An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Analysis

David Hume


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...

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The Origins of Morals

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 affected; moral judgments, strictly speaking, are matters of sentiment, although before they can properly occur reason must furnish all the available relevant information. To avoid misinterpretation, it is hardly possible to overemphasize this distinction between inductive conclusions about moral acts and judgments, on one hand, and moral approvals and disapprovals themselves, on the other.

Social Virtues: Benevolence and Justice

Hume’s analysis begins with an examination of the social virtues, benevolence and justice, since their explanation will have relevance to other virtues as well. Such benevolent sentiments and characters as are described by words such as “sociable” or “good-natured” are approved universally. However, it is not the mere fact of approval but the principle underlying it that is the object of investigation. We approve benevolence in part because of the psychological principle of what Hume calls sympathy, an involuntary tendency in an observer to experience the same emotions he or she observes in a fellow human being, but the more immediate reason for such approval is that we perceive the utility (usefulness, conduciveness to happiness) of this virtue. When we praise a benevolent person, Hume says, we always make reference to the happiness and satisfaction that person affords to society. Because benevolence is regarded as one of the highest virtues, in turn it reflects the fundamental importance of utility. Even in our nonmoral judgment of value, usefulness is a paramount consideration.

In cases of uncertainty about moral questions, Hume adds, there is no more certain way of deciding them than by discovering whether the acts or attitudes involved are really conducive to the interests of society. Hume describes several reversals in the estimation of practices, such as generosity to beggars, when it was seen that their tendencies were harmful rather than helpful, as had been supposed at first.

Whereas benevolence is approved partly but not exclusively for its beneficial consequences,...

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Utility as the Basis for Society

At the end of his section on justice he repeats his conclusion that utility accounts for much of the merit of such virtues as humanity, friendship, and public spirit, and for all that of justice, fidelity, integrity, veracity, and some others. A principle so widely operative in these cases can reasonably be expected to exert comparable force in similar instances, according to the Newtonian method of philosophizing. Hume then finds utility to be the basic justification for political society or government, and he notes that “the public conveniency, which regulates morals, is inviolably established in the nature of man, and of the world, in which he lives.”

However, is utility itself a fundamental principle? We may still ask why utility is approved, to what end it leads. The alternatives are two: It serves either the general interest or private interests and welfare. Hume recognizes the plausibility of the self-love or self-interest theory, holding that all approvals are ultimately grounded in the needs and passions of the self, but he claims to prove decisively the impossibility of thus accounting for moral judgments.

The skeptical view that moral distinctions are inculcated through indoctrination by politicians in order to make people docile is very superficial, Hume says. While moral sentiments may be partially controlled by education, unless they were rooted in human nature the terminology of ethics would awaken no response.

However, granted this response, must it still be traced to self-interest, perhaps an enlightened self-interest that perceives a necessary connection between society’s welfare and one’s own? Hume thinks not. We often praise acts of virtue in situations distant in time and space, when there is no possibility of benefit to ourselves. We approve some virtues in our enemies, such as...

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Universality in Moral Judgments

Having not only admitted interpersonal differences in sympathy but acknowledging also intrapersonal variations of feelings for others, how can Hume account for any uniformity and objectivity in our moral judgments? Here he offers one of his most significant contributions to ethics. Even while our sentiments vary, we may judge merit with practical universality, analogously to judgmental correction of variations in sensory perception. Though we do not all, or always, perceive the same physical object as having the same color, shape, or size, as when we approach an object from a distance, we do not attribute the variations to the object; instead we imagine it to have certain stable, standard qualities. Such adjustment or correction is indispensable to mutual understanding and conversation among people.

Likewise, human interests and feelings vary. Thus, moral discourse would be impossible unless people took a general rather than a private point of view:The intercourse of sentiments . . . in society and conversation, makes us form some general unalterable standard, by which we may approve or disapprove of characters and manners.

Although our emotions will not conform entirely to such a standard, they are regulated sufficiently for all practical purposes, and hence ethical language becomes meaningful:General language . . . being formed for general use, must be moulded on some more general views, and must affix the epithets of praise or blame, in conformity to sentiments, which arise from the general interests of the community.

In order for this standard to be effective, there must of course be a sentiment or emotion to implement it, and here again Hume produces a telling argument against the self-interest theory. Self-love is inadequate to the prerequisites of the concept of morals, not from lack of force but because it is inappropriate. Such a concept as this implies (1) that there be in existence a universal sentiment producing common agreement in approving or disapproving a given object, and (2) that this sentiment comprehend as its objects actions or persons in all times and places. None but the sentiment of humanity will meet these criteria. Hume’s account of a “general unalterable standard” based principally on social utility and hence on benevolence is strongly objectivistic and balances subjectivistic strains in his ethics; it also provides the impartiality apparently neglected by his definition of justice.

Other Virtues

Having thus accounted for our approval of qualities conducive to the good of others, Hume continues his analysis of virtues and finds three other classifications. “Qualities useful to ourselves” (“ourselves” here meaning persons exhibiting the qualities) may be approved also for general utility, but primarily for benefit to the agent; examples are discretion, frugality, and temperance. Now a second major division and two other categories of virtues are added: the “agreeable” (pleasant or enjoyable) to their possessors or to others. “Qualities immediately agreeable to ourselves,” approved primarily for the satisfying feelings aroused, are such as greatness of mind and noble pride, though some, like courage and...

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Reason vs. Sentiment

Having discovered what he calls the true origin of morals through the experimental method, Hume is now ready to return to the issue of Reason versus Sentiment that he mentions at the beginning of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals but defers for settlement until the end. Throughout the book, statements occur that indicate his final position, but unfortunately there are also a number that appear to make moral judgment a matter of reason. This ambiguity is dispelled by Hume’s final treatment showing that moral judgment proper is noncognitive and affective in nature. It is true that reason is indispensable to approval or disapproval, for it must provide the facts that pertain to their objects. Very detailed and...

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An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

The Work

David Hume, perhaps Great Britain’s greatest philosopher, considered An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals to be his finest work, a judgment shared by many of his contemporaries and later readers who admire the clarity and objectivity of his examination of a complex and complicated subject.

The Enquiry is in large part a revision and extension of book 3 of Hume’s masterpiece A Treatise of Human Nature, in which he surveyed the full range of human psychology, but it is a much more concentrated review of the topic. In the Enquiry, Hume has two basic purposes. The first is to establish a method of writing about human ethical behavior; the second,...

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Ayer, A. J. Hume. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. This brief introduction to Hume’s life is both well written and useful. The chapter on aims and methods is especially good.

Chappell, V. C., ed. Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. This collection of twenty-one essays by such acknowledged authorities as Ernest Mossner and Anthony Flew is valuable to students of Hume.

Flew, Antony. David Hume: Philosopher of Moral Science. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Hanson, Delbert J. Fideism and Hume’s Philosophy: Knowledge, Religion, and...

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