Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved January 16, 2019, from

12. Political obligation

In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke grounds the political obligation to obey and sustain one’s government in a social contract, a mutual promise by which individuals pool some of their natural rights in a civil society in order to better protect their property. The obligation to keep promises and to respect property, in turn, together with the basic rules that determine the acquisition of property, are features of Natural Law. While sympathetic to Locke’s aim of justifying resistance to tyrannical governments that fail to protect citizens and their property, Hume offers accounts of the political obligation to obey and sustain government (which he calls allegiance), the obligation to respect property (which he calls justice), the obligation to keep promises (which he calls fidelity) and the relations among them, that are very different from those of Locke.

Hume distinguishes artificial virtues, which depend on artifice and convention, from natural virtues (such as benevolence, cheerfulness, prudence and industry), which do not (THN 3.2). A ‘convention’ between two or more individuals does not demand an explicit promise; rather, it requires a presumed sense of common interest in a coordinated course of action, and an expressed and mutually understood determination to act in accordance with that coordinated course of action on the condition that others will do so as well. Rights to property and the rules that govern its acquisition are not inscribed in a pre-conventional law of nature, but rather arise as the result of a convention to protect the stability of actual possession (that is, control of goods), a convention that is originally motivated by the self-interest of all those involved. Recognition of the usefulness to the general public of the character trait of abiding by the rules of property, however, and sympathy with all those who benefit from it, causes the trait to be recognized as a virtue (THN 3.2.2). Promise making, too, arises as the result of a convention motivated by self-interest, one that allows the coordination of non-simultaneous exchanges of benefits by instituting a form of words that commits one to perform future benefits on pain of subsequent exclusion from the valuable convention in the event of non-compliance. The character trait of promise keeping, like that of obedience to the rules of property, comes to be approved as a virtue through sympathy with the broad range of those benefiting from the trait (THN 3.2.5) (see PROMISING).

The need for conventions of property and promise keeping in order to provide stable possession and mutual exchange of benefits, respectively, will lead to their invention and institution even within individual families and very small societies, Hume holds. In such circumstances, violators are, for the most part, easily detected and effectively sanctioned. Governments arise – often beginning with deference to a chieftain who has been a leader during war-time – as a convention to maintain the rules of property and promise keeping in larger societies by making it directly in the interests of some individuals to enforce those rules impartially. The convention of deferring to a chieftain for governance may indeed often originate in a promise among the members of a society. However, the obligation of citizens to allegiance is grounded, Hume argues, not in any original promise of the founders of government, nor (as Locke allowed) in a ‘tacit’ promise or consent on the part of current citizens, but rather on the general utility of allegiance, which gives rise to sympathetic pleasure and hence moral approbation (THN 3.2.7–8). Justice, fidelity and allegiance are all artificial virtues, each depending for its existence on a distinct convention, and the virtuousness or moral obligation of each has a similar but distinct basis in social utility. The obligation to allegiance stands on its own, and need not be derived from other obligations that themselves have a similar basis. Where a government becomes so tyrannical that it ceases to provide security and other benefits to its citizens, Hume allows, the moral obligation to obey and sustain the government naturally ceases. Although he has a lively sense – evident in his History of England – of the dangers of anarchy and the preferability of even quite imperfect governors to it, he is also a staunch defender of the importance to a society of free thought and expression.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Political obligation. Hume, David (1711–76), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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