Hume argues that rules of justice do not spring fully‐​formed from rational calculation but emerge from the uncoordinated actions of individuals.

Justice and Property

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment.

Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume strove to create a total naturalistic “science of man” that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In stark opposition to the rationalists who preceded him, most notably Descartes, he concluded that desire rather than reason governed human behavior, saying: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

A prominent figure in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist, he argued against the existence of innate ideas, concluding instead that humans have knowledge only of things they directly experience. Thus he divides perceptions between strong and lively “impressions” or direct sensations and fainter “ideas,” which are copied from impressions. He developed the position that mental behavior is governed by “custom”; our use of induction, for example, is justified only by our idea of the “constant conjunction” of causes and effects. Without direct impressions of a metaphysical “self,” he concluded that humans have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self. Hume advocated a compatibilist theory of free will that proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. He was also a sentimentalist who held that ethics are based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles.

Hume held notoriously ambiguous views of Christianity, but famously challenged the argument from design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

Kant credited Hume with waking him up from his “dogmatic slumbers” and Hume has proved extremely influential on subsequent philosophy, especially on utilitarianism, logical positivism, William James, philosophy of science, early analytic philosophy, cognitive philosophy. Also famous as a prose stylist, Hume pioneered the essay as a literary genre and engaged with contemporary intellectual luminaries such as Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith (who acknowledged Hume’s influence on his economics and political philosophy), James Boswell, Joseph Butler, and Thomas Reid.

Of all the animals, with which this globe is peopled, there is none towards whom nature seems, at first sight, to have exercis’d more cruelty than towards man, in the numberless wants and necessities, with which she has loaded him, and in the slender means, which she affords to the relieving these necessities. In other creatures these two particulars generally compensate each other. If we consider the lion as a voracious and carnivorous animal, we shall easily discover him to be very necessitous; but if we turn our eye to his make and temper, his agility, his courage, his arms, and his force, we shall find, that his advantages hold proportion with his wants. The sheep and ox are depriv’d of all these advantages; but their appetites are moderate, and their food is of easy purchase. In man alone, this unnatural conjunction of infirmity, and of necessity, may be observ’d in its greatest perfection. Not only the food, which is requir’d for his sustenance, flies his search and approach, or at least requires his labour to be produc’d, but he must be possess’d of cloaths and lodging, to defend him against the injuries of the weather; tho’ to consider him only in himself, he is provided neither with arms, nor force, nor other natural abilities, which are in any degree answerable to so many necessities. ‘Tis by society alone he is able to supply his defects, and raise himself up to an equality with his fellow‐​creatures, and even acquire a superiority above them. By society all his infirmities are compensated; and tho’ in that situation his wants multiply every moment upon him, yet his abilities are still more augmented, and leave him in every respect more satisfied and happy, than ’tis possible for him, in his savage and solitary condition, ever to become. When every individual person labours a‐​part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labour being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability encreases: And by mutual succour we are less expos’d to fortune and accidents. ‘Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.… For it must be confest, that however the circumstances of human nature may render an union necessary, and however those passions of lust and natural affection may seem to render it unavoidable; yet there are other particulars in our natural temper, and in our outward circumstances, which are very incommodious, and are even contrary to the requisite conjunction. Among the former, we may justly esteem our selfishness to be the most considerable. I am sensible, that generally speaking, the representations of this quality have been carried much too far; and that the descriptions, which certain philosophers delight so much to form of mankind in this particular, are as wide of nature as any accounts of monsters, which we meet with in fables and romances. So far from thinking, that men have no affection for any thing beyond themselves, I am of opinion, that tho’ it be rare to meet with one, who loves any single person better than himself; yet ’tis as rare to meet with one, in whom all the kind affections, taken together, do not overbalance all the selfish. Consult common experience: Do you not see, that tho’ the whole expence of the family be generally under the direction of the master of it, yet there are few that do not bestow the largest part of their fortunes on the pleasures of their wives, and the education of their children, reserving the smallest portion for their own proper use and entertainment. This is what we may observe concerning such as have those endearing ties; and may presume, that the case would be the same with others, were they plac’d in a like situation. But tho’ this generosity must be acknowledg’d to the honour of human nature, we may at the same time remark, that so noble an affection, instead of fitting men for large societies, is almost as contrary to them, as the most narrow selfishness. For while each person loves himself better than any other single person, and in his love to others bears the greatest affection to his relations and acquaintance, this must necessarily produce an oppositon of passions, and a consequent opposition of actions; which cannot but be dangerous to the new-establish’d union. ‘Tis however worth while to remark, that this contrariety of passions wou’d be attended with but small danger, did it not concur with a peculiarity in our outward circumstances, which affords it an opportunity of exerting itself. There are different species of goods, which we are possess’d of; the internal satisfaction of our minds, the external advantages of our body, and the enjoyment of such possessions as we have acquir’d by our industry and good fortune. We are perfectly secure in the enjoyment of the first. The second may be ravish’d from us, but can be of no advantage to him who deprives us of them. The last only are both expos’d to the violence of others, and may be transferr’d without suffering any loss or alteration; while at the same time, there is not a sufficient quantity of them to supply every one’s desires and necessities. As the improvement, therefore, of these goods is the chief advantage of society, so the instability of their possession, along with their scarcity, is the chief impediment.… I have already observ’d, that justice takes its rise from human conventions; and that these are intended as a remedy to some inconveniences, which proceed from the concurrence of certain qualities of the human mind with the situation of external objects. The qualities of the mind are selfishness and limited generosity: And the situation of external objects is their easy change, join’d to their scarcity in comparison of the wants and desires of men.… Here then is a proposition, which, I think, may be regarded as certain, that ’tis only from the selfishness and confin’d generosity of men, along with the scanty provision nature has made for his wants, that justice derives its origin. If we look backward we shall find, that this proposition bestows an additional force on some of those observations, which we have already made on this subject. First, we may conclude from it, that a regard to public interest, or a strong extensive benevolence, is not our first and original motive for the observation of the rules of justice; since ’tis allow’d, that if men were endow’d with such a benevolence, these rules would never have been dreamt of. Secondly, we may conclude from the same principle, that the sense of justice is not founded on reason, or on the discovery of certain connexions and relations of ideas, which are eternal, immutable, and universally obligatory. For since it is confest, that such an alteration as that above-mention’d, in the temper and circumstances of mankind, wou’d entirely alter our duties and obligations, ’tis necessary upon the common system, that the sense of virtue is deriv’d from reason, to shew the change which this must produce in the relations and ideas. But ’tis evident, that the only cause, why the extensive generosity of man, and the perfect abundance of every thing, wou’d destroy the very idea of justice, is because they render it useless; and that, on the other hand, his confin’d benevolence, and his necessitous condition, give rise to that virtue, only by making it requisite to the publick interest, and to that of every individual. Twas therefore a concern for our own, and the publick interest, which made us establish the laws of justice; and nothing can be more certain, than that it is not any relation of ideas, which gives us this concern, but our impressions and sentiments, without which every thing in nature is perfectly indifferent to us, and can never in the least affect us. The sense of justice, therefore, is not founded on our ideas, but on our impressions. Thirdly, we may farther confirm the foregoing proposition, that those impressions, which give rise to this sense of justice, are not natural to the mind of man, but arise from artifice and human conventions. For since any considerable alteration of temper and circumstances destroys equally justice and injustice; and since such an alteration has an effect only by changing our own and the publick interest; it follows, that the first establishment of the rules of justice depends on these different interests. But if men pursu’d the publick interest naturally, and with a hearty affection, they wou’d never have dream’d of restraining each other by these rules; and if they pursu’d their own interest, without any precaution, they wou’d run head‐​long into every kind of injustice and violence. These rules, therefore, are artificial, and seek their end in an oblique and indirect manner; nor is the interest, which gives rise to them, of a kind that cou’d be pursu’d by the natural and inartificial passions of men. To make this more evident, consider, that tho’ the rules of justice are establish’d merely by interest, their connexion with interest is somewhat singular, and is different from what may be observ’d on other occasions. A single act of justice is frequently contrary to public interest; and were it to stand alone, without being follow’d by other acts, may, in itself, be very prejudicial to society. When a man of merit, of a beneficent disposition, restores a great fortune to a miser, or a seditious bigot, he has acted justly and laudably, but the public is a real sufferer. Nor is every single act of justice, consider’d apart, more conducive to private interest, than to public; and ’tis easily conceiv’d how a man may impoverish himself by a signal instance of integrity, and have reason to wish, that with regard to that single act, the laws of justice were for a moment suspended in the universe. But however single acts of justice may be contrary, either to public or private interest, ’tis certain, that the whole plan or scheme is highly conducive, or indeed absolutely requisite, both to the support of society, and the well‐​being of every individual. Tis impossible to separate the good from the ill. Property must be stable, and must be fix’d by general rules. Tho’ in one instance the public be a sufferer, this momentary ill is amply compensated by the steady prosecution of the rule, and by the peace and order, which it establishes in society. And even every individual person must find himself a gainer, on ballancing the account; since, without justice. society must immediately dissolve, and every one must fall into that savage and solitary condition, which is infinitely worse than the worst situation that can possibly be suppos’d in society. When therefore men have had experience enough to observe, that whatever may be the consequence of any single act of justice, perform’d by a single person, yet the whole system of actions, concurr’d in by the whole society, is infinitely advantageous to the whole, and to every part; it is not long before justice and property take place. Every member of society is sen sible of this interest: Every one expresses this sense to his fellows, along with the resolution he has taken of squaring his actions by it, on condition that others will do the same. No more is requisite to induce any one of them to perform an act of justice, who has the first opportunity. This becomes an example to others. And thus justice establishes itself by a kind of convention or agreement; that is, by a sense of interest, suppos’d to be common to all, and where every single act is perform’d in expectation that others are to perform the like. Without such a convention, no one wou’d ever have dream’d, that there was such a virtue as justice, or have been induc’d to conform his actions to it. Taking any single act, my justice may be pernicious in every respect; and ’tis only upon the supposition that others are to imitate my example, that I can be induc’d to embrace that virtue; since nothing but this combination can render justice advantageous, or afford me any motives to conform my self to its rules.… However useful, or even necessary, the stability of possession may be to human society, ’tis attended with very considerable inconveniences. The relation of fitness or suitableness ought never to enter into consideration, in distributing the properties of mankind; but we must govern ourselves by rules, which are more general in their application, and more free from doubt and uncertainty. Of this kind is present possession upon the first establishment of society; and afterwards occupation, prescription, accession, and succession. As these depend very much on chance, they must frequently prove contradictory both to men’s wants and desires;. and persons and possessions must often be very ill adjusted. This is a grand inconvenience, which calls for a remedy. To apply one directly, and allow every man to seize by violence what he judges to be fit for him, wou’d destroy society; and therefore the rules of justice seek some medium betwixt a rigid stability, and this changeable and uncertain adjustment. But there is no medium better than that obvious one, that possession and property shou’d always be stable, except when the proprietor consents to bestow them on some other person. This rule can have no ill consequence, in occasioning wars and dissentions; since the proprietor’s consent, who alone is concern’d, is taken along in the alienation: And it may serve to many good purposes in adjusting property to persons. Different parts of the earth produce different commodities; and not only so, but different men both are by nature fitted for different employments, and attain to greater perfection in any one, when they confine themselves to it alone. All this requires a mutual exchange and commerce; for which reason the translation of property by consent is founded on a law of nature, as well as its stability without such a consent.… We have now run over the three fundamental laws of nature, that of the stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises. Tis on the strict t observance of those three laws, that the peace and security of human society entirely depend; nor is there any possibility of establishing a good correspondence among men, where these are neglected. Society is absolutely necessary for the well‐​being of men; and these are as necessary to the support of society. The selections above have been excerpted from “Of Morals,” the third and final book of David Hume’s “A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.”