In this paper, the main aim is to determine whether justice is based on nature or convention in David Hume’s point of view. In addition to this, Hume’s ideas on the concept of justice will be explained. It will be shown that Hume believes that justice is based on conventions of trust and mutual agreements which actually aim for the maximization of public utility. However, for Hume, even if justice is conventional, it takes on the appearance of natural. Hume’s thoughts about the origin of morals will also be clarified for the reader in order for her/him to be able to comprehend his ideas better.
According to Hume, ‘public utility’ is the sole origin of justice. Hume asserts that “… 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” (PM, p. 86, para.2). At this point, it can be asserted that for Hume justice aims at maximizing public utility. 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” (PM, p. 74 para.5). 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” (PM, p. 74, para.5). 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.
According to Hume, justice is absolute necessity out of its usefulness in maintaining order in society that’s why justice will not exist where it is useless for society. Hume believes that justice and usefulness are not as good for their own sake but as vehicle to reach an end which is desirable for humanity and for well being of society. Hume relates justice to public utility when he claims that for an action to be just it should be useful and it should fit human sentiment. This is crucial for Hume because sentiment allows people to make distinction between right and wrong, just and unjust, good and evil, obligatory and unlawful and the like. In Part II Section I named ‘Justice, whether a natural or artificial virtue?’, Hume claims that “The origin of justice explains that of property. The same artifice gives rise to both” (THN, p. 491). On the other hand, in his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume indicates that a man’s property is what is lawful for him alone to use. Hume adds “But what rule have we, by which we can distinguish these objects? Here we must have recourse to statutes, customs, precedents, analogies, and a hundred other circumstances” (PM, p. 93 para.35). In other words, Hume believes that property is allowed only when it has basis in civil laws which are designed to maximize the public utility. Hume also mentions about the interests of the society which require these contracts to be carefully fulfilled in order to secure ‘mutual trust and confidence’. “… when men, from their early education in society, have become sensible of the infinite advantages that result from it, and have besides acquired a new affection to company and conversation; and when they have observed, that the principal disturbance in society arises from those goods, which we call external, and from their looseness and easy transition from one person to another; they must seek for a remedy by putting these goods, as far as possible, on the same footing with the fixed and constant advantages of the mind and body. This can be done after no other manner, than by a convention entered into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry” (THN, Book III, Sec II, p. 489).
Hume indicates that “If we examine the particular laws, by which justice is directed, and property determined; we shall still be presented with the same conclusion: The good of mankind is only the object of all these laws and regulations” (PM, p. 90 para.22). As the reader may easily comprehend, for Hume, partition of property has a basis in contracts and promises which constitute the laws. These laws, for Hume, are formed in order to provide justice whose sole origin is to maximize the public utility. In other words, Hume believes that preventing from any disturbance while partition of these external goods has a basis on the appearance of human conventions. Hume points out “Instead of departing from our own interest, or from that of our nearest friends, by abstaining from the possessions of others, we cannot better consult both these interests, than by such a convention; because it is by that means we maintain society, which is so necessary to their well-being and subsistence, as well as to our own” (THN, p. 489). Here, Hume clearly explains that by such a convention everyone’s property is protected and interests are respected and consequently maintenance of society is provided.
Hume explains his idea that ‘justice is useless in a happy state with a given example. He indicates that “Let us suppose, that nature has bestowed on the human race such profuse abundance of all external conveniencies … every individual finds himself fully provided with whatever his most voracious appetites can want, or luxurious imagination wish or desire” (PM, p. 83 para.23). Under these conditions, Hume believes that every other social virtue would flourish however ‘virtue of justice’ would never once have been ‘dreamed of’. That’s why according to Hume, justice would become totally useless in such a happy state with abundance of all ‘external conveniencies’. In other words, according to Hume’s theory of abundance, there will be no need for justice when a state is completely happy because in such a situation every man will have more than one another. A further aspect that Hume points out here is that social virtues (virtues that benefit other persons in society such as benevolence, justice, fidelity, honour, allegiance…etc.) will flourish and justice will be useless and unnecessary in this state. At this point, Hume illustrates his thought with the example of ‘water and air’. Hume asserts that “Water and air, though the most necessary of all objects, are not challenged as the property of individuals; nor can any man commit injustice by the most lavish use and enjoyment of these blessings” (PM, p. 84 para.4). In addition, Hume gives a further example of the situation of abundance such as ‘land’ in a fertile extensive country with few inhabitants in order to explain his theory. Hume figures out that “Few enjoyments are given us from the open and liberal hand of nature; but by art, labour, and industry, we can extract them in great abundance” (PM, p. 87 para.13). That’s why Hume believes that the idea of property has become necessary in all civil societies and justice is approved of because it has public utility.
Hume notes some differences between artificial virtues such as justice and natural virtues such as benevolence. For Hume, laws are artificial and human invention that’s why justice is artificial not natural virtue. However, for Mill, instinctively it takes the appearance of natural. According to Hume, the sense of justice arises from human conventions and intercourse. In a paragraph dealing with justice in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume firstly mentions about the situation of man with regard to animals stating the difference between them in having reason and then claims that “The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them” (PM, p. 89 para.19). At this point, the reader may explicitly see that Hume strongly believes laws that serve for the existence of justice and consequently civil society are conventional that’s why the notion of justice which is thought to be provided by these laws are also artificial and not natural. A further dimension that could appear in mind at this point is the variability of the notion of justice from one place to another. Hume indicates that “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…” (PM, p. 97 para.47). From my point of view, for Hume, as long as laws in a certain country binds the citizens of that country but not another’s, these laws serve for the maximization of public utility of that country but not another. Therefore, every country has its own, diverse laws, which for Hume generally have common points as they aim for the same result.
Hume explains his theory that justice cannot depend on natural virtue depending on the idea of benevolence which he calls as one of the natural virtues. Hume states that “A man's property is supposed to be fenced against every mortal, in every possible case. But private benevolence is, and ought to be, weaker in some persons, than in others: And in many, or indeed in most persons, must absolutely fail. Private benevolence, therefore, is not the original motive of justice” (THN, p. 483). Here, Hume clearly states that private benevolence does not form a basis for justice because in diverse people the meaning it acquires may change and it may even fail in most cases. Therefore, Hume believes justice is not based on natural virtue. Hume improves his theory when he notes that “ … in order to establish laws for the regulation of property, we must be acquainted with the nature and situation of man … and must search for those rules, which are, on the whole, most useful and beneficial” (PM, p. 91 para.27). At this point, the reader should pay his/her attention especially on the phrase ‘on the whole’ which Hume also emphasizes on in his A Treatise of Human Nature. According to Hume, the main difference between the natural virtues and justice consists of the conclusion it may bring. For Hume, the conclusion of a single act of justice may not be useful in order to maximize the public utility in all cases whereas it is beneficial in most cases when it derives from natural virtue. The only difference betwixt the natural virtues and justice lies in this, that the good, which results from the former, arises from every single act, and is the object of some natural passion: Whereas a single act of justice, considered in itself, may often be contrary to the public good; and `tis only the concurrence of mankind, in a general scheme or system of action, which is advantageous (THN p. 579).
A further aspect that Hume deals with while considering justice is the difference between superstition and justice. Hume claims that “the former is frivolous, useless, and burdensome; the latter is absolutely requisite to the well-being of man-kind and existence of society” (PM, p. 94 para.38). At this point, Hume illustrates his idea with given examples of superstition in order to let the reader comprehend the difference in a way comparatively explicit. One superstition Hume indicates is that “I may lawfully nourish myself from this tree; but the fruit of another of the same species, ten paces off, it is criminal for me to touch” (PM, p. 94 para.37). Hume also mentions about instinctive reaction. Hume is in dilemma “whether the sentiment of justice is either derived from our reflecting on that tendency, or like hunger, thirst and other appetites, resentment, love of life, attachment to offspring, and other passions, arises from a simple original instinct in the human breast…”(PM, p. 96 para.40). As far as I am concerned, Hume believes that benevolence is an original instinct whereas justice is not although they are both social virtues. However, this distinction lies in the idea that benevolence is a natural virtue whereas justice is an artificial virtue.
In conclusion, 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. Hume indicates that “… the sense of justice and injustice is not derived from nature, but arises artificially, tho’ necessarily from education, and human conventions” (THN, p. 483). According to Hume, our obligation as citizens is to obey the laws which we have previously agreed to sign because we know and believe that they are totally in accordance with the interests of the society. Hume states “… public interest is not naturally attached to the observation of the rules of justice; but is only connected with it, after an artificial convention for the establishment of these rules…” (THN, p. 480). A further aspect that Hume points out is that the contract in which we agree to sign is universal with exception of a few differences deriving from traditions private to diverse societies. Hume indicates that “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…” (PM, p. 97 para.47). From my point of view, Hume believes that such similarity between laws of difference societies derive from the confidence of man that it guarantees the interests of the society.