David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, was one of the most highly regarded thinkers who wrote in the English language. Although his contributions to the theory of knowledge as well as to moral and political philosophy form the basis of this high opinion, he also was the author of a highly acclaimed History of England in six volumes and many essays on various literary, moral, and political topics. Hume’s first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), in the author’s own account, “fell dead‐​born from the press,” and its poor reception moved him to write two shorter and more popularly written essays: An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1752). The section devoted to morals in the Treatise and the whole of the Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, together with some of the political essays, constitute the basis for his reputation as a moral and political philosopher. Among the most important and original of these essays was “Of the Original Contract” (1748), in which he sought to show that there could not have been a state of nature in which a contract to form society took place.

It is difficult to summarize Hume’s philosophy, either with respect to his theory of morals or his political philosophy. In the Principles of Morals, he supports the general claim that utility is the foundation of justice, but he also maintains that moral virtue consists of those qualities of mind that are “agreeable or useful to self or others.” He does not, as a more fully developed utilitarian theory suggests, propose that we should measure utility in the manner of Jeremy Bentham; that is, a scale that permits comparisons of utility from one person to another and by a measure that assumes all utilities of are of the same type and thereby measurable one against the other. Having failed to do so, it is not entirely clear how utility can be determined.

In “Of the Original Contract,” Hume explores the notion that society or government was or could be founded on some historical meeting of minds among the original members, but he does not really address the far more challenging and relevant thesis that the general principles by which social and political affairs should be run should be the object of rational agreement by all. He does, however, offer a devastating critique of the idea that the foundation of all morals or politics ultimately rests on agreement by pointing out that the obligation to keep one’s agreements is one of the primary principles of justice. Hume’s utilitarianism once again emerges when he concludes that the true foundation of any and all such general obligations is the good of society.

Some scholars have attributed to Hume’s views a fundamental conservatism, which, they claim, rests on two foundational aspects of his thought: his support of private property and his insistence that apparently arbitrary points of law should be adhered to regardless of their apparent uselessness. However, Hume’s insistence that private property is essential to society in fact has little to do with conservatism as such, but is, in fact, fundamentally libertarian. The second idea, regarding obedience to law, may lend support to the idea that Hume can properly be regarded as what we would now call a rule utilitarian. Yet his conclusions here have more to do with his perceptiveness about the nature of public goods—that is, goods the consumption of which by some does not limit the amount of the goods available to others—than with his conservative leanings.

Further Readings

Gauthier, David. “David Hume: Contractarian.” Philosophical Review 88 (1979): 3–38.

Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Charles Hendel, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs‐​Merrill, Library of Liberal Arts, 1957.

———. Treatise of Human Nature. P. Nidditch, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Yellin, Mark E. “Hume’s Indirect Utilitarianism.” Critical Review 14 no. 4 (2002): 375–390.

Jan Narveson
Originally published
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