume paints a picture of a world in which everyone has all they could wish for and there's no envy, resentment, or need for justice and property laws. This may seem like a fantasy world, but Hume explains that, even today, when something is freely available (such as air and water) we don't create rules about property. It's only when things are in short supply that rules need to be set up.
- Some folk have defended the liberty of the seas on the same grounds. However, since the advantages gained by navigation aren't limitless, rivalry rears its head and we start to see how problems can arise...
- Hume recognizes the bond that people can feel with their loved ones, with this bond overriding rules of property.
- He adds that some folk have tried to build communities that operate in a similar way and have only adopted rules of justice and property when they've found that it wasn't working. Hume's point? Justice only arises when it's useful (in case you haven't noticed, you'll be hearing this word a lot).
- To demonstrate this, Hume imagines a scenario in which resources are no longer plentiful and everyone's seriously gloomy. In this case, Hume suggests that people's self-preservation instincts are likely to kick in. After a shipwreck, for example, people's priority is to take hold of whatever they can to ensure their survival. Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures (turns out that even Wilson has a dark side).
- Hume sees war as another suspension of justice. Whenever justice no longer offers any advantage, it's overtaken by other concerns.
- Now, Hume tackles the question of how and why rules of property and justice have been invented and become so widespread. Hume points out that societies don't usually operate at the extremes mentioned above, but instead occupy a middle ground. Our main interests may lie with ourselves and those close to us, but we learn that keeping up with wider society can be useful too.
- The idea of a benevolent society in which everyone looks out for everyone else may have its appeal (just ask the Care Bears). Poetry, for instance, can depict a world in which the weather's perfect, natural resources are in full supply, and no one suffers or causes suffering—a world in which rules of justice aren't needed.
- Hume mentions the poetry of the Golden Age as a prime example, contrasting it with philosophical fiction that explores the State of Nature. In this philosophical account, humans began as violent savages who had to rely on themselves. There were no laws, property, or systems of justice, but the result wasn't love and hugs—it was nonstop war. Oops.
- Whether humans could live (or continue to live) in this way is something that Hume doubts. As he notes, people are usually raised by their families to recognize appropriate behavior. Still, if this state of ongoing war and violence were real, Hume would see it as another scenario in which the laws of justice would be abandoned.
- Hume then sketches out another imaginary scenario in which, as well as us, there's another species of creatures that are weak in body and mind. Hume emphasizes the inequality of this arrangement—humans would wield total authority, our compassion being the only thing keeping us in check. Hume compares this to the way that some groups (e.g., women and people of different races or nationalities) have been treated, though Hume adds that women have often been able to share in society's rights and privileges. So, it's not all bad.
- Hume ends by giving us another imaginary scenario in which each person lives wholly for himself or herself and there's no society. But what happens if nature takes its course and families start to emerge? And what if several families come together to form a society? Finally, what happens if a bunch of societies decide that it's a good idea to work together? Can you see where we're going with this? Following this train of thought helps explain how society as we know it today came into being.
Section III, Part II
Of Justice, Part II
- Hume begins by shifting focus from the general idea of justice to particular laws, but he says that the focus is the same either way—it's all about what's good and useful for society.
- While some religious types have seen justice as something that's defined from above, Hume believes that we need to look at it on a more grounded level. He has no time for religious fanatics, and is relieved that magistrates don't pay much notice to their views. He adds that there were fanatics of this kind in England during the civil wars, but their more extreme views alienated them from the general population. Folk were like, "are these guys for real?"
- In addition to religious fanatics, Hume muses on whether we could call the Levellers (who believed in sharing property equally) political fanatics. The kind of equality that they advocated may seem ideal to many, but Hume says that common sense and history have shown that it mostly doesn't work. Mostly.
- Expanding on this, Hume says that any equality that's established would most likely crumble given people's different personalities, skills, and circumstances. He suggests, too, that this world of equality wouldn't be as benevolent as we might imagine—when people started to show signs of inequality, authority would step in and we could head down a slippery slope to tyranny. Eek!
- On the other hand, in this world of total equality, who could possess authority in the first place? Like property, no one would have any more or less than their neighbor.
- Hume concludes that we need to keep in mind the question: what's most useful to society? Hume uses the concept of property to illustrate this, singling out the terms "mine" and "yours." This division is something that we've created because we've found it useful. Easy-peasy.
- The definition of property may be simple: it's something that's lawful for a person to own and use. Still, we establish and maintain this through all kinds of customs and laws. For all these complexities though, we always come back to the happiness and welfare of society. It's our ultimate go-to.
- Hume has no time for superstitions, noting that an Egyptian wouldn't approach bacon for religious reasons but that there's no reason for this based on medicine, chemistry, or physics (for more bacon-related news, head here). The rules of property may sometimes seem to work in a similar way—it's immoral to live in a house on one side of a river, but since the other side has different laws, it's all good to live there. Huh? This can seem pretty random, but Hume stresses that justice and the interests of society form a kind of moral compass.
- Unlike hunger and thirst, Hume recognizes that justice has been constructed because it serves a social purpose. As for authorities such as chancellors and juries, they've likewise come about because we need them.
- Whereas birds of the same species build their nests in the same way, human beings have framed their houses differently depending on the time and place. Hume uses this example to show the influence of reason and custom.
- Even so, Hume notes that the major outlines of houses tend to stay pretty much the same because people have found them handy (though there are always exceptions—check this out).
- Because property and justice are so well-established, we may take them for granted. Ultimately, though, justice is necessary because it supports society as a whole, and this is the same reason why we value stuff like integrity, loyalty, public spirit, and truthfulness.
Of Political Society
- This section begins with a reminder that there would never have been any need for government if every individual had a natural sense of justice. If acting freely never had any negative consequences, then why set limits on it?
- We might assume that states/nations operate according to the same rules of justice as those that rule individuals.
- But, nope, there's a difference: invading another person's property is always seen as a breach of justice. When it comes to nations, though, this bond isn't as strong—they don't always have to cooperate with each other and the boundaries of justice aren't as rigid. In an emergency, states may decide to cast aside the rules of justice and any ties that aren't in their best interests.
- Another social structure that Hume explores is the family. Like all this other stuff, Hume sees this as being based on usefulness—babies and kids can't take care of themselves, so it's up to parents to raise them into social beings.
- He sees faithfulness as serving this purpose too, though he observes that chastity (aka purity) is demanded of women but seen as not quite so important for men. Hume doesn't get into explaining this tricky subject; he's just saying how things usually are in society. It's like, "hey, don't shoot the messenger!"
- Hume then refers to incest as a type of behavior that's seen as unacceptable. He notes that people may have the opportunity to engage in this behavior but that it's seen as harmful and totally sketchy.
- Being a tattletale is another thing that's seen as socially unacceptable. Once gossip spreads around, it can cause arguments and all-around bad vibes. This shows that, even where no official laws are broken, there are laws of good manners that we have to follow unless we want to end up as social outcasts.
- Next, Hume makes the point that loyalty is super important in some situations, like when we're dealing with people who are close to us. On a more general level, though, there's nothing disloyal or rude about talking with people without any long-term ties. Whatever's useful and agreeable.
- We know that laws and codes of conduct play a role in civilized society, but even outside civilized society, ideas about honor and justice can—and do—exist. Robbers and pirates rely on a code of justice among themselves and even wars have rules.
Section V, Part I
Why Utility Pleases, Part I
- Hume kicks off this section by observing that, in daily life, utility is where it's at. Returning to the example of a building, Hume notes that any structure that doesn't seem properly fit for its purpose makes us go "urgh." The same goes for folks whose behavior is harmful to society, but, in these cases, we experience a stronger emotional response.
- Do moral distinctions come from education and politicians? Hume agrees that they can be influential, but he disagrees that morality stems from these areas. For Hume, ideas about morality could never have been invented if there weren't something in our nature that was open to them. Hume's like, "work with me here, people!"
- If every individual recognizes that they can't exist apart from society, it follows that any virtue that benefits society gets our approval. We have a sense of self-interest, sure, but we combine this with a sense of the public good.
- Some folks have argued that, really, we're selfish at heart. Hume, however, doesn't buy this. Why do we praise or criticize actions that have taken place in the past or in other countries? These actions don't have any direct connection with us, yet we still respond to them. You've gotta hand it to Hume—he knows how to fight his corner.
- When thinking about people and actions that aren't directly relevant to us, Hume recognizes that we may feel stronger emotions about stuff that's closer to home. Still, the very fact that we feel emotions about events that don't concern us suggests that it's not just selfishness that shapes our thoughts.
- One explanation for our reaction is that we put ourselves in the place of these individuals, using our imaginations to transport ourselves into the past. However, Hume argues that real sentiment or passion can never come out of imaginary interest. He goes on to argue that it's by experience that we're able to go beyond our basic sense of right vs. wrong to think more deeply.
- Hume concludes by bringing us back to his mantra: usefulness is agreeable. He emphasizes that we don't only think about what's useful to ourselves, but also to other individuals and society. This is why we can take an interest in actions that occurred in the past or in faraway countries. We may not view them in exactly the same way as we do our immediate surroundings, but this doesn't mean we flat-out don't care.
Section V, Part II
Why Utility Pleases, Part II
- Hume understands why some folks have seen public concern as rooted in self-interest. However, he reaffirms that public interest still provokes our moral sentiment. Hume doesn't want to examine why we have a sense of humanity; he wants to take it as given that we're not all just "meh" about anything to do with other people.
- Hume then sketches out a possible scenario: we enter a warm, comfortable apartment and are introduced to the landlord and his family—all of whom are happy and friendly. Our natural response is pleasure and sympathy. So when the landlord talks about how he has a nightmare neighbor, we feel bad.
- Hume uses the theater as another example. When an audience watches a play, it's a joint experience where individuals share in their emotional responses. Another aim is for the audience to feel a connection with the characters and care about what happens to them. It works the other way around too if the actors can get a buzz from the presence of an audience.
- Moving on to poetry, Hume sees the pastoral variety as the most entertaining, as it presents gentle, tranquil imagery that transfers a similar sentiment to us. It's like the poetry equivalent of a lullaby.
- Hume acknowledges that, sometimes, we may get more attached to sentiments resembling those we feel in our own lives. Still, one of the aims of poetry is to bring us closer to whatever emotions are being conveyed. Here, Hume notes that stating the facts doesn't always have this effect—it's when a scenario is set before us and grabs our attention that it has the "wow" factor.
- Hume's next point is that, when we know that something's true, this brings it closer to us. In fact, we can feel major concern about things that don't directly relate to us as long as they're true and they appeal to our sympathy.
- While sympathy brings to mind emotions such as compassion and kindness, Hume points out that we're not always just talking about the nice stuff. If we observe people's obedience to unjust leaders/political parties, we can see that social sympathy isn't always so great.
- Hume suggests that, when we hear about events that happened in the distant past or faraway lands, it's often the more dramatic stuff that grabs our attention. However, even small-scale issues can engage our sympathy: if a person stutters, we feel bad for them. (Did you know that Lewis Carroll stuttered? Check out his poem about it here.)
- In any case, our reactions are based on whether something promotes wellbeing and happiness. That's why health and energy are agreeable, as are clothes that are comfortable and suited to their purpose.
- Ultimately, we can't judge anyone without considering the benefits and dangers that their actions pose to society.
- Hume goes on to state that everyone has some awareness of good and evil. Of course, some individuals put aside social concerns in favor of their own self-interest. Hume's point is that, where there's no personal benefit to be gained, people generally lean toward whatever promotes happiness.
- While Hume talks about widespread sympathy, he again acknowledges that we tend to have a stronger reaction toward events and people that are closer to us. Also, each of us has our own likes and dislikes. That's why there needs to be a general standard of vice/virtue based on public usefulness. Expressing moral sentiment is great, but it's when people act in a way that's useful to society that they're seen as A+ citizens.
- Hume concludes that there are countless instances in which people express a natural concern for others and the interests of society. Because of this, we can say that human beings are equipped with a benevolent principle. Got it? Awesome. Now we can move onto other sentiments that arise from the same or similar principles.
Section VI, Part I
Of Qualities Useful to Ourselves, Part I
- The extent to which we see a quality or habit as positive/negative depends, in large part, on usefulness. Things that have a harmful effect on a person or their ability to contribute to society are seen as bad, while qualities that seem well-suited to their purpose (and not excessive/lacking) are fantabulous.
- Unlike those philosophers who've seen benevolence as rooted in selfishness, Hume argues that it's based on sympathy and humanity. Get with the program, people!
- Hume recognizes that some people are more kind than others and briefly toys with the idea of a person who doesn't care at all. However, he doesn't dwell on this and instead focuses on the role that usefulness plays in shaping our views and actions.
- It's all about good judgment: we think about a situation and weigh the best course of action. Heard of the tortoise and the hare? Well, Hume sees this as a prime example.
- Hume argues that we need to be sensible and think about the future rather than being greedy, pleasure-seeking, or squandering cash. Qualities such as honesty and loyalty are obviously important in promoting the interests of society but they're beneficial to the individual, too. The ideal is for a person to think about their duty to themselves and to society.
- Though some virtues are equally valued in men and women, chastity/purity is seen as way more vital for women.
- Hume explains that there are so many chances for women to give into temptation that nothing less than complete modesty is acceptable. For a man, it's easier to recover after he's made a mistake. If a woman makes a mistake, however, she's exposed to all kinds of insults and loses her social rank. Equality? Not so much.
- We all want to be happy campers; however, it's not always easy to think of the long-term in the face of temptations that are right in front of us. Hume therefore warns against giving into temptation, arguing that we should keep in mind our future goals and stick to our guns. Is it just us, or would this guy make a great advice columnist? Better watch out, Abby.
- In Hume's view, one of the reasons why the fool is looked on negatively (unlike the wise man) is that they don't have any use to society. This shows just how much usefulness is valued. Still, Hume states that some qualities can be valued because of their rarity and nobility even where they're not useful.
- What's seen as useful can vary over time. For example, memory was valued in the ancient times more than it is now, as this was a time when public speakers were held in highest regard and expected to put on a good show.
- Sometimes, when people boast about their virtues, we might find ourselves feeling cynical. Moral virtues like benevolence or public spirit can seem insincere in some cases, and we start to think "yeah right." However, Hume maintains that we never lose our sense of moral judgment altogether.
- In conclusion, Hume argues that we're never totally indifferent to the happiness or misery of others. We start out by recognizing merits that are beneficial to the person that possesses them, and this then shapes our thinking on a wider scale. The result? We're able to view the world through the lens of "disinterested benevolence" (AII.12).
Section VI, Part II
Of Qualities Useful to Ourselves, Part II
- So far, Hume has focused mostly on mental and emotional characteristics. However, can we apply the same logic to physical characteristics? Hume thinks so.
- We tend to have a positive impression of features that suggest health, fitness, and vitality, but we need, in addition, to consider whether a person's suited to the situation at hand. Hume observes, for example, that strength and agility were of major value in ancient times due to their usefulness in war. A similar mindset shapes our reactions to painting and statues, where proper balance is pleasing to us.
- Hume then refers to "barrenness" (infertility) in women as another type of inutility and, likewise, impotence (the inability to engage in sexual relations) as a defect that robs people of pleasure.
- Health in general is highly valued, but Hume notes that temporary ill health doesn't automatically single anyone out as useless—we're not that ruthless. It's when we compare ourselves to superior species that we become aware of how vulnerable we are.
- The next subject that Hume tackles is why we admire those who are rich and powerful. His conclusion is that this stems from images of happiness, success, comfort, etc. We may sometimes feel envy, but this goes alongside respect and humility; likewise, we may feel pity for those less fortunate.
- Hume makes the further point that folks may put personal characteristics above fame and fortune. On the surface, though, they may pay more attention to the signs of riches since these flag someone's social position. Maybe we're all a little bit shallow after all.
- As Hume has said before, which characteristics are commonly valued can depend on the place and the time period. So, where a person's current state of wealth is most important in England, noble ancestry is a bigger deal in Europe.
- Hume doesn't argue that one is better. His point is that power and riches generally inspire respect, and those who live comfortably give off a sense of prosperity and satisfaction.
Of Qualities Immediately Agreeable to Ourselves
- Hume begins this section by recognizing the positive effect that happy, cheerful company has on us: it's normal to have down days, but Hume observes that good-humored companionship can lift the spirits. Another important quality is self-esteem, as, in Hume's view, it's hard to have respect for others if we don't value ourselves.
- Courage is another quality that we often see as a positive thing; partly because it can be useful but also because it has a noble quality that appeals to us. Regardless of the positive results of a hero's actions, there's something about the hero that draws us in—it's that x-factor and doesn't just apply to real life but to characters in literature and art too.
- As with the other characteristics featured in this enquiry, courage has been especially valued in certain settings.
- Here, Hume refers to places that haven't been fully civilized and don't have the same justice systems that we do.
- Even so, Hume recognizes that bravery can reach a point where it gets brutal and destructive—just look at the classic MTV show Jackass.
- Hume lists philosophical tranquillity as another virtue that inspires our admiration. Guys like Socrates, who maintain a state of serenity and contentment, seem to exist on another level to us average Joes. This kind of state may not be achievable for most of us, but the nearer we get to it, the better.
- Once again, Hume highlights that different characteristics can be valued in different times/settings. In ancient times, the heroes of philosophy and war had a grandeur and strength that, to us, can seem kind of extreme.
- However, for these ancients, the degree to which moderation and order are valued in the modern world would seem equally incredible.
- Returning to the topic of benevolence, Hume reaffirms that it's useful to society. However, he recognizes that it's not just about usefulness. Take the poetic image of the Elysian Fields: the inhabitants of this idyllic place don't need each other's help but still enjoy love and friendship. This then transmits a pleasing image to us.
- Some sentiments can be harmful when taken to excess, yet there are other times when heightened sentiments can seem noble or appealing. Hume uses Henry IV of France as an example: this guy's passions and attachments often hurt his cause, but those who sympathize with him may find his weaknesses endearing. As human beings, it's natural for us to be drawn to particular characteristics even if they aren't backed up by reason.
- Poetry excites all kinds of passions, but Hume argues that it's the more lofty or gentle affections that are most engaging. This is because they please us on more than one level and cause us to feel respect and affection for the featured characters. As for poets themselves, this ability to move the emotions is a major talent and is all the more valued given its rarity.
- Hume finishes this section by recapping that utility isn't always the only source of value—in some cases, we value sentiments for the immediate pleasure that they provide rather than usefulness or future benefits. Still, whether something is valued for usefulness or pleasure, our judgment is based on sympathy.
Of Qualities Immediately Agreeable to Others
- Up to this point, Hume has focused on qualities that are useful to society or useful/agreeable to the individual.
- Now, he turns his attention to virtues that produce a more immediate type of pleasure. In the same way that we have laws of justice, we have a code of manners that affects how we act.
- Politeness and good manners are obvious examples, but cleverness and wit also play a role in deciding whether someone's good company. The weight given to these virtues can, however, vary from one country to another.
- Hume observes that, among the French, politeness and wit are highly valued, whereas in England people care more about whether someone's sensible and good-natured.
- Though lively dialogue is agreeable, folks can get annoyed if someone hogs the conversation. Telling harmless lies in order to please and entertain is generally less appealing than keepin' it real. However, when a person is telling funny stories, fiction can be entertaining.
- Being articulate, a genius, or having really good sense and sound reasoning are all pleasing qualities. Modesty is another attribute, one reason being that a modest person is humble, obedient, and open to instruction. Hume goes on to explain that folks generally tend to overvalue rather than undervalue themselves, so modesty keeps this in check. There are some occasions where people are suffering under oppression and pride becomes admirable. In everyday life, though, we need a healthy dose of modesty.
- Some of the other qualities that Hume cites as being agreeable are cleanliness, alertness, and decency—we certainly can't argue with that. Hume defines decency as behaving in a way that's appropriate for our position in the world. For instance, some things are approved/disapproved of depending on how old a person is or whether they're male or female.
- As well as qualities that can be easily summed up, some people can have a certain appeal that's hard to pin down.
- This is most obvious in romantic relationships but it's a mysterious quality that some individuals possess. C'mon, do we really need to put a label on everything?
- Hume ends by summarizing that, even where we don't know a person or have any share in their success/failure, we still appreciate characteristics such as politeness, modesty, decency, and wit.
Section IX, Part I
Conclusion, Part I
- For Hume, the idea that personal merit is based on useful/agreeable qualities should be obvious. If it's not, then some other theories must have led philosophers astray. Hm, that's quite the subtle jab there, Mr. Hume.
- Outside of philosophy, though, Hume observes that the principles that he's discussed are still alive and kicking.
- This is why, in his view, sensible folk have rejected "monkish virtues" (XI.I.3) such as self-denial, solitude, and fasting—they don't serve a purpose to society or increase a person's own enjoyment. So what use are they?
- One of the plus points that Hume associates with his theory is that it doesn't get into squabbles about degrees of benevolence/self-interest. He sees it as enough to conclude that some degree of benevolence is part of our nature.
- As for ambition, greed, and vanity, these may produce strong passions but they can't form the basis of a moral theory; firstly because they don't have the proper aim, but also because they're not as common or comprehensive as a general sense of humanity.
- For example, if a man battles his enemy or rival, we understand that he's driven by his own circumstances and sentiments. However, if this same guy calls another person vicious or hateful, he's applying a more universal principle.
- Hume acknowledges that this more general sense of humanity may not be as powerful as emotions such as vanity and ambition, but it's still the only basis for morality.
- It's normal to have some sense of vanity in relation to people who know us. If we think about humanity in a wider sense, though, it's clear that this is no great shakes: that's why we shift our focus to whether our behavior is useful and agreeable to society in general.
- We do, however, adjust our boundaries when we're thinking about other societies and cultures; e.g., if a society isn't as civilized as ours, it has different standards of behavior.
- Once we've established this sense of morality, the next step is to put it into words. It's by doing this that social customs and rules of justice are established.
- As well as feeling strong passions regarding ourselves and the people closest to us, we can feel similar sentiments about wider society; e.g., people can be involved in public uproar and protests. So, our individual passions sometimes give way to social principles.
- While selfish emotions can sometimes go against the social good, we shouldn't assume that this is always the case.
- For instance, Hume suggests that a love of fame and a desire to build a name for ourselves encourages us to look at ourselves through other people's eyes. Because we care how others see us, we get into the habit of self-surveillance and this keeps a sense of right and wrong in our minds.
- Our individual state of mind can have an effect on those around us too, with Hume pointing out that serenity, dignity, tenderness, and cheerfulness are naturally pleasing to other people. When someone's grouchy, angry, or immoral, then this doesn't just impact them but the rest of us as well.
- Hume assures us that, at the moment, he's convinced that personal merit depends on usefulness/agreeableness.
- However, he can't believe that the tides, the heavenly bodies, and even infinity have been measured and calculated, yet people still dispute the foundation of morals. What's up with that?
Section IX, Part II
Conclusion, Part II
- Here, Hume sums up that virtue isn't about self-denial but the overall good of humanity. No enjoyment is sincere if it's cut off from society. Likewise, if society makes an individual feel unwelcome, it's not so great.
- It's about what's practical. For example, liquor is harmful in a way that air and water aren't. People may think there's a clash between selfishness and social sentiments, but Hume sees this as narrow-minded since self-love and benevolence can happily coexist.
- Without systems of property, society couldn't function. However, a person might sometimes think that they can carry out an offense without causing any major consequences. We're taught that honesty is the best policy, but a person might argue that there are exceptions and that a wise person would take advantage of them. For Hume, though, it's natural to rebel against any thoughts of this kind. You see? This guy was a beacon of morality.
- Some folks do give into temptation, of course. Still, a person who's honest and has any sense of common reflection will see that these folks have lost out: they've gained "worthless toys" (IX.II.12) whereas it's the natural pleasures that are priceless.
Concerning Moral Sentiment
- Hume now returns to his opening question: how far does reason or sentiment enter into our moral decisions? As we know, Hume sees reason as important in sizing up whether something's beneficial to the individual and/or society.
- Because individual situations aren't identical, it's vital to establish general rules of justice. Reason therefore helps decide what's in society's long-term interests.
- Though it can guide us as to what's useful or harmful, reason isn't enough to produce moral blame. Whatever end goal we're talking about, we wouldn't care if it weren't for sentiment.
- Despite his convictions, Hume plays devil's advocate and asks whether there's some other theory that can explain morality. He argues that such a theory will probably never be found. For one thing, some theories are too vague and general. Also, Hume points to ingratitude as a vice that can't be explained by reason alone—we feel the sentiment of blame in our mind. Well, someone is certainly confident in his work.
- There may be situations in which we're not aware of all the details and can't make an informed judgment: where someone has killed another person, we're influenced by whether this was in self-defense. Intellectual inquiry is necessary in the first place, but we have to use our heart too.
- Comparing moral sentiment with natural beauty makes Hume's theory all the more obvious. If we look at an object, we can see that it's made up of lines and figures. However, these don't make it beautiful—it's the overall effect that does the trick. Likewise, when we're presented with a moral issue, it's not enough to employ reason; we react using our sentiment and this produces compassion or disapproval.
- Hume recaps his point by contrasting human beings with objects. If we try to apply the same logic to both then we see that it fails: for a tree to topple and destroy its parent doesn't produce the same emotional response as a human murdering a family member (just imagine if it did).
- If we look to the ultimate ends of our actions, we again see that they can't be explained by reason alone. Hume uses exercise as an example: if we ask someone why they exercise, they might answer that it's for their health. If we then ask why this is desirable, the person may respond that sickness is painful (well, duh!). If we ask why the person hates pain—what are they supposed to say? It's like, "c'mon. Seriously?" We all know that hating pain is a natural response. Talk about stating the obvious.
- Hume's conclusion? The ultimate ends of human actions can't be accounted for by reason but by sentiment.
- Hume here returns to a theory discussed earlier: that selfishness is at the heart of everything. Hume criticizes this theory, arguing that you'd have to have corrupt heart or use really
shallow, careless reasoning to think this way.
- We might assume that folks who have this opinion are unable to feel true benevolence. However, Hume recognizes that some famous philosophers maintained this selfish system but led faultless lives. Hume points out that this system can still recognize the differences among people: not everyone sees things the same way or acts the same way. Because of this, someone can be seen as moral or immoral even in this system.
- Even though selfishness gets a bad rap, it's not a bad thing as long as it's combined with concern for others and usefulness to society. What Hume's doing here is making a distinction between partial selfishness and universal selfishness.
- Hume observes that there's one obvious objection to the theory of selfishness; namely, that benevolence and generosity are natural instincts that are plainly different to selfishness. This is pretty obvious to anyone, so to argue that everything's based on selfishness is a stretch.
- In contrast to the selfish theory, Hume points to scenarios that hinge on love for others, e.g., people's love for their kids. Hume's argument is therefore that self-interest plays a role but isn't the driving force that some other philosophers claim.
Some Farther Considerations with Regard to Justice
- Hume's aim in this appendix is to expand on the origin and nature of justice and to explore what makes justice different from other virtues.
- The chief difference is that humanity and benevolence work in an immediate, instinctive way, like with parents' natural sympathy toward their kids. However, justice and fidelity operate on a wider level. In fact, some individual acts can be harmful to society. Because of this, justice doesn't just mean focusing on individual cases but thinking about wider consequences.
- For society to run smoothly, property has to be regulated. There'll sometimes be individual hardships in this system, sure, but these rules are adopted with the aim of serving the public.
- It's not just about having a blinkered view where all we think about are our immediate, individual actions. Hume uses the example of rowing a boat—success depends on everyone playing their parts.
- Let's be real: while systems of justice are supposed to work efficiently and fairly, it's not always this simple.
- Sometimes, natural reason doesn't suggest a clear, fixed view of what's useful to the public; that's when laws are called in. However, it's often the case that these fail as well. Rather than solid argument or clear division between true and false, a judge sometimes has to call on sentiment.
- Hume's point is that rules of justice and property aren't always clear-cut and are sometimes determined by trivial factors.
- Regarding property, Hume states that working with an object that has previously belonged to no one (e.g., cutting down and shaping a tree) creates a new relationship of property. Our sense of public utility and humanity support this, as we look fondly on a person who's carried out an act requiring effort. Feelings of private humanity can't form the origin of justice but they can play a role in individual cases.
- Hume applies the concept of property to the natural landscape. Rivers are associated with those who own their banks (though vast rivers are the property of the nation they run through). We could ask, though, what happens if part of a river bank is torn away and becomes part of another bank? Hume explains that this doesn't automatically transfer ownership. It's only when it unites with the land and spreads its roots that it becomes part of a person's property.
- Recognizing that individuals may sometimes violate the laws of justice, Hume chews on the harm that this may cause. This can be a private harm if the individual is injured but it can be a public wrong if rules are disobeyed. In Hume's view, the importance of the general good goes alongside a strong sense of the particular. So, if a public wrong is combined with a significant private wrong, that's when things get super serious.
Of Some Verbal Disputes
- We need to use language when outlining a theory, but what definitions should we use? Hume notes that he's aware of the potential for misunderstanding and has been careful about the words that he's used in the Enquiry.
- Hume argues that it's hard to draw exact boundaries between virtues and talents (or vices and defects) and to precisely define these terms, but he follows this up with a reassuring point: this is just a matter of words. Phew.
- He adds that, on the whole, there seem to be virtues of many different kinds, but calling a person "virtuous" is to chiefly praise their social qualities. Someone may be good-natured and honest, but if they're totally lacking in courage, industry, self-control, and dignity, they're hardly models of virtue.
- Ultimately, one reason why languages struggle to draw a line between virtues and talents—and vices and defects—is that we don't make much of a distinction between them in our minds. It's more a matter of definitions than how we naturally think.
- One factor that makes a quality valued is its rarity. Good-naturedness and honesty are seen as requirements, so possessing them is no biggie. It's when someone defies these codes that we're like, "whoa there!" Intellectual qualities tend to be seen as rarer than qualities of the heart, and that's why people are less likely to congratulate themselves in this area: they don't want to be seen as big-headed.
- In general, Hume feels that virtues of various kinds can come about from similar sentiments. Sure, the praise given to industry, self-control, and cautiousness may be different than the praise given to other kinds of virtues, but that doesn't make them a different species. The ancient moralists, for instance, didn't make a material division between different species of attributes/defects. These were either virtues or vices—period.
- Modern philosophers have often taken a different outlook, with philosophy having become closely linked with theology: a school that, in Hume's view, has warped every branch of knowledge and language. Nope, he's not a fan.
- Hume wraps us by stating that a vice, a blemish, or a crime are different expressions but are cut from the same cloth. Likewise, the duties we owe to ourselves and to society probably work from the same principles and attract similar praise. So let's not obsess over this stuff, m'kay?