December 21, 2011 Around the Web

Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment Part 3: 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.

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