David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian who is one of the most important figures of Western philosophy and of the Scottish Enlightenment. In his famous book “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals” which was written in 1751, Hume talks about morality and asserts that benevolence is a necessary condition for morality. This assignment is an attempt to show that in Hume’s understanding benevolence is a sine qua non condition of morality and people who are not benevolent cannot be moral. In order to arrive at that point, I am going to explain Hume’s theory in detail and then I will move on to question why benevolence is necessary for morality.
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 can depend on the culture of different countries but still for most societies same criterion should and could be applied. “Thus, the rules of equity or justice depend entirely on the particular state and condition, in which men are placed, and owe their origin and existence to that utility, which results to the public from their strict and regular observance” (Hume, p. 86). 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, p. 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, p. 83).
According to Hume morality plays a role in our formation of moral judgments. Morality makes the ultimate distinction between vice and virtue, so morality is very important for human nature. He thinks that everybody has personal merits including morality, benevolence, honor, humanity, fair-kind treatment, good manners etc. He says that “personal merit consists altogether in the possession of mental qualities, useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others” (Hume, p. 145). In his view, people act justly because of these merits which prevent them to perform bad, immoral actions. Hume believes that benevolence is a virtue because it is useful both for the individual and for the public. His utilitarian mind directs him to think that useful actions are virtuous. Hume equates benevolence to human merit and happiness (Hume, p. 82). Hume asserts that personal happiness and public utility are most important criteria in considering a behavior moral or immoral. These merits motivate all human actions and provide social order and utility.
As far as I am concerned, Hume is right to claim that humans have feelings of benevolence and morality is directly related to this special feeling. Unlike animals that have only instincts, humans have feelings and minds and benevolence is related to this particularity of human beings. Benevolence is the result of this human superiority which prevents us to do very bad things deriving from our instincts, negative attitudes and feelings such as egoism, greed etc. Hume accepts that humans have egoistic sides, that is why benevolence is that important. We should accept that we have many negative feelings such as greed, egoism but also very positive sides including love, pity and our social sides. Since the public utility and social order are the most important things in utilitarianism, this kind of public thinking can only be provided by the prevalence of benevolence. One can argue here whether people who are not benevolent or for instance children can also be moral. In my opinion, this is not possible since human nature has weak sides too. Without benevolence, our negative sides will be superior and we may perform very bad behaviors that will be detrimental to social harmony. At the same time, we cannot expect to have benevolence from children since their minds and characters are not developed yet and they are socialized completely. Children must be taught to use their benevolent sides by learning from the adults. Since children will be the future adults of the society, in order to provide social order and utility, people should teach their children and try to be a good role-model for them. A society consisted of benevolent individuals will be beneficial for all of us that is why I agree with Hume that benevolence is a necessary condition of morality.
Finally, in my opinion David Hume’s theory of morality which is based on benevolence is very plausible and consistent in itself. A peaceful, happy society can only be formed by happy individuals who know how to share, how to help each other, how to cooperate. That is why, benevolence must be exalted and our benevolent characteristics should be developed through a good education and socialization. A peaceful world is not out of reach since we are human beings who established great civilizations by helping each other and living in harmony…
- Hume, David, “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals”, London: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1983
- Wikipedia.org, http://www.wikipedia.org