Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Section IX, Part I

By David Hume

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?

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