Philosopher David Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals”

(Updated 2/12/18)

David Hume

  • Born 1711, Edinburgh (“ED-n-Ber-o”), Scotland
  • “most important philosopher ever to write in English” – SEP
    • …but 18th century English is a bit different from today!
  • Father died when he was two
    • …Mother left with him and 2 younger siblings
  • Entered university age 12
    • …Mother encouraged law
    • Yet he possessed:
      •  “an…aversion to everything but…philosophy and general learning”
  • Left the university at 15, no degree
  • Later wrote several major works
    • including a 6-volume history of England
preview image
Painting of David Hume.jpg
Hume on ethics
  • Wrote “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals” in 1751
    • – Chapter length (not a book)
  • What was his conclusion?
    • Logic and reason are not  the root of ethics
      • So what else could be the root, then?
    • The passions are key – emotion and feeling
  • …wrote Hume. What do you think?
“Section 1. Of the General Principles of Morals”
  • Does ethics spring from REASON or SENTIMENT?
    • If reason:
      • ethics must be the same for…
      • robots, Martians, and humans
    • If sentiment (feeling, intuition, emotion):
    • human ethics is…
      • distinct…
      • …maybe even unique
  • That’s a pretty important difference!
  • Should ethics ever be the same for robots, Martians, and humans?
  • Should ethics ever *not* be the same for robots, Martians, and humans?
  • What about humans and chimpanzees?
    • (Reference: Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, p. 207, 1982, Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.)
      • – Nikkie tried to attack Luit
      • – Puist helped Luit fend off Nikkie
      • – Nikkie then attacked Puist
      • – Luit watched, did nothing
      • – Puist attacked Luit “furiously”
    • Why?
    • Is there a universal sentiment here?
    • Would Martians see it differently?
    • Would a race of superintelligent fish?
    • Robots?
  • Problem:
    • If sentiment, then…
      • we might disagree
      • yet there is nothing to argue about
        • you think murder is bad
        • drug smuggler gangs think it’s fine
        • you like chocolate ice cream
        • I prefer strawberry
  • Can ethics even exist?
  • Do we even need ethics?
    • What would happen if ethics did not exist?
      • ethics tells us our basic duties
      • no ethics – no reason to avoid bad things
      • society as we know it requires ethics
      • Some people seem to disagree
    • Sociopathic personality disorder
      • Person with no ethics
      • Appears to be biological in part
      • Actual differences in brain structure
      • What might that say about ethics?
  • Let’s try logic instead…
    • construct ethics from pure reason
      • Can you do it?
      • Even a little?
      • Example:
        • Spinoza wrote a book:
        • the Ethics
    • problem: people won’t care a lot
    • people will ignore it!
    • like going 1 mph over the speed limit
    • what about a body of law as an ethical code?
    • so, logic fails to provide ethics too
  • Any alternative to sentiment and logic?
  • Received ethical codes
    • E.g. the Bible
    • Does that solve the problem?
  • Saving sentiment-based ethics
    • First, reason has a place
    • Second, some sentiments are universal
      • a universal sentiment
        a foundation for ethics
      • IMO, sociopathic personality disorder says something about this
  • Universal (human) sentiments
  • – Let’s list some!
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • .
“Section II. Of Benevolence”
  • Hume focuses on benevolence
  • Benevolence is liked because
    • it usually has good consequences for society(?)
    • recall “consequentialism”
“Can anything stronger be said
in praise of a profession…
than to observe the advantages
which it procures to society?”
– Hume
Do you agree?
“In all determinations of morality…
public utility is ever principally in view”
– Hume
“Upon the whole, then,
it seems undeniable,
that nothing can bestow more merit
on any human creature than
the sentiment of benevolence
in an eminent degree;
and that a part, at least,
of its merit
arises from its tendency to
promote the interests of our species,
bestow happiness on human society.”
– Hume
Let me try to paraphrase Hume:
a person who is benevolent
is a good person, because
benevolence is good, because
it helps society and
produces happiness.
How accurate was that?
Do you agree with it?
This, then is Hume’s proposal
for a foundation for ethics:
  • sentiment-based, consequentialist –
  • “…benevolence and humanity, friendship and gratitude, natural affection and public spirit, or whatever proceeds from a tender sympathy with others, and a generous concern for our kind and species.” – Hume
  • Agree?
“Section III. Of Justice”
 (gets into property as the major example)
If the technological singularity arrives and everyone has whatever they want, there would be no need or desire for property
When society is in a state of extreme deprivation, property is ignored (p. 164).

One Response

  1. […] to refresh your memory of the lecture. Also you can check the lecture notes on Hume (which are at…). LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: