History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Hume Lecture 6

I. Hume distinguishes between virtues he calls natural and those he calls artificial. The distinction is roughly this: the artificial virtues require a background of convention in order to be realized; the natural virtues do not. In holding that virtue consists of both natural and artificial ones, Hume is placing himself in the middle between Hobbes and Hutcheson. As against Hobbes, and with Hutcheson, Hume holds that there can be virtue or moral goodness in a state of nature. Benevolence is to be approved of whether or not there exists law or custom. But as against Hutcheson, and with Hobbes, Hume holds that there are moral traits which do require human artifice, and which do not reduce to benevolence in any of its forms, e.g., justice. This latter is an echo of Butler, with a distinctly Hobbesian twist.

II. Now, while Hume argues that justice requires convention or artifice, he doesn't think that this means that it is at all arbitrary what this virtue involves. And he certainly does not follow Hobbes is thinking that it can involve anything that a powerful sovereign might command. ``Tho' the rules of justice be artificial, they are not arbitrary.'' (484)

Still, he is clear that they are not natural in the sense that they do not ``proceed immediately from original principles, without the intervention of thought or reflexion''. Neither self-love nor ``regard to publick interest'' lead us to be just. As far as the first is concerned, ``'tis certain that self-love, when it acts at its liberty, instead of engaging us to honest actions, is the source of all injustice and violence; nor can a man ever correct those vices, without correcting and restraining the natural movements of that appetite.''

And Hume gives several reasons why regard for the public interest cannot be the motive to just acts. One is that, like the object of self-love, the public interest can conflict with justice in particular cases. Thus a loan may be secret, and its being kept be contrary to the public interest. Moreover, Hume thinks we only have but limited generosity, and ``experience sufficiently proves that men, in the ordinary conduct of life, look not so far as the public interest, when they pay their creditors, perform their promises, and abstain from theft, and robbery, and injustice of every kind.'' (481)

III. But if justice does not arise in these ways, how does it arise? Hume's answer is that it arises, as a mutually advantageous convention, owing to. (a) limited generosity [here Hume makes two points: (a) ``in the original frame of our mind, our strongest attention is confin'd to ourselves; our next is extended to our relations and acquaintance; and 'tis only the weakest which reaches to strangers and indifferent persons''; and (b) we approve of this partiality to some degree: ``we blame a person who … is so regardless of [his family] as, in any opposition of interest, to give the preference to a stranger, or mere chance acquaintance.'' (488-89) But justice applies equally to friends and strangers] (b) moderate scarcity of ``external goods'' Because of these, our goods will be relatively unstable. We will not, absent some special remedy, be able to rely on strangers not to take the benefits of our own industry, nor take their word about their future conduct, etc. But, while neither self-love nor benevolence can be relied upon to provide direct motivation to these ends, ``nature provides remedy in the judgment and understanding for what is irregular and incommodious in the affections''. (489) And here lies the roots of Hume's solution. For, he thinks, it is possible for people, out of self-love, to restrain the very operation of self-love, by reflecting on the benefits of doing so. Specifically, we can, through self-love be motivated to restrain the scope of self-love and abide by mutually beneficial conventions, because of the mutual benefits of the convention.

IV. Here is how it is supposed to work. Suppose individuals (i) gain a ``general sense of common interest'' in, say, everyone's abiding by a rule requiring people to restrain from taking the possessions of friends and strangers alike, even when it is in their own interest to do so. That is, each ``observes that it will be for my interest to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me''; (ii) and then mutually express this common interest. Then (iii) this will produce a ``suitable resolution and behaviour''. Thus, each knowing that cooperation is in the interests of each and that each is only willing to cooperate so long as others do, will have a motive to support the convention, to encourage everyone to follow the mutually advantageous rules, and, perhaps to be such that he follows the rule himself. ``There is no passion, therefore, capable of controlling the interested affection, but the very affection itself, by an alteration of its direction … (492)

V. At this point, however, a problem arises, which we can begin to appreciate by noting Hume's distinction (at 498), between the natural and the moral obligation to justice. These parallel Hutcheson's distinction between two self-interested and moral obligations.

A. First, note the need for the moral obligation.

B. The moral obligation is a function of moral sentiment. But note what the object of the moral sentiment is. Like Hutcheson, Hume makes clear that it is not an ``external action'' but a virtuous motive (478).

C. But what, then, is the motive of justice? Can it be benevolence? Can it be self-interest? Look at what Hume says about the convention of justice at 490:

(i) ``which sense all the members of the society express to one another, and which induces them to regulate their conduct by certain rules.''

(ii) ``it will be for interest to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me.''

(iii) ``a suitable resolution and behavior''.

(iv) Just persons ``lay themselves under the restraint of these rules'' (499, 532)

(v) ``strictly'' ``regulate their conduct'' by them (490, 534)

(vi) treat them as ``sacred and inviolable'' (533) D. This suggests that he is supposing that the virtue of justice consists in acceptance of the rules of justice as norms of action.

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