Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Section II, Part II

By David Hume

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.

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