Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 29, 2023, from

4. Ethics

The virtues. Hume takes it to be agreed that moral judgment is primarily a judgment about human character traits, a recognition of ‘virtues’ and ‘vices’ (see Virtues and vices). He has some controversial views both about what enlightened moral judges will and will not include in their lists of virtues, and about how they do their judging.

In his ‘catalogue of virtues’ he distinguishes the ‘natural virtues’ from what in the Treatise he calls ‘artificial’, or convention-dependent, virtues. The latter consist in conformity to some beneficial social scheme of cooperation, such as a particular form of government. The artificial virtues, for him, include ‘justice’ (taken to include respect for traditional property rights, and ‘fidelity to promises’), ‘allegiance’ (to magistrates), female modesty and chastity (preparation for and conformity to the role given to women in the artifice of marriage), and the duties of sovereign states to keep treaties, to respect each others’ territorial boundaries, to give protection to ambassadors, and otherwise conform to ‘the law of nations’. All the artificial virtues will be expected to take different specific forms in different societies and historical conditions.

In contrast to the artificial virtues, the ‘natural’ virtues are expected to be fairly invariant across cultures. Hume includes among the natural virtues compassion, generosity, gratitude, friendship, fidelity, charity, beneficence, clemency, equity, prudence, temperance, frugality, industry, courage, ambition, due pride (duly concealed so as not to offend others), due modesty (awareness of one’s weaknesses), due self-assertiveness, good sense, wit and humour, perseverance, patience, courage, parental devotion, good nature, cleanliness, articulateness, responsiveness to poetry, decorum, and ‘a certain je-ne-sais-quoi of agreeable and handsome’, which ‘render a person lovely or valuable’ (Treatise: 611–12). The controversial features of his catalogue lie in part in the substitution of pride for humility, in part in the inclusion of qualities which do not depend on their possessor’s will, and in part in the particular glosses he gives to traditional virtues such as courage and charity.

Courage is to be exercised, if possible, in non-military contexts, so that it need not involve killing or ‘the sack of cities’. About charity Hume says:

Giving alms to common beggars is naturally praised; because it seems to carry relief to the distressed and indigent: but when we observe the encouragement thence arising to idleness and debauchery, we regard that species of charity rather as a weakness than a virtue.

(Enquiries: 180)

From the truly beneficent person, the hungry may indeed ‘receive food, the naked clothing’, but mainly because from such a person they will also receive ‘skill and industry’ (Enquiries: 178). Hume’s later essays on economics develop this theme.

Hume’s list of virtues is a self-conscious rejection of a puritan morality, and to some extent of Christian morality. Not only, as he wrote to Francis Hutcheson, does he not take his ‘catalogue of virtues’ from The Whole Duty of Man (a Protestant religious tract he had been encouraged to read as a child), but he finds some of the virtues listed there to be vices, from the point of view of a morality which has freed itself from ‘the delusive glosses of superstition and false religion’. Hume’s ethics are avowedly hedonist (see Hedonism). All virtues, he generalizes, are qualities that please from a moral point of view either because they prove ‘agreeable’ (tend to bring pleasure) to their possessors or to others, or else because they are seen to have ‘utility’ for their possessors or for others. ‘Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues’ are, he finds, neither agreeable nor useful; they ‘stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper’ (Enquiries: 270). The Whole Duty of Man had included, in its list of breaches of duty, various breaches of the duty of humility, and such other sins as ‘eating too much’, ‘heightening of lust by pampering the body’, ‘not labouring to subdue it by Fasting, and other Severities’, and ‘not assigning any Set or Solemn time for Humiliation and Confession, or too seldom’. It was not merely the ‘monks’ whom Hume was opposing when listing the virtues, but the Calvinists who had preached to him, and the other Protestant divines whose tracts he had been given as a child to help him learn to recognize vice.

But there are very many of the duties listed in The Whole Duty of Man that Hume includes in his catalogue, and that repeat those listed in Cicero’s Offices, which he told Hutcheson was his preferred source book on morals (see Cicero). ‘Not loving peace’, and ‘going to law on slight occasion’, as well as theft, ingratitude, lying, malice, and oppression are all condemned in The Whole Duty of Man, and Hume would have little quarrel with these disapprobations. He told Boswell that, as a child, he skipped such things as theft and murder, in the list of sins provided by the Whole Duty, ‘having no inclination to perform them’. As far as murder goes, not only did he omit to think about it, when examining his conscience as a child, but he omitted to consider it carefully enough in his moral philosophy. After citing parricide as a ‘horrid crime’ which rationalist moralists may have difficulty explaining, he then proceeds to say all but nothing in his own voice about what is wrong with homicide (as distinct from cruelty). He defends suicide (in the posthumously published ‘Of Suicide’), and discusses varying tolerance of it and of tyrannicide in ‘A Dialogue’, (published with Enquiries Concerning the Principles of Morals) but gives us no extended discussion either of any artifice-grounded right to life, or of any natural virtue consisting of respect for human life.

Which forms of killing are vicious, and why? The rationalist answer may well have weaknesses, or even incoherencies, but Hume gives us no explicit answer. At most he gives us hints, such as ‘While we are ignorant whether a man were an aggressor or not, how can we determine whether the man who killed him be criminal or innocent?’ (Enquiries: 290). There are also many discussions of particular killings in the History of England, where Hume charts the shifting penalties for murder, their variation depending on the rank and sex of the victim, and the various degrees of cruelty in methods used by official or semi-official killers. (See his accounts of the killing of the exiled Queen Elgiva, of King Edward II, of Joan of Arc, as well as of the followers of Wycliff and other martyrs at the hands of various church and state authorities.)

Hume calls it a verbal matter that he includes among the virtues qualities of mind, such as wit and good sense, and ‘involuntary’ as well as ‘voluntary’ abilities. But it is no merely verbal matter that he refuses to call the ‘involuntary’ excellences ‘talents’, and to separate them from moral virtues. A sharp distinction between the voluntary and the involuntary is needed, he wrote in the Treatise, only by those who are handing out rewards and punishments, hoping thereby to regulate voluntary actions (Treatise: 609). But expressed moral approbation and disapprobation, as he understands them, are not deliberate reward and punishment, nor need they be preludes to reward and punishment. They are the more or less spontaneous expression of moral sentiments, themselves no more wholly voluntary than their objects. ‘Philosophers, or rather divines under that disguise, treating all morals on a like footing with civil laws, were necessarily led to render this circumstance, voluntary or involuntary, the foundation of their whole theory’ (Enquiries: 322). Hume does not treat morals this way, and so he is just as ‘necessarily led’ to resist the restriction of moral judgment to the voluntary.

Artificial virtues: justice. The part of morals that Hume does treat as being on a like footing with civil laws, and so as sanction-backed, is the area covered by ‘the artificial virtues’. These consist in conformity to some generally beneficial convention, where the benefit accrues not act by act, but from the ‘whole scheme of actions’. Since general conformity is needed for the benefit to be obtained, pressure is deliberately brought to bear, on adults as on children, to get them to show honesty in matters of property, to keep their promises, to show allegiance to lawful magistrates, and to show chastity and marital fidelity, at least if they are women.

‘Justice’, as rendering each their due, is taken by Hume to be primarily respect for property rights. His brief discussion of what we would call retributive justice is to be found in his discussion of liberty of the will (and throughout the History of England), not in his account of what he calls ‘justice’. Although he frequently refers to equity, it is not clear what relation he took it to have to justice. (He includes it in a list of natural virtues.) What he argues about ‘justice’, in his sense, is that we need to have a convention establishing property, and establishing particular property rights, before anything could count as respect for such rights. Similarly, he will argue, we must have the social institution of promise (or contract, taken as mutual promise) before anything could count as keeping or breaking promises, and must have the institution of government before anyone can count as a superior, to whom allegiance is owed. To get the needed distinctions between possession and property, or between telling someone what one will do and promising to do it, or doing what one is told and showing allegiance to one’s rightful superior, we must be able to turn to some social ‘convention’ which promotes some cases of possession into ownership, some transfers into barter, gifts, loans or sales, some statements of intention into promises, some issuing of sentences in the imperative mood into lawful commands.

In the History of England, when reporting John Ball’s ‘seditious preaching’ in the late fourteenth century, Hume describes the popularity of Ball’s doctrine of ‘the first origin of mankind in one common stock, their equal right to liberty and to all the goods of nature, the tyranny of artificial distinctions’. He says that such doctrines are bound to be popular since they are ‘so conformable to ideas of primitive equality, which are engraven in the hearts of all men’ (Ch. XVII). His own story, which he owes to Lucretius, about the origins of justice is not so different from Ball’s, except that he emphasizes the inevitability of ‘artifice’, and does not regard it as necessarily bringing tyranny. The ‘primitive equality’ he recognizes lies in the need to get the agreement of each person to limiting the equal access of all to ‘all the goods of nature’. Until there is a general agreement ending the primitive scramble to grab what one can from the goods of nature, then nothing will count as theft, as unjust taking, as wrongful possession. On Hume’s story, only when every person sees, or seems to see, that they will be better off if present possession is frozen into rightful possession, into property, and only when there is an agreement to take only with owner’s consent, can it cease to be all right for people to take what they please and can. Hume’s story, like Ball’s and like Hobbes’ before him, and like that of Rousseau after him, presupposes the postulation of a primitive equality and liberty. The ‘convention’ needed to create private property rights, Hume writes, depends upon a ‘general sense of common interest’, on the perception that although any single property-respecting act may not bring advantages, indeed may involve loss, still ‘the whole system of actions, concurr’d in by the whole society, is infinitely advantageous to the whole and to every part’ (Treatise: 498). Unlike the Lollards and Levellers, however, Hume thought that rational and long-sighted convenors would see that equality of property, however theoretically desirable, is impracticable: ‘Render possession ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality. Or, if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence’ (Enquiries: 194). ‘The most rigorous inquisition too is requisite to watch every inequality on its first appearance, to punish and redress it…so much authority must soon degenerate into tyranny’ (Enquiries: 194). Where Ball saw inequality to depend upon tyranny, Hume sees the threat of tyranny to accompany the attempt to prevent inequality. But his sympathy with the egalitarians’ ideals is as clear as his disagreement with them concerning the costs of equality.

Artificial virtues: fidelity to promises. Hume’s analysis of promises and promissory rights follows the same lines as the analysis of property and property rights. Until a convention fixes which assurances are binding assurances, there will be no promises or contracts. The fixing, as in the case of property, will contain some elements of arbitrariness. Societies vary in such matters as the need for witnesses, for the contract to be written and signed, for there to be some ‘consideration’. Hume takes the function of promise to be to extend security in transfers of goods and services to include future delivery and future services. He takes there to be a special form of words, ‘I promise…’ used when such binding assurances are given, and he takes their force to include the promisor’s acceptance of the appropriateness of penalty in the form of withdrawal of trust (and thus disablement as a party to binding agreements) if the promise is broken. This informal enforcement of the sacredness of promissory obligations gives promises their verbal magic. Hume likens them to the priest’s words in the mass, to the magic of transubstantiation, with the significant difference that ‘the obligation [binding force] of promises is an invention for the interest of society’, while ‘priestly inventions…have no public interest in view’ (Treatise: 524).

Hume denies that promises need to be given when any convention is accepted. Because he regards the obligation to keep promises and contracts as itself ‘artificial’, it would be absurd, he finds, to rest all artifice on promise. ‘We are not surely bound to keep our word because we have given our word to keep it’ (Enquiries: 306). Hume likens the conventions on which property and promissory rights rest to the tacit agreement we give to the conventions of our native language, or to the use of the monetary currency we find in use around us as ‘measures of exchange’, and to the agreement of rowers who both want to get in one boat across a river, and so coordinate their strokes. Recent contractarians have claimed Hume as one of them, despite his explicitly dismissing as absurd the suggestion that the agreement on which the obligations of justice rest could possibly itself be a mutual promise, and his rejection, both in the Treatise and in his essay ‘Of the Original Contract’, of the view that the authority of magistrates must rest on some promise or contract tying governor to governed. He agrees with the contractarians that the origins of justice lay in some sort of agreement that it was in everyone’s interest to make with everyone else, but he would probably reject the label ‘contractarian’, and he certainly would not agree with those who try to make all of morality, not only justice, rest on a hypothetical self-interested agreement (see Contractarianism).

Artificial virtues: chastity and modesty. Hume includes the virtues of female modesty and chastity among the artificial virtues, since he sees them to depend upon the existence of the institution of marriage, and in particular on the ‘agreement’ that husbands should not be expected to contribute to the upbringing of children they did not father. The only way men can have any confidence that the children born to their wives are ‘really their own’ (Treatise: 571) is by taking as wives only those women trained from childhood to an unnatural ‘modesty’, ‘some preceding backwardness or dread’ of sexual activity, and then by imposing the ‘punishment of bad fame or reputation’ on any wives suspected of infidelity. Hume stresses the ‘unnaturalness’, not just the social contrivance and usefulness, of these demands made on wives and would-be wives. It is in the interests of children that they receive care from a male as well as a female parent, and in general men can only be ‘induc’d’ to contribute to the care of children whom they take to be ‘their own’, so it becomes ‘reasonable, and even necessary, to give them some security in this particular’. All men, Hume notes, including ‘batchelors, however debauch’d’, are shocked at ‘lewdness or impudence in women’, or at least in marriage-bent women. Is there irony in his account of the ‘reasonableness’ of a double standard? His early essays ‘Of Love and Marriage’, ‘Of Polygamy and Divorces’, and ‘Of Moral Prejudices’, continue his examination of the forms of marriage with which he was familiar, but readers do not agree on what these discussions reveal of Hume’s own views.

How artificial virtue is inculcated. Hume takes it that we have a self-interested motive to adopt the policy of respecting property and keeping our promises and marriage vows since these ‘inventions’ are so designed that general conformity to their rules does bring advantages to ‘the whole and every part’ of society. And we have good moral reason to approve of such conformity. But, especially with property rights as they develop over a long period of time, and are affected by the transfers that have occurred through contract and through the invention of money, it is easy for a person to lose sight of the ‘remote’ and long term interest they may have in respect for established property rights. ‘The artifices of politicians’ may be needed to bolster their motivation. But Hume believes that we will usually see well enough what is wrong with disrespect for property rights when we are the victims of it. We see such disrespect as a ‘vice’, and feel disapprobation. We feel sympathy with other victims of theft, and our ‘sympathy with public interest’ leads us to condemn all breaches of property rights, however ‘obscure’ it may have become just what personal advantage we each get from a policy of honesty in preference to occasional judicious dishonesty. Hume grants that there may be no convincing answer to the ‘sensible knave’, who successfully conceals his dishonesty, and believes he does better than the scrupulously honest person. If educators, moralists and politicians have failed to give him ‘an antipathy to treachery and roguery’, if all he cares about is ‘profit or pecuniary advantage’, then no argument the moralist can provide is likely to change his mind. The moralist, on behalf of ‘the party of humankind’ (some of whom the clever knave is cheating and defrauding), may sincerely believe that the knaves are ‘the greatest dupes’, since they ‘have sacrificed the invaluable enjoyment of a character, with themselves at least, for the acquisition of worthless toys and geegaws’ (Enquiries: 283), but the knave will have his own sincere views about what is and is not worthless, and who are the dupes.

The moral sentiment, moral points of view. Hume takes virtues to be recognized as such by the moral sentiment, a special pleasure taken in agreeable and useful character traits, when these are surveyed from a ‘general and steady’ point of view. One of his most famous theses is that moral distinctions are not made by ‘reason alone’, but by the special sort of pleasure and displeasure we take in character traits and in the ‘manners’, or ways of behaving, that express them. Our approbation and disapprobation are what makes the approved traits virtues, the disapproved ones vices. ‘We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases: But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous’ (Treatise: 471). The ‘particular manner’ in which character traits must please to be virtues stems from the special ‘point of view’ which must be taken, and which we take in order to ‘converse together on any reasonable terms’ (Treatise: 581) about human merit. It is a ‘steady and general’ point of view which we have reason to expect others to be able to take, and from which agreement is in theory possible. In order to ‘overlook our own interest’, and get such a ‘general’ view, we must be capable both of sympathizing with other people’s private viewpoints, and of correcting for natural bias in our sympathy. We consider how a given trait, say our own ambition, affects others, and try to see it as they see it. We do not ignore our own interest, but we look beyond that to the interests and concerns of everyone affected. When what we are judging is some military leader’s courage, we will sympathetically consider both its effects on the armies he led, and his own nation, and also its effects on those against whom he led his forces, ‘the subversion of empires, the devastation of provinces, the sack of cities’ (Treatise: 601). Moral approbation is a pleasure taken in a character trait, all things considered, and much preparation, including fact-finding, is needed to get to a point of view which really can claim to be general, which can expect to be ‘steady’, and expect to be shared.

Moral disagreement. Our expectation that our moral judgment will be shared with other moral judges is usually tempered by experience of moral controversy. Can Hume account for apparent moral disagreement? Even when we try to speak for ‘the party of humankind’, rather than just for ourselves, our class, or our nation, we often find other would-be representatives for humankind contradicting us.

Hume discusses apparent moral disagreement in ‘A Dialogue’. ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ addresses what he sees as the closely similar topic of apparent disagreement about literary merit. In both these discussions Hume explains away the appearance of disagreement as due to some confusion, or lack of proper preparation or competence in some of the disagreeing judges. ‘In moral decisions, all the circumstances and relations must be previously known; and the mind, from the contemplation of the whole, feels some new impression of affection or disgust, esteem or contempt, approbation or blame’ (Enquiries: 290). Since very many judgments which purport to be moral are based on imperfect knowledge of circumstances, on narrow sympathies, on a contemplation of much less than ‘the whole’, it is not surprising that there is less than unanimity in such judgments. Whereas Hume takes all of us to be capable of becoming competent moral judges (if we are able and willing to rid our minds and hearts of ‘the illusions of religious superstition and philosophical enthusiasm’), he took literary criticism to be a more elite skill, requiring both a ‘delicacy of taste’ and an extensive reading which not all could be expected to have. One interesting feature of his specification of the competent literary critic is that they show due allowance for difference of religion from writer to writer, so not condemn a book simply because of the false religion it presents, but show no such toleration on moral matters. The critic will be justly ‘jealous’ of their moral standards.

The arguments against the rationalists. Hume, in the Treatise, tries to refute the claims of rationalists such as Samuel Clarke that moral distinctions can be discerned by pure reason. His argument has two main parts. The first is that the conclusions of reason are ‘ideas’, but only ‘impressions’ can motivate, and moral distinctions are supposed to motivate. This argument relies on the sharp contrasts, drawn earlier in the Treatise, between impressions and less vivacious ideas, and between sense impressions and the passions they would need to ‘concur’ with, in order to motivate. Hume suggests that the rationalist may be mistaking calm passions, which do not agitate us, for passionless reason. The rationalist who disagrees with Hume’s distinctions will be unmoved by his first argument.

The second part of the argument is that, in any case, there do not seem to be any rationally discernible facts or relations which would establish the sort of conclusion which the rationalist moralist expects to be able to draw, for example that certain sorts of behaviour (incest, killing a parent) are wrong if done by human beings, but not if done by animals or plants. This argument attempts to show that the wrongness of murder or incest is not a matter of rationally discernible relations. Hume cites the supposedly exhaustive list of ‘philosophical’ (cognitively discernible) relations of ideas given in Book I of the Treatise, and the claim of the Treatise (Bk I, Pt III, Sect. I) that only four of these, resemblance, contrariety, degrees in quality, and proportion in quantity or number, can be traced by ‘demonstration’. Hume challenges any rationalist who disputes the completeness of his list of ‘demonstrable relations’ to point out the extra morally relevant relation. He requires that such a relation relate inner actions or states of mind to mind-external ‘objects’ (since he takes it that we all agree that moral judgment is restricted to expressed character traits), and that such a relation or relations determine what is ‘forcible and obligatory’ for all those capable of discerning them, that is for all rational beings. He takes it that, in order to found obligations, the relations would have to be shown to have a necessary effect on the will of all those who are obligated, and he seems to think that no rationalist could meet this challenge.

He adds, to his main anti-rationalist arguments, a famous ‘observation’ which he thought would ‘subvert all the vulgar systems of morality’ (Treatise: 470). This observation is that those who want to move from some factual claim to some conclusion about how we ought to behave owe us an explanation of how to derive the ‘ought’ of the conclusion from the ‘is’ of the premise (see Fact/value distinction). This is a challenge similar to that issued earlier to the rationalist who wants to found obligations on rationally discernible relations – to show a connexion to the will of the obligated, to show why that relation, or that fact, should fix for them what to do. He has not shown, nor does he claim to have shown, that there is no adequate answer to his challenges. ‘Vulgar’ rationalist systems may be subverted by his observations, along with other vulgar systems, but more refined versions of such systems can be depended upon to find a way around the ‘difficulties’ which he challenges them to face.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Ethics. Hume, David (1711–76), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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