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Humes Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals




Humes Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals


   David Hume uses a method of empirical observation in order to define the principles of morals. His inquiry consists of different situations involving moral dilemmas in which the common human response is analyzed in a simple way. Hume argues that if any of his points does not stand firm in front of criticism, it is not the method of observation that is wrong, it has to be an additional relevant fact that is set forth. He invites his critics to challenge his claims through his own method.

    Humes theory can be concluded as the following diagram:

   Justice + Utility + Sentiment of Humanity --- Moral Distinction
His theory ties Justice to Utility, claiming that for an action to be just, it must be useful. It then ties the J+U to the SH, claiming that an act of justice is useful according to a universal Sentiment of Humanity. The third step connects the SH to the MD, claiming that the Sentiment of Humanity allows people to have the ability to make Moral Distinctions between right and wrong, just and unjust.

    The first stage of Humes argument concerns justice as it is tied to utility. He
primarily uses language and history in order to illustrate, by the method of introspection, what is perceived as just and unjust. Terms such as amiable are used as terms of appreciation, while terms such as odious are used as terms of blame. Hume proceeds to illustrate the need of an action to be useful in order to be just by describing two extreme human conditions: the abundance of all external conveniencies ( p. 21), and the opposite state of total deprivation.

    In the first situation nature grants humanity every possible convenience in endless amounts. When people are faced with such an extreme availability that allows them to practically have all that they consider as valuable and precious, the actual price drops and there is no more use for justice and laws to prevent shortage or theft.

    Hume goes back to the method of empirical observation and shows us this uselessness of justice in the extreme by pointing out a real case of natural abundance: the case of air and water in the world as we know it. Both are available by nature in such extent that no rules (and therefore- justice) is needed in order to divide them equally between people. There can be no possibility of air and water related crimes, for there is enough for all.

    Hume continues to show the opposite condition, namely, total deprivation. In this case society faces extinction by shortage of every necessary need. Once again, Hume deems justice as useless for its purpose is : to procure happiness and security, by preserving order in society (p. 23), and when hunger threatens a persons life, no justice is liable to stop him from attempting to survive by any means possible.

    After showing us the two extremes, Hume goes back to the state of things as they are in our world and claims that in the intermediate condition justice has absolute necessity out of its usefulness in maintaining order in a society. Therefore, justice will not exist whenever it is useless to society.

    In few other examples Hume illustrates the impact of just actions as tied to their utility; A benevolent person is considered just and the highest merits are attributed to him as long as his actions benefit others and therefore are useful to society.

    Hume claims that our ability to differentiate between just and unjust is not a matter of reason, rather it is perceived in its source by a universal sentiment of humanity that immediately lets us feel what is right and what is wrong. By posing the question why utility pleases(sect. 5), he begins to describe empirical observations of human conduct. When we, as human beings, hear about death in large scales in a country that is very far away, although we never met the victims and should have no specific feelings towards them, our natural reaction would make us perceive the story as a sad tragedy. Those terms coincide with vice and the cause of the tragedy is therefore evil. Hume explains this reaction as a common care that we all share towards the good of society in large.
He stops his examination by saying that it is enough that we experience this sentiment of humanity in order to call it a principle of human nature.

    This certain sentiment of humanity bounds us all by sympathy and by a common
interest for the good of society. That is why terms such as amiable are well agreed by all to describe virtue and terms such as odious are universally used to describe vice. A liberator of a nation would be considered a hero by his nation for the immediate usefulness of his actions, the gift of freedom, yet he will also be considered as such by any foreigner that merely hears his story and is faced with the useful outcome of his actions. The ability to naturally appreciate just actions and disapprove with unjust actions is how possessing the sentiment of humanity is expressed.

    Hume regards justice and usefulness not as good for their own sake, but as means towards an end which is so desirable by humanity that it justifies the existence of justice out of usefulness. This end is the well-being of society that is recognized thanks to our mutual sentiment. Once a person has the sentiment of humanity, and only then, he becomes naturally able to draw moral distinctions.

Moral distinctions are the ability to recognize vice and virtue, to know when an action is moral or immoral. A person who possesses this sentiment can immediately feel if an action he plans to take will be good or bad for the people it concerns. Would any man, who is walking along, tread as willingly on anothers gouty toes, whom he has no quarrel with, as on the hard flint and pavement? (p.47), In this rhetorical question Hume clearly illustrates our ability to make moral distinctions and not step on our fellows toes (as long as we have no quarrel with him) for we know the consequences of this action and we do not wish to cause pain to our fellow men out of the sentiment of humanity that we all share. In other words, moral distinction grants the final categorization of actions into just and unjust, based on what the sentiment of humanity allows us to perceive as good and as bad to any individual as well as to humanity in general.

    Moral distinctions are what enables us to learn whether our actions are just or unjust. In the basic structure of Humes theory, ([J+U] + SH) ---MD, moral distinctions are connected back to the first manifestation of just actions as the only way that we can direct our behavior towards a positive outcome (usefulness).

    Once all the components of Humes theory have been clearly presented, the
connection between them becomes obvious: Why should we obey the law (act justly)? Because it is useful to society. Why are justice and usefulness considered to be so desirable? Because of the universal sentiment of humanity. The last stage, which connects moral distinctions, is a clear outcome, deriving its existence, as a tool of judgment for all which is good or bad, out of the pure sense of the sentiment of humanity.

    Hume defines the principle of morals as he observes it in his empirical method. He bases justice and utility as means towards an end, which consists of the sentiment of humanity and the moral distinction, purely on the observation of human behavior and natural inclinations. Hume has been criticized for his choice of method, which is referred to as anthropological by Kant, yet within his own method of observation he presents a strong case in describing the process and the identification of the principles of morals.


Ohad Maiman