Moral philosophy is the science, which treats of the nature and condition of man as a moral being, of the duties that result from his moral relations, and the reasons on which they are founded. Moral philosophers try to form artificial rules called “ethics” by profiting from two main sources: human feelings and human rationality. Moral philosophers also try to explain the nature of human beings with different theories. David Hume (1711-1776) is considered as one of the most important names of the moral philosophy and he has a utilitarian approach while analysing the necessity of moral rules. Hume believes that the source of the need of justice is not humans’ rational egoism but instead their inner feelings, sentiments leading to the idea of public utility. In this assignment, I am going to argue that according to David Hume moral goodness is based on benevolence which derives from their inner feelings in the light of his book “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals”.
Hume’s theory derives from his understanding of the human nature. Hume thinks that although the level can change from person to person, humans are basically good creatures and naturally possess benevolence. In other words, humans have natural inclination to perform kind, charitable acts. However, human nature is not only about benevolence. We have some weak and dangerous sides too for example self-love may effect us to do egoist acts. Hume like all other moral philosophers tries to create and to prove the necessity of artificial moral rules called ethics. This is nearly impossible to defend the reality, objectivity of ethics because all people have different thoughts, feelings, characters but Hume’s way to reach a common understanding is to discover feelings possessed by everyone. Hume also mentions that justice, whose sole origin is pulic utility (Hume, pg 83), can depend on the culture of different countries but still for most societies same criterion should and could be applied. “The convenience, or rather necessity, which leads to justice, is so universal, and every where points so much to the same rules, that the habit takes place in all societies…”(Hume, pg 97). Benevolence is natural part of us and according to Hume it is the right source of making artificial rules for creating justice. Hume has a utilitarian approach while linking his theory from benevolence to public utility.
Utilitarianism refers to the belief that the value of a thing or an action is determined by its utility. Hume claims that human benevolence leads to the appearance of thinking of the public utility in doing something. “That public utility is the sole origin justice, and that reflections on the beneficial consequences of this virtue are the sole foundation of its merit; this proposition, being more curious and important, will better deserve our examination and enquiry” (Hume, pg 83). The public utility should be the base of justice. The distinction between just and unjust is and should somehow be arranged according to the public utility of events according to the characteristics of the society. This distinction, which is based on public utility, will not be a one that is derived from egoism (rationality) but rather from our senses, our benevolence. Hume believes in a state of abundance where all people satisfy their needs like to take shelter, to eat, to have a good time, there may not be a need for the state. The abundance will accelerate people’s discovery process of their benevolent sides. “It seems evident, that, in such a happy state, every other social virtue would flourish, and receive tenfold encrease; but the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of” (Hume, pg 83).
Here, it would be appropriate to give an explanation of the general foundation of morals from Hume’s point of view. Hume separates morals into two as whether derived from reason or from sentiment. Hume states “No man reason’s concerning another’s beauty; but frequently concerning the justice or injustice of his actions”(Hume, pg 74). According to Hume, morals derive from reason if we attain the knowledge of them by a chain of argument and induction. Therefore, for Hume, reason provides us knowledge and ability to understand the case and make judgments thinking about the outcomes of our actions (whether they are just or unjust). Hume indicates that “Moral distinctions, it may be said, are discernible by pure reason…What exists in the nature of things is the standard of our judgment; what each man feels within himself is the standard of sentiment” (Hume, pg 74). On the other hand, morals inspire from sentiments if we attain the knowledge of them by an immediate feeling or finer internal sense. According to Hume, reason is not enough to motivate us but moral judgments which originate from feelings are also necessary in order to motivate us. In other words, people need both reason and sentiment in order to make adequate judgments. Thus, we can say Hume’s account of morality is based on both benevolence and reason but benevolence is the stronger side.
However, when laws are concerned, Hume thinks that benevolence would not sufficient and public utility should be the basis of justice. Hume believes that justice is based on convention which aims to provide public utility through using the sanctions of the laws. Here, for Hume, education and social virtues (benevolence, justice, fidelity, honour, chastity, mercy, moderation, generosity, humanity etc.) acquires great importance in order to form mutual agreements, human conventions and contracts that are carefully fulfilled in order to maximize this utility.
Finally, in my opinion Hume’s account of moral goodness which is based on benevolence is very plausible and consistent in itself. As human beings, we tend to cooperate and to do good. However, we have some weaknesses that we have to fight in order to preserve our benevolence. In order to live in a peaceful world, we should discover our benevolent feelings rather than our competitive, ambitious, partial sides. Justice is in our hearts so let us discover it…
- Hume, David, “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals”, London: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1983