Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Section I

By David Hume

Section I

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.

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