Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Themes

  • Morality and Ethics

    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.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Why do we need to use sentiment when making moral judgments? Isn't reason enough?
    2. What does Hume mean when he refers to "social virtues"? What other kinds of virtues are there?
    3. Do you agree with Hume's take on things like self-denial and solitude? Are there any other ways in which we could interpret them?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Principles

    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.

    Questions About Principles

    1. While poets sometimes bask in immediate pleasures, Hume warns against taking this approach to real life. Why is this? Do you share his outlook?
    2. Some people have suggested that the principle of benevolence is just a mask. Do you agree that benevolence is just a front for selfishness? Or do you think it can be sincere?
    3. Is it important to stick to our principles at all costs? Or do we need to be flexible in some cases?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Justice and Judgment

    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?

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Suppose that some kind of rule is needed but justice doesn't provide a clear-cut answer to what it should be. How do we decide what rule to follow?
    2. Do justice and superstition have anything in common or are they poles apart?
    3. In what kinds of scenarios might systems of justice fall apart?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Society and Class

    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.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How did property laws come about? And what purpose do they serve?
    2. Why has chastity been seen as vital for women but not so vital for men?
    3. Hume emphasizes that, while it's natural to biased toward ourselves and our loved ones, it's sometimes vital to take on a more neutral standpoint. Can you think of any scenarios where this applies?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Rules and Order

    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).

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Under what circumstances (if any) is it acceptable to suspend or take away someone's rights?
    2. Though some quarrels can be settled in court, what happens when no laws have been broken and there's no clear right and wrong? How might we deal with these cases?
    3. Supposing people don't follow the laws of the land (thieves, for example). Do they have any other codes of conduct or do they just embrace anarchy?
    4. Are there any settings or scenarios where rules/laws no longer apply or are temporarily put aside?
    5. What would happen if we didn't have rules and order? Would folks be able to regulate their own behavior?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    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.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Why does Hume see human companionship as so important? Do you agree with his view?
    2. Hume suggests that, even when an event took place in the distant past or a faraway country, we can still feel an emotional response to it in some cases. So, what qualities help bring people and events closer to us?
    3. Do you feel that sympathy and self-interest are incompatible? And is selfishness always bad?

    Chew on This

    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 and Folly

    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.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Do you think that virtue is something that can be taught or does it have to have some kind of natural basis?
    2. Suppose someone's fall from grace is the result of their own doing. Do they still deserve our sympathy? And where does this sympathy end?
    3. Some actions may be classed as crimes or vices in any situation. But is it always so clear-cut? Are there any kinds of behavior that may be acceptable in one circumstance but not in another? And who decides?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. What criteria do we use when classing something as a skill? Is it enough to be really good at something, or are there any other factors that we need to take into account?
    2. In what kind of scenario is physical strength likely to give someone an advantage? And is it always an advantage or can other qualities sometimes be more valuable?
    3. Does having loads of trophies and achievements single someone out as being virtuous?
    4. Hume suggests that physical weakness is sometimes seen as a fault and looked on in a negative light. Why is this? And do we always respond this way or are there exceptions?

    Chew on This

    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!