Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Summary

By David Hume

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.

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