Study Guide

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

By David Hume

Section V, Part II

Why Utility Pleases, Part II

  • Hume understands why some folks have seen public concern as rooted in self-interest. However, he reaffirms that public interest still provokes our moral sentiment. Hume doesn't want to examine why we have a sense of humanity; he wants to take it as given that we're not all just "meh" about anything to do with other people.
  • Hume then sketches out a possible scenario: we enter a warm, comfortable apartment and are introduced to the landlord and his family—all of whom are happy and friendly. Our natural response is pleasure and sympathy. So when the landlord talks about how he has a nightmare neighbor, we feel bad.
  • Hume uses the theater as another example. When an audience watches a play, it's a joint experience where individuals share in their emotional responses. Another aim is for the audience to feel a connection with the characters and care about what happens to them. It works the other way around too if the actors can get a buzz from the presence of an audience. 
  • Moving on to poetry, Hume sees the pastoral variety as the most entertaining, as it presents gentle, tranquil imagery that transfers a similar sentiment to us. It's like the poetry equivalent of a lullaby.
  • Hume acknowledges that, sometimes, we may get more attached to sentiments resembling those we feel in our own lives. Still, one of the aims of poetry is to bring us closer to whatever emotions are being conveyed. Here, Hume notes that stating the facts doesn't always have this effect—it's when a scenario is set before us and grabs our attention that it has the "wow" factor.
  • Hume's next point is that, when we know that something's true, this brings it closer to us. In fact, we can feel major concern about things that don't directly relate to us as long as they're true and they appeal to our sympathy.
  • While sympathy brings to mind emotions such as compassion and kindness, Hume points out that we're not always just talking about the nice stuff. If we observe people's obedience to unjust leaders/political parties, we can see that social sympathy isn't always so great.
  • Hume suggests that, when we hear about events that happened in the distant past or faraway lands, it's often the more dramatic stuff that grabs our attention. However, even small-scale issues can engage our sympathy: if a person stutters, we feel bad for them. (Did you know that Lewis Carroll stuttered? Check out his poem about it here.) 
  • In any case, our reactions are based on whether something promotes wellbeing and happiness. That's why health and energy are agreeable, as are clothes that are comfortable and suited to their purpose.
  • Ultimately, we can't judge anyone without considering the benefits and dangers that their actions pose to society.
  • Hume goes on to state that everyone has some awareness of good and evil. Of course, some individuals put aside social concerns in favor of their own self-interest. Hume's point is that, where there's no personal benefit to be gained, people generally lean toward whatever promotes happiness. 
  • While Hume talks about widespread sympathy, he again acknowledges that we tend to have a stronger reaction toward events and people that are closer to us. Also, each of us has our own likes and dislikes. That's why there needs to be a general standard of vice/virtue based on public usefulness. Expressing moral sentiment is great, but it's when people act in a way that's useful to society that they're seen as A+ citizens.
  • Hume concludes that there are countless instances in which people express a natural concern for others and the interests of society. Because of this, we can say that human beings are equipped with a benevolent principle. Got it? Awesome. Now we can move onto other sentiments that arise from the same or similar principles.

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