Study Guide

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

By David Hume

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.

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