Study Guide

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

By David Hume

Section VI, Part I

Of Qualities Useful to Ourselves, Part I

  • The extent to which we see a quality or habit as positive/negative depends, in large part, on usefulness. Things that have a harmful effect on a person or their ability to contribute to society are seen as bad, while qualities that seem well-suited to their purpose (and not excessive/lacking) are fantabulous. 
  • Unlike those philosophers who've seen benevolence as rooted in selfishness, Hume argues that it's based on sympathy and humanity. Get with the program, people!
  • Hume recognizes that some people are more kind than others and briefly toys with the idea of a person who doesn't care at all. However, he doesn't dwell on this and instead focuses on the role that usefulness plays in shaping our views and actions.
  • It's all about good judgment: we think about a situation and weigh the best course of action. Heard of the tortoise and the hare? Well, Hume sees this as a prime example.
  • Hume argues that we need to be sensible and think about the future rather than being greedy, pleasure-seeking, or squandering cash. Qualities such as honesty and loyalty are obviously important in promoting the interests of society but they're beneficial to the individual, too. The ideal is for a person to think about their duty to themselves and to society.
  • Though some virtues are equally valued in men and women, chastity/purity is seen as way more vital for women.
  • Hume explains that there are so many chances for women to give into temptation that nothing less than complete modesty is acceptable. For a man, it's easier to recover after he's made a mistake. If a woman makes a mistake, however, she's exposed to all kinds of insults and loses her social rank. Equality? Not so much.
  • We all want to be happy campers; however, it's not always easy to think of the long-term in the face of temptations that are right in front of us. Hume therefore warns against giving into temptation, arguing that we should keep in mind our future goals and stick to our guns. Is it just us, or would this guy make a great advice columnist? Better watch out, Abby
  • In Hume's view, one of the reasons why the fool is looked on negatively (unlike the wise man) is that they don't have any use to society. This shows just how much usefulness is valued. Still, Hume states that some qualities can be valued because of their rarity and nobility even where they're not useful.
  • What's seen as useful can vary over time. For example, memory was valued in the ancient times more than it is now, as this was a time when public speakers were held in highest regard and expected to put on a good show. 
  • Sometimes, when people boast about their virtues, we might find ourselves feeling cynical. Moral virtues like benevolence or public spirit can seem insincere in some cases, and we start to think "yeah right." However, Hume maintains that we never lose our sense of moral judgment altogether.
  • In conclusion, Hume argues that we're never totally indifferent to the happiness or misery of others. We start out by recognizing merits that are beneficial to the person that possesses them, and this then shapes our thinking on a wider scale. The result? We're able to view the world through the lens of "disinterested benevolence" (AII.12).

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