An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Context

David Hume


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals is a philosophical classic that grows older without aging and that remains lively with a wisdom that speaks to the present. It is not the most profound of Hume’s works or the most original, being to some extent a revision of book 3 of Hume’s masterpiece, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740). However, its author considered it the best of his works, and many critics have agreed with that judgment.

Dealing decisively with major ethical issues, the work presents in clear, carefully organized form an analysis of morals. It continues the attack begun by philosopher Joseph Butler against the self-love theory (psychological egoism) of Thomas Hobbes and, in so doing, achieves a measure of objectivism frequently either overlooked or denied by Hume’s critics. On the other hand, after preliminary recognition of the significant but auxiliary role of reason in moral judgments, Hume sides with the eighteenth century school of sentiment against the ethical rationalists, on grounds shared today by those who regard ethical judgments as emotive utterances. However, while Hume is frequently cited as a predecessor of the latter philosophers, he avoids the utter relativism and moral nihilism frequently, but erroneously for the most part, attributed to them. Hence, although it would be worthwhile to read An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals for its historical importance...

(The entire section is 410 words.)