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Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment Part Three: David Hume

Prof. James Stacey Taylor discusses the work and contributions of David Hume, who, like Adam Smith, was heavily influenced by Francis Hutcheson. Hume’s philosophy took Hutcheson’s views towards sentimentalism to their logical conclusion.

Although Hume was heavily influenced by Hutcheson, Hutcheson did not approve of Hume’s views. Hume thought that our passions and our affections naturally lead us to perform certain actions with reason acting only as a guide. Put another way, when we act in the real world, reason is a slave to our passions.

If this is true, there are large implications for morality. Essentially, it means that morality cannot be rationally based. We act based on what we think is right and wrong, and therefore, our morality is based upon our sympathies, our passions, and our sentiments.

Hume’s view of sentimentalism does present an issue in large impersonal commercial societies. We naturally are sympathetic towards people who are close to us, such as our family and friends. This type of sympathy is what Hume referred to as a natural virtue. However, we are less sympathetic to strangers. In a society full of strangers, Hume argued that a sense of justice is important, which is an artificial virtue based on reason.

To Hume, justice is narrowly concerned with respecting people’s property. Using reason, Hume argued that we are motivated, and wish others to be motivated, by justice. Therefore, a just society based on property is the best way to organize society.

Watch part one featuring Francis Hutcheson

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Watch part two featuring Adam Smith

Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment Part Three: David Hume

The third giant of the Scottish Enlightenment is undoubtedly David Hume. Like Adam Smith, Hume was also tremendously influenced by Francis Hutcheson. However, this doesn’t mean that Hutcheson approved of Hume’s views. In fact, he is known to have tremendously disapproved of a draft of Hume’s major work, A Treatise of Human Nature, that he saw, and he’s also known to have tried to obstruct Hume’s attempts to secure a university position at the University of Edinburgh.

Despite these setbacks and despite Hutcheson’s disapproval, David Hume is undoubtedly one of the most good natured and pleasant of all of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers. David Hume’s arguments concerning natural religion, in particular his arguments concerning the design argument, are actually intentionally funny. If you haven’t read them, you should, because they are high comedy in its greatest form.

Moreover, Hume was constantly being badgered by his contemporaries to finish his great History of England. Hume’s response to them when they kept pressing him for a publication date or pressing him for more chapters was quite simple. “Look” says Hume, “I’m too lazy, too fat, and just too rich to write this anymore.” I think that being too lazy and too fat might well describe an awful lot of philosophers but unfortunately were not too rich. Hume was very fortunate in that respect, and Hume enjoyed his wealth. If you see pictures of Hume, he is enormously rotund and he’s good natured and he’s happy. This is a man who enjoys life.

Hume, because of his enjoyment of life, endorses Hutcheson’s views that persons are generally benevolent towards one another. He’s certainly not a Hobbesian. However, Hutcheson’s disapproval of Hume doesn’t stem from that agreement. It stems from where Hume takes Hutcheson’s arguments concerning sentimentalism, because Hume follows the arguments to their natural conclusions and he does so brilliantly throughout all of his work. Be it on morals or be it on epistemology, the theory of knowledge.

For Hume, reason is and always should be the slave of passions. We see here clear links to Adam Smith and Hutcheson, who are also concerned with persons being motivated by their affections and their sympathies. And we can see how persuasive Hume’s view here is. Imagine that you’re going off to a supermarket in Scotland. Facing you are all sorts of Scottish goodies, Haggis in tins, kelts, little tartan Scottie dogs, little hats with baubles on them, all the sort of things that Scotland has produced and that only a Scot could really want. You’re in this supermarket and you’re looking around. And clearly it’s not your reason that’s going to direct you to pick up certain things and put them into your basket. It’s your desires. It’s your passions. Now your reason can certainly help guide and direct your passions. If you want to save money as any true Scot would, you’d be looking down and finding out how much price per pound the Yorkshire or the Scottish shortbread is or the oatmeal is. So your reason will help you to satisfy your desires. But, it’s the desires that are in the driving seat, they’re what’s doing the work.

This has implications, notes Hume, for our moral views. We often say we are motivated by morality, and we often make this claim truly. So you might ask somebody “Why did you hand in that wallet that you found for police?” And they might just say, “It was the right thing to do.” Or you might say, “Why didn’t you take your roommate’s yoghurts out of the fridge? They wouldn’t have spotted that they had been missing.” And we might say, “Well, it’s the wrong thing to do.” You are motivated by considerations of morality. What is right and what is wrong helps guide and determine your actions. But, notice, says Hume, if that’s true, and it seems to be, morality cannot be rationally based. Because remember, it is not reason but our passions, our affections that lead us to perform certain actions.

So morality is based upon on our sympathies, our passions, in Humian terms, our sentiments, to link more clearly with Adam Smith and Francis Hutcheson. We’re guided and directed by our sentiments. That might be a problem, though, because as Hume recognized we have different levels of sentimental attachment to people depending on how close they are to us. We’re very readily motivated to exercise what Hume terms the natural virtues of benevolence towards friends or family members. But we might be less motivated to perform benevolently towards people who are further from us, strangers in the street, for example. And this might be a problem because if we’re dealing with people in a large impersonal society, we want individuals to be motivated to treat others justly even if they’re not members of their family or their close friends.

How do we get to this? Hume notes that we have, as well as the natural virtues, such as familial benevolence, what he terms artificial virtues, such as justice. For Hume, justice was narrowly concerned with respecting other people’s property. You act justly if you respect the property of others. Notice that Hume’s worry that we might not be motivated to act justly comes with a vengeance when we are talking about strangers. We want justice to apply impersonally and impartially. But, if it’s a natural virtue and we lack benevolence towards strangers that we have towards family and friends, maybe our motivation to act justly towards others in impersonal situations will be fairly weak.

Hume argues that what we should is recognize that justice is an artificial virtue. We are motivated and we wish others to be motivated to act justly because that is the best way of organizing society. If we want our property respected and we recognize that others have a similar claim upon their property, we should act justly towards them even if they are complete strangers to us. In Hume’s famous example, if you find the property of somebody who is just a terrible person, a seditious bigot, you should return his property to him because it is his property. So, we have this general virtue of justice which is artificial and which we try to instill in ourselves and in others because to do so will maximize general social utility, or at least work to the advantage of social utility.

So, for Hume, our passions are indeed the guide and direction of our actions. They’re the front of our actions. We have a sentimentalist based nonrational approach towards morality and we distinguish between artificial virtues and the natural virtues. Again like Smith and Hutcheson, if we take Hume’s views on board here, we’re going to be putting together various social institutions that recognize that persons are generally benevolent but might need an additional push to respond justly towards persons with whom they have no direct personal relationship.

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