It's no surprise that morality and ethics are a big deal in this book (come on, have you seen the title?). From the start, Hume lets us know that he's not happy with what other philosophers have had to say on this subject. Not only have they been at loggerheads, their own theories have sometimes been vague, muddled, and out of touch with reality. Luckily, our man Hume's here to sort this mess out.
Hume finds two big faults with existing theories. Firstly, they see reason as the main thing that shapes our moral judgments. Secondly, they argue that kindness and compassion are fronts and that we're all selfish at the core. Hume's response? "No way!" He believes that reason and sentiment work together to shape our moral judgments and that we have a natural sympathy for others. We're lovin' this guy's optimism.
Oh, and Hume's not buying the argument that things like self-denial, solitude, and fasting are virtues. For Hume to class something as a virtue, it has to be useful and/or agreeable. As far as he's concerned, these things are neither. If anyone thinks otherwise, tough cookies—Hume's mind is made up.
Reason is more vital than sentiment in forming moral judgments. Sentiment may have its place, but it can be dangerous if it clouds our thinking. Reason should take priority.
Hume's wrong to criticize "monkish virtues," as they may be agreeable to some people. Just because he sees solitude as a bad thing does mean that everyone does.
Sticking to your principles is good advice, in Hume's opinion. Principles help keep us on track and talk us out of being foolish and acting on impulse. Sure, living in the moment has its appeal, and this is something that poetry often revels in. There's nothing wrong with that, but Hume's saying that we need to take a reality check sometimes. Being sensible and cautious may seem snooze-worthy, but Hume emphasizes that it's important. Remember, this is the real world—not fiction.
Sometimes, we may think that it's okay to compromise our principles if there's something we can get out of it. Hume, however, isn't gonna be swayed on this topic: he believes that any advantages or profits to be gained are less important than being honorable and sincere. Yessiree, Hume's a guy who definitely has the courage of his convictions.
There's no reason why we shouldn't tell lies if we don't think we're doing any harm. A little white lie never hurt anyone.
It's sometimes good to live in the moment rather than dwelling on future plans and what might happen.
Unlike virtues such as sympathy, justice is a system that has been set up because it's useful. We might think that this is one area in which reason alone is needed. If we're on a jury, for instance, it's not a good idea to be totally ruled by our emotions. Thing is, this isn't what Hume means when he talks about sentiment.
Hume argues that reason and logic lay the groundwork and give us the cold, hard facts. However, it's sentiment that shapes our view of whether something's wrong or right. We don't just recognize something as good/bad but feel a sense of approval/disapproval.
The role of justice is to ensure the overall wellbeing of society and its members. The aim is to treat everyone as fairly as possible, but when someone shows no respect for the rules of justice, it's seen as only right to punish them. How else would folks learn that crime doesn't pay?
Sentiment doesn't play a role in justice. In a court room, it's all about reason and the facts. This is a situation where we need to put a lid on any kind of sentiment.
If we didn't have formal systems of justice, then it'd be wall-to-wall chaos. It's important to have systems of this kind so that we focus on what's right and honorable—not just our own personal vendettas.
There are certain qualities we're expected to possess and ways we're supposed to behave. The aim? To promote the wellbeing of society. Some of these things are valued equally in everyone. However, some depend on the setting and time period. Also, some qualities have been seen as more or less important depending on whether someone's a guy or girl (double standards, much?).
Ultimately, Hume believes that we need to look at ourselves through other people's eyes, as this helps us behave in a way that's good for society. We may feel strongest about ourselves and the people close to us but, sometimes, we need to think about society too.
If we're trapped in our own world and don't care what other people think, we lose our sense of perspective. Looking at ourselves from the outside encourages us to think about what's in our own interest and the interests of society.
Even though this enquiry was written centuries ago, men and women still aren't judged on the same criteria. We may think that we've progressed, but double standards and inequality are still around.
Where would we be without rules and order? We might like to imagine a utopia where everyone's equal and works together, but Hume doesn't see this as reality. If it were reality, then rules wouldn't exist. The whole reason why they've been put in place is that they're useful and necessary for the smooth running of society.
Even where there aren't formal rules in place, people can still have a code of conduct. In daily life, people observe codes of politeness and decency, and even criminals can have a code of conduct among themselves (if you've ever seen a gangster movie, you'll know what Hume's talking about).
If we disagree with a rule on an ethical level, then why shouldn't we disobey it? Our principles and sense of morality are more important than the rules and laws laid down by society.
It's vital that rules are applied evenly to every individual. Otherwise, society would become unstable. You know the saying: one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.
There's no way that Hume is going to accept that compassion is a mask for selfishness. Hume recognizes that we have a sense of self-interest and that there's nothing wrong with that—people are too quick to label this as a vice. However, Hume's convinced that we have a natural sense of humanity.
Unlike some other virtues, compassion isn't something that's created or learned. It's just there. Hume recognizes that some people can be lacking in these qualities, but he's an optimist and feels that, on the whole, human beings are good. Yep, this guy's a regular Pollyanna.
We're always going to feel strongest about stuff that's closest to us. We may feel compassion and sadness in response to things that don't directly concern us, but it's never going to be on the same level.
Hume sees compassion as a natural virtue, but we could say that it's a social convention, too. We learn what kinds of characteristics are valued in society and model ourselves to be good citizens.
Foolishness is an obvious example of vice. It's not useful or agreeable to society, and it can be pretty crummy for the individual, too. It may not seem that way to the person who decides to throw caution to the wind. They probably think that they're going to gain something from it only for it to all go horribly wrong. Take a tip from Shakespeare (and SpongeBob): all that glitters is not gold.
Hume argues that it's vital to think about long-term goals and consequences. It may be tempting to live in the moment and give into temptation, but Hume sees this as careless and immature. Even when this kind of behavior does pay off, Hume believes that a strong character and moral code are way more important than any amount of trinkets and toys.
Folks may think that their mistakes only affect themselves and aren't anyone else's concern. But that's not true: by acting in this way, they're harming society.
We're all human and all make mistakes. Just because someone's been foolish on one occasion doesn't mean we should condemn them. What's important is to learn from our mistakes.
Strength and skill are virtues for sure, but we need to think about the particular situation where they're being used—or not. As Hume points out throughout Enquiry, some attributes can be valued more or less depending on the time period or setting. So, physical strength was a big deal back in ancient times when men relied on this in battle. The same goes for agility.
It's not just about physical stuff, though. Another quality valued in ancient times was the talent for public speaking. This is still seen as a skill today, but back then it was essential for folks who wanted to make a name for themselves.
A skill can be valuable in one situation but useless in another. That's why we have to think about context.
We shouldn't just judge skills based on their usefulness to society. If they're useful and/or agreeable to the individual, then that's good enough. Not everything has to come back to society. Sheesh!