Study Guide

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

By David Hume

Section VI, Part II

Of Qualities Useful to Ourselves, Part II

  • So far, Hume has focused mostly on mental and emotional characteristics. However, can we apply the same logic to physical characteristics? Hume thinks so. 
  • We tend to have a positive impression of features that suggest health, fitness, and vitality, but we need, in addition, to consider whether a person's suited to the situation at hand. Hume observes, for example, that strength and agility were of major value in ancient times due to their usefulness in war. A similar mindset shapes our reactions to painting and statues, where proper balance is pleasing to us.
  • Hume then refers to "barrenness" (infertility) in women as another type of inutility and, likewise, impotence (the inability to engage in sexual relations) as a defect that robs people of pleasure. 
  • Health in general is highly valued, but Hume notes that temporary ill health doesn't automatically single anyone out as useless—we're not that ruthless. It's when we compare ourselves to superior species that we become aware of how vulnerable we are. 
  • The next subject that Hume tackles is why we admire those who are rich and powerful. His conclusion is that this stems from images of happiness, success, comfort, etc. We may sometimes feel envy, but this goes alongside respect and humility; likewise, we may feel pity for those less fortunate. 
  • Hume makes the further point that folks may put personal characteristics above fame and fortune. On the surface, though, they may pay more attention to the signs of riches since these flag someone's social position. Maybe we're all a little bit shallow after all. 
  • As Hume has said before, which characteristics are commonly valued can depend on the place and the time period. So, where a person's current state of wealth is most important in England, noble ancestry is a bigger deal in Europe.
  • Hume doesn't argue that one is better. His point is that power and riches generally inspire respect, and those who live comfortably give off a sense of prosperity and satisfaction.

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