Ethics, Revised Edition
An Enquiry Concerning the
Principles of Morals
Identification: Book by David Hume (1711-1776)
Date: Published 1751
Type of Ethics: Enlightenment history
Significance: Hume's book offers the classic statement of British skeptical empiricism concerning moral and ethical issues.
David Hume, perhaps Great Britain's greatest philosopher, considered An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals to be his finest work, a judgment shared by many of his contemporaries and later readers who admire the clarity and objectivity of his examination of a complex and complicated subject.
The Enquiry is in large part a revision and extension of book 3 of Hume's masterpiece A Treatise of Human Nature, in which he surveyed the full range of human psychology. However, it is a much more concentrated review of the topic. In the Enquiry, Hume has two basic purposes. The first is to establish a method of writing about human ethical behavior; the second, to describe that behavior and explain its workings. In neither case, however, does Hume explicitly prescribe specific moral or ethical activities or values as "good," "bad," or even "indifferent." Instead, he objectively describes what actions and beliefs human beings have characteristically labeled "good" and "evil" and explains why those judgments have been rendered. In this sense, the Enquiry is a study of how human ethics operate rather than an argument for or against any particular ethical theory or system.
Benevolence and Justice
Seeking to build in the realm of philosophy upon the scientific achievements of Sir Isaac Newton. Hume attempted to discover the ultimate principles of human morality and ethics. In the Enquiry, Hume first examined what he considered the two most fundamental human and social virtues, benevolence and justice, which he viewed as the basis of both individual and communal happiness and progress. In Hume's view, actions are accounted ethical or good by human beings for one or both of two reasons: Either they appeal to human sympathy, or they serve the purpose of social utility. In other words, actions appear to be good or worthwhile either in themselves or because they make human intercourse not only possible but also enjoyable and profitable.
Benevolence is valued because it appeals instinctively to human sympathy, in large part because almost every individual can appreciate how personally beneficial benevolence can be. In addition, Hume notes, human beings connect benevolence with social good. When a benevolent person is praised, there is always mention, and therefore recognition, of the good or satisfaction that he or she brings to the general community, because the inherent appeal to human sympathy is reinforced by the call of social utility.
Justice, however, is viewed by Hume as having a purely utilitarian function, primarily because he has defined the word in narrow terms and is concerned with property relationships rather than human or social affairs. These Hume discusses under the heading of impartiality as an aspect of fully moral judgment. In the usual run of human experience, Hume states, justice is a matter of what best serves the individual or society in terms of the overall situation. For example, nations habitually suspend traditional rules of international law during warfare because to adhere to them would impose obvious and, in Hume's and humanity's view, unwarranted disadvantages. In the largest sense, then, human law and justice are nothing more than agreed-upon conventions that advance the common good of all human beings.
Hume provides a variety of examples to demonstrate that justice is valued for its utility to human society and that it is defined by that utility. For example, respect for property is universally acknowledged as an element of justice, but if an honest man is captured by outlaws, he acts in accordance with justice if he seizes his captors' weapons and uses them against them. Practical utility, rather than abstract idealism, is the determining factor of human considerations of justice.
Utility as Basis of Virtues
Hume's intellectual background made him the successor of philosophers John Locke and Bishop George Berkeley. Locke had rejected the concept of innate ideas in his famous concept of the mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, upon which outside impressions are engraved, while Berkeley argued that abstract ideas did not exist and that only sense perception confirmed, and perhaps even established, the reality of objects outside the mind. Building upon these precepts, Hume established a rigorous skepticism that sought to replace abstruse metaphysical reasoning with practical logic.
Hume argued that the real basis of all human virtues was utility, or how well these particular beliefs and actions served to advance and preserve human society. He rejected the view proposed by Thomas Hobbes that all human beings acted primarily out of selfish interests; instead, he stated that there was a natural sympathy among human beings that recognized and appreciated virtues such as humanity, friendship, truthfulness, and courage. Hume further proposed that these virtues were judged according to a universal standard of utility, which in the moral sphere corresponded to the physical laws discovered and enunciated by Newton.
Moral Judgment and Sentiment
Finally, Hume made a distinction between judgments based on reason and those based on sentiment. The first kind of decision plays but a relatively small part in moral life. Rationality is primarily used in determining objective truths, such as those of mathematics, which are independent of human beings. Situations calling for a moral or ethical response, however, incite a response that is emotional rather than strictly rational. Reason may be necessary to determine the complexities of a certain situation, but once the essence has been established, sentiment determines how one will act. As Hume puts it, the moral response "cannot be the work of the judgment, but of the heart."
In Hume's view, then, human morals are subjective in that they depend upon the internal, emotional response of the individual. Since there is a universal bond among human beings that creates a single standard for moral actions, however, this subjectivity is tempered by a common unity that can be discovered by empirical study.
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MacNabb, D. G. C. "David Hume." In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
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Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Locke, John; Moral-sense theories; Normative vs. descriptive ethics; Skepticism; Utilitarianism; Value.
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