Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Morality and Ethics

By David Hume

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.

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