An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

by David Hume
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

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.

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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 alone, it also has a unique relevance to some fundamental problems of ethical philosophy, particularly to those concerning the nature of moral judgment.

Although An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals can be clearly understood without previous reading of Hume’s other works, it is an application to ethics of the theory of knowledge and methodology presented in A Treatise of Human Nature and Philosophical Essays Conerning Human Understanding (1748; best known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1758), and its interest is enhanced by familiarity with those books. Like them, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals contains a measure of skepticism that, while fundamental, has been greatly exaggerated and widely misunderstood. Indeed, one of the chief merits of Hume’s philosophy lies in the “mitigated” skepticism that recognizes the limits of human reason without succumbing to what he calls Pyrrhonism, or excessive skepticism, which in practice would make belief and action impossible. However, those who accuse Hume of the latter skepticism must ignore one of his chief aims: to apply the Newtonian method of “philosophizing” to a study of human nature.

The Origins of Morals

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226

The object of the study is to trace the derivation of morals back to their ultimate source. Hume’s proposed method was to analyze the virtues and vices of human beings in order “to reach the foundation of ethics, and find those universal principles, from which all censure or approbation is ultimately derived.” Because this was a factual matter, it could be investigated successfully only by the experimental method, which had proved itself so well in “natural philosophy,” or physical science.

This “scientific” approach will appeal to many modern readers, but herein lies an ambiguity that, in spite of the clarity of Hume’s style, has misled some critics. One must realize that Hume was at this point writing of ethics as a descriptive study about morals—about acts, characters, and moral judgments. In this sense, ethics is a behavioral science and its statements are either true or false. That may suggest what today would be called an objectivist position, but Hume was not describing the way in which moral attitudes are...

(The entire section contains 5712 words.)

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