Saturday, April 20, 2013

David Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Summary and Critical Evaluation

Hume's account of morality, as set forward in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, brings emotion and personal experience into an interplay which help a person determine right action. It remains an applicable theory today, despite many of the great social changes which have taken place.

Hume understands natural virtues as the primary virtues, grounded in what he terms 'the sentiments.' The sentiments are basically personal opinions and emotions, and these have huge influence in bringing about action. Hume finds these so important for a number of reasons, one being that they are universally influential to all humans; that it has been markedly observed how powerful the passions are moving human beings to action.(1) Internal feeling must be involved in morality; it is like an instinct to the human species. He sums it up with this statement: “Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue...and morality is no longer a practical study.”(2)

Many philosophers before Hume cast reason playing a central role in morality rather than the supporting role he placed it in. Hume points out that reason is only really an instrument of the mind, used to calculate and relate ideas.(3) The sentiments, because of their emotional nature, naturally give motivation to action, and it is these sentiments which are completely intertwined with human nature and therefore rightfully sit in the foundation of morality. As an empiricist, Hume does not find mental speculation to be as appropriate a judge as the virtue of experience, so at the end of the first section of his Enquiry, he stresses that it is about time “fact and observation” be integral in choosing an ethical system.(4)

Hume places the natural virtue of benevolence at the forefront of living morally. Benevolence is basically the will to consciously do good, to appreciate one's fellows, seeking to feel with them and understand what is best for them. Hume sees this as the height of human nature, recognizable by every culture.(5) Sentiment is here embraced as an experience in relation to other beings; whether the beings are of equal stature does not matter so long as this attitude of benevolence is upheld, and this is in part due to the fact that the benevolent person benefits emotionally from being this way, because they are a part of the group for which the common good is worked for. A person who is being this way is always acting morally and existing in a state which allows for growth in understanding of what ways work best accomplishing the goals of this good-natured action(6).

Artificial virtues are those which are derived from their usefulness to a particular context. Hume uses a sketch of an utterly abundant state of nature (free of society) to illustrate this point. In it, he shows how justice has not a purpose to serve without the presence of lack and limitation.(7) As such justice, and other virtues of the artificial category, are not derivatives of the sentiments, but rather arise situationally out of useful need.

Furthermore, in regards to justice, Hume finds that it is not applicable to be just toward anything which is unequal to the human species. Justice is an artificial virtue, valid only in the context from whence it arose. Since justice's context a society made up of the human species, it is not applicable to any outside beings.(8) As it was discussed in class, there is not much purpose in charging a roof tile with murder.

Part of the reason Hume labels justice a virtue only in the social realm is due to its utility to the state of dependency between members of a society. Were social dependence unneeded, we would have no need for justice, Hume reasons. It is only because of the necessary interactions between human beings that the artificial virtues arise. Were a particular woman able to be individually self-sufficient, it would be silly for her to cultivate justice as a virtue because she would never need anything from other humans.(9) Justice is based in dependency.

It is important for the distinction to be made between natural and artificial virtues. In Hume's moral theory, morality exists free of justice. Justice is tied to morality in the social context, but justice is not morality’s determinant, as morality, based in sentiment, is free of any particular context, other than that of the life of a human being.

When applied to a social setting, this concept of justice is not as relative as some initially think. Hume did not advocate relativism. In relativism, if an agent has an approving response to an action, it is automatically deemed the moral action, the action which ought to be taken. Under relativism, justice initially does not have much meaning because any culture can twist it to be whatever fits whatever they are already doing, so long as that action is met with an approving response. Hume's account of justice, in a nutshell, is that it is the product of what is most useful to society, arising essentially because it works to uphold a society which is conducive of its members approved sentiments. And since, through what is observable, it can be stated that generally, all humans have like responses, justice will not be relative. Naturally virtuous people, in being kind who will engage in justice, given the correct context where justice can exist, will always ultimately be working with the motivation of good-natured benevolence, and thus cannot undermine their benevolent nature through any expression of justice because justice stems from the sentiments which ground their benevolence. This relationship resembles a hypothetical syllogism.

Annette Baier compared the whole of Hume's ethical writings to various contemporary psychological and philosophical works in her essay Hume, the Women's Moral Theorist?. In it, she came to the conclusion that despite his making many remarks about the shortcomings of women, his philosophy actually would uphold feminist ideals given the proper context. She points out that Hume's statements were probably observations of how women really were in the society of his time period.(10) His comments can be seen more as a critique of women's conduct than a sexist attack or worse a judgment of inequality.(11) Also, Baier shows that the qualities which Hume deems women to be lacking are not those which are involved in making moral decisions.(12)

From the above grounds, it is conceivable for Baier to agree with Hume that justice is only applicable within a society of equals. She cites Hume's implicit inclusion of women as equal to men in the conclusion of her essay, which in turn implies that she holds this principle in high esteem. If Hume did not see women as equal to men in their ability to make moral judgments, it is unlikely that Baier would accept Hume's placement of justice as an artificial virtue, being valid only within its originating context. After all, that would exclude her from justice’s reach, which would not make much sense. So, since Hume does not rule out women as equals, I think she accepts his reasoning and his point of view.

Thus, Hume’s focus on the sentiments as the central theme in morality brings forth a theory which is open to a multitude of possible actions without becoming relativistic, and is progressive enough to accommodate the social changes of women’s suffrage.


Annette Baier, “Hume, the Woman's Moral Theorist,” in Kittay and Meyers (eds) Women and Moral Theory(Rowman & Littlefield, 1987).
David Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.”

1Enquiry...” p. 3, “this final sentence depends on some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species.”
2Enquiry...” p. 3, “Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue...and morality is no longer a practical study.”
3Enquiry...” p. 4, “The only object of reasoning is to discover the circumstances on both sides...”
4Enquiry...” p. 4, “and reject every system of ethics, however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation.”
5Enquiry...” p. 4, “the benevolent or softer affections are estimable…The epithets sociable, good-natured, humane, merciful, grateful, friendly, generous, beneficent, or their equivalents, are known in all languages, and universally express the highest merit, which human nature is capable of attaining.” & p. 5, “no qualities are more intitled to the general good-will and approbation of mankind than beneficence and humanity, friendship and gratitude, natural affection and public spirit, or whatever proceeds from a tender sympathy with others, and a generous concern for our species.”
6Enquiry...” p. 7 “as soon as farther experience and sounder reasoning have given us juster notions of human affairs, we retract our first sentiment, and adjust anew the boundaries of moral good and evil.”
7Enquiry...” p. 8, “Why call this object MINE, when upon the seizing of it by another, I need but stretch out my hand to possess myself to what is equally valuable? Justice, in that case, being totally useless, would be an idle ceremonial, and could never possibly have place in the catalogue of virtues.”
8Enquiry...” p. 12, “Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength...that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never...make us feel the effects of their resentment, the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not...lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them.”
9Enquiry...” p. 13, “Were the human species so framed by nature as that each individual possessed within himself every faculty, requisite both for his own preservation and for the propagation of his solitary a being would be as much incapable of justice, as of social discourse and conversation.”
10Hume...” p. 53, “Women in his society were inferior in bodily strength and in intellectual achievement.”
11Hume...” p. 53, “He does call them [women] the 'timorous and pious' sex, and that for him is a criticism...”
12Hume...” p. 53, “What matters most, for judging moral wisdom, are corrected sentiments, imagination and cooperative genius. There Hume never judges women inferior.”

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