Concerning the Principles of Morals By David Hume Summary and Analysis Appendix I-IV

Summary

Appendix I

One of the most controversial issues in the history of ethical theory has to do with the respective place that should be given to reason and to the feelings in the formation of moral judgments. Throughout the Enquiry, Hume has recognized that both reason and the feelings are necessarily involved in the development of the principles of morality. It has not, however, been made entirely clear just what he believes the function of each of these two factors to be, and it is for the purpose of clarifying this point that he has added this appendix to the earlier work.

Because so much has been said in the various sections of the Enquiry concerning the feelings of approval for that which is useful and agreeable to ourselves and to others as the essential basis for morality, he now gives special attention to the subject of reason and the function which it performs in connection with moral sentiments. To make his position entirely clear, he finds it necessary to indicate both what it is that reason is capable of doing and what it is incapable of doing. This will not only throw light on the nature of the rational element that is involved in moral thinking, but it will enable one to avoid those errors which attribute to reason a function which properly belongs to the feelings.

In the first place, it requires no argument at all to establish the fact that reason is an indispensable tool for finding out what actions are the ones most likely to be of the greatest use in meetings the needs of a human society. This information will need to be based on past experiences, and obviously reason, or correct thinking, will be involved in drawing inferences with reference to the meaning of these past events and the likelihood of similar occurrences taking place in the future.

Calculations of this kind are not always an easy or simple process. Complications arise because what is of immediate benefit to one person or one group of persons may be detrimental to their interests in the future. Again, it is not at all uncommon for situations to develop where benefits to one group are at the same time decidedly injurious to others. Furthermore, because conditions are constantly changing, what was beneficial under one set of circumstances may be detrimental under the changed conditions. Reason must take into account all of these factors and determine with as much accuracy as is possible those actions which under the new and emerging conditions will be most useful in meeting human needs.

Although reason is essential for the purpose of supplying the necessary information about what is useful and agreeable, it is not sufficient to produce either blame or approbation. Reason may tell us what is an adequate means toward a certain end, but it cannot tell us whether a particular end is good or bad. Only feeling or sentiment has the power to do that. So long as we are indifferent toward an end or goal, we will be indifferent toward the means which will produce it. Sentiment is necessary for moral decisions and this sentiment is none other than a feeling of approval for that which promotes the happiness of humanity and a resentment of that which produces misery in place of happiness. In support of this thesis, Hume calls attention to five important considerations.

The first one is the fact that reason is competent to judge only two things: matters of fact and the relations which exist between things. Neither of these is sufficient to cause approval or disapproval of an action. The fact that a theft or a murder has been committed does not in itself constitute any grounds for a favorable or an unfavorable attitude toward what has occurred. As a mere statement of fact, it is indifferent so far as any moral consideration is concerned.

What makes an act a crime is not something that exists apart from the minds of the persons who are thinking about it. That which is condemned or approved is not simply an awareness of the facts. Neither is it a matter of knowledge concerning the relationship of the facts to one another. It is only when the mental action or quality gives to the spectator a sentiment of approbation that we call it a virtuous act, or when it arouses a sentiment of resentment that we call it a vicious one.

The second consideration has to do with the difference between mistakes concerning matters of fact and mistakes with reference to morals. To know that a certain geometrical figure is a triangle involves an awareness of the relationship of the parts to one another. Here we can know at once all of the relationships that are relevant to the problem. This is not the case when we are dealing with morals.

When, for example, a person has been killed, we do not know at once all of the relationships that are involved. Consequently, we cannot say whether the act was a criminal one until we find out all the relevant circumstances under which the act took place. We need to know whether the killing was accidental or intentional, whether there was a sufficient justification if the act was intentional, and a number of other conditions which might have a direct bearing on the nature of the act. It is not until after all of these circumstances are known that the act can be praised or blamed, and even then it is the feelings, or the heart, that makes the decision rather than the intellect.

The third point calls attention to the similarities between an awareness of natural beauty and one of moral beauty. In both instances, some account is taken of the relationship of parts to the whole. Natural beauty depends very largely on such items as proportion, position, and the relation of parts to one another. It would be quite absurd to maintain that the beauty of an object consists purely in a knowledge of the particular facts that are involved. It is only when an appreciation or response is felt on the part of the observer that it is said to be beautiful. A similar situation exists with reference to moral beauty. Whether a particular act is to be regarded as a vice or a virtue is not determined by a mere awareness of the facts but by the presence of a feeling or sentiment which because of the structure of human nature causes us to be pleased or pained by what has taken place.

The fourth point is based on a comparison of the relationships involved in inanimate nature with the ones experienced in a moral situation. We do not censure a tree or a plant for destroying its parent in order to make possible its own growth and development, but we do regard it as a criminal act for a human being to kill his or her parents for any selfish purpose. The fact that the relationship between offspring and parents is the same in both cases is a clear indication that what is moral or immoral about an act is not simply a matter of relationship, knowledge of which is obtained through the reasoning process.

The fifth consideration is the fact that the ultimate ends of human action can never be accounted for by reason. If we want to acquire health, the reason can supply information concerning the proper means for obtaining it, but reason cannot prescribe the ends for which the means shall be used. Many of the things which we normally desire are only the means for obtaining something else, and these in turn are often the means for some more ultimate goal.

Means, however, must always be means for something, and somewhere along the line we must come to that which is no longer a means for something else but an end in itself. This is what we usually have in mind when we speak of the final ends, or goals, of human life. It is important to note in this connection that these final ends are necessarily the objects of feelings and desires. Unless we want to possess them, there is nothing in the nature of reason that tells us we ought to have them.

Appendix II

The question of whether there are any actions prompted by other than selfish motives has been a controversial issue throughout the history of ethical theory. From the time of the ancient Greek Sophists to the present day, there have been philosophers who have maintained that any action professed to have been done in the name of benevolence is nothing more than hypocrisy; that all so-called friendship is but a blind to conceal one's own selfish interests; and that the claim of being public-spirited is a farce often intended to fool the public, in many instances effectively fooling oneself. All of this implies a conception of human nature with which Hume has no sympathy at all. He believes that those who hold such views are under the influence of either a corrupted heart or superficial reasoning.

Closely allied with this view and in some respects forming a part of it is the assertion that there can be no such thing as a disinterested action. Whenever one performs an act of kindness or generosity toward another person, it is said that he does so for the sake of the satisfaction which he himself will derive from it. This may involve a feeling of moral superiority on his part, the likelihood that he will be praised for the performance of a good deed, or any one of numerous other benefits of a similar nature. That a motivation of this kind is a real possibility Hume does not deny, but, at the same time, he asserts with emphasis that this is not the only possibility open to an individual.

That one may act for the sake of someone else rather than for himself is evidenced by the fact that even those who have advocated theories of this kind do not as a rule behave in a manner which is in harmony with their doctrine. For the most part, they are men of kind disposition and generous impulses. Because of an element which is characteristic of human nature, they have found it impossible to avoid holding in esteem the person whose self-love gives way to a deep concern for the welfare of others, or despising the one whose self-gratification never goes beyond his own individual interests. In other words, the most important objection to the hypothesis that all actions are selfish is that this is contrary to the universal feelings of humanity.

Appendix III

The purpose of this Appendix is to supplement the discussion of justice found in the early sections of the Enquiry and to point out certain unique characteristics which distinguish this virtue from other ones which are usually classified as social in their reference. In the case of benevolence and other social virtues, the actions which are performed are directed toward a single object, and the happiness or other benefits resulting from the action are experienced immediately or at least in the foreseeable future. For example, a parent flees to the relief of his child or a generous man seizes the opportunity to serve a friend. If the child is rescued or the friend is benefited, the action is regarded as complete. A virtuous act has occurred, and this judgment has been made quite apart from any further consequences which may occur at some future date.

The situation is different in the case of justice. What determines whether an act is just is not simply the immediate effects on a particular individual or even a relatively small group of persons but rather the effects on society as a whole and over a long period of time.

This can be seen quite readily if one stops to consider the justification of any of our laws having to do with the holding of private property or the protection of human life. Take, for example, the punishment administered to criminals for their disregard of the rights of other people. The punishment may involve a serious injury to the person who receives it, but this is more than balanced by the protection which it gives to the other members of society. The same is true in regard to the system of taxation, which enables the government to take a portion of one's private property in order to provide benefits for the people as a whole. Laws which forbid the exploitation of child labor, the misrepresentation of goods which are offered for sale, the sale of drugs, or any other practice which is harmful to the members of society will deprive certain individuals of the opportunity to make increased profits for themselves. Nevertheless, the justice of these laws will be established if it can be shown that regulations of this kind are essential for the protection and welfare of society as a whole.

In the kind of world in which we live, it is quite impossible for a government to establish laws of a general nature which will be of equal benefit to all of the people who are involved. Furthermore, that which may be injurious in its immediate effects may turn out to be beneficial in the long run. For these reasons, along with many others, it is not always an easy task to determine the precise course which justice demands in a given situation.

There are, however, certain principles which may be recognized as pointing the way toward a just solution of the problems which arise. One of these is the avoidance of special privileges which are given to some persons but not to others. Another one is the necessity of taking into account the long-range interests of people rather than immediate satisfactions. Finally, it is the effect of a given policy toward meeting the needs of society as a whole insofar as this can be determined in advance that is the objective of the virtue of justice.

Appendix IV

Much of the disputation that has occurred in philosophical writings has been due either to ambiguity or vagueness in the use of words. Since words derive their meaning from the way in which they are used and different people do not always use words in the same way to express what they mean, it is easy to understand why disputes of this nature should arise. Hume states that he has tried to avoid this difficulty by a sparse use of the terms virtues and vices. He has chosen rather to speak of those actions which are useful and agreeable or their opposites. In spite of this caution on his part, some of his critics have insisted that he used the terms virtues and vices to include talents or capacities and a lack of these, whereas he should have made a clear distinction between virtues and talents or vices and a lack of certain abilities. It is in defense of the way he has used the terms virtues and vices that this appendix was written. He offers the following considerations in support of the terminology he has used.

The boundary lines separating virtues and talents or vices and defects have never been sharply drawn, and there has been a considerable amount of overlapping in the way these terms have been used. Actions have been classified as voluntary and involuntary, but this does not distinguish between particular talents and the use which is made of them. Aristotle classified virtues as moral and intellectual, the former having to do with actions which are a means to an end and the latter with those activities which are ends in themselves rather than a means for something else. This again is a method of treating capacities and the use made of them as though they belonged together and could not be separated. The same may be said with reference to a division of activities on the basis of being directed by the head or the heart. It is quite possible for us to think of the intellect and the will as though they were separate faculties, but in our actual experience they are usually if not always combined.

One reason why the language used in this connection is not precise is the fact that there is little if any distinction made in the estimation which we place on a person's abilities and the moral quality of the actions which he performs. To call a man stupid is to censure him as much as it is to call him lazy or shiftless. In general, society does not look with approval on either the knave or the coward. We admire both intelligence and generosity, and the one about as much as the other. Consequently, we adjust our estimation of a person if he excels in one but is lacking in the other. One who has a good head but a cold and indifferent heart is rated about the same as one who has a poor head but a warm and generous heart.

The ancient moralists whom we have come to admire a great deal made little or no distinction between virtues and mental endowments. Plato, for example, suggests very strongly that wisdom and goodness belong together. Wrong decisions are in his judgment the result of ignorance, and, for this reason, the development of the mind will lead to the formation of a good character. Aristotle's doctrine of the golden mean emphasizes the importance of intelligence for determining the course of conduct which is midway between the extremes of excess and deficiency. The Stoic conception of the good life was one in which the feelings and appetites were brought under the control of one's rational nature.

Modern philosophy, especially ethics, has been so closely related to theology that this accounts for much of the difference between contemporary views and the ones held by the ancients. The science of theology admits of no terms of composition but uses every branch of knowledge for its own purposes and pays little attention to the phenomena of nature or the proper exercise of one's intellectual capacities. From this point of view, the sole basis of virtue is obedience to divine commands, and hence the matter of voluntary or involuntary conduct is of major importance.

Analysis

The appendices which were added to the main portion of the Enquiry were intended to clarify some of the issues involved in the author's moral philosophy and possibly to answer some of the objections which might be raised concerning it. The inclusion of these appendixes is especially valuable for students who have experienced some difficulty in trying to understand what Hume has been saying about morals. In these additions to the original text, he has endeavored to deal directly with some of the major issues raised by his critics. In this way, he hoped to remove some of the ambiguities which might lead to misinterpretations of his doctrines.

The purpose of the first appendix was to clarify his stand with reference to the place and function of reason in matters pertaining to morals. Because Hume had emphasized the role of the feelings in the development of moral beliefs more than had been done by any of his predecessors, it was only natural that some of his critics would think that he had given too large a place to the feelings and had neglected to give proper credit to the reasoning faculty. To eliminate any misunderstanding on this point, he now states very clearly just what it is that he believes reason can do and what it is that it cannot do toward the development of moral beliefs.

Reason, according to Hume, is competent in those areas which have to do with matters of fact, and it is likewise capable of determining the relations that exist between things. Hence, in the field of morals, reason is an adequate tool for finding out what is useful for the particular ends which one has in mind. If you want to achieve health, acquire money, or go certain places, the use of your reasoning powers can tell you how these things may be accomplished. But reason cannot tell you whether these ends are good ends, nor does it have any power to tell you what it is that you ought to do. Reason can tell you what type of consequences are likely to follow certain courses of action, but it cannot tell you whether these consequences are good or bad. Any judgment that you make along these lines will be directed by the feelings rather than the reason. This does not mean that reason has nothing to do with the making of moral judgments, but rather that its true function is to determine means rather than ends.

The second appendix is intended to clarify the meaning of the term self-love. Does this term connote only those actions which are selfish in the narrower sense of the word, or is it possible that it includes actions which are usually called altruistic? The question arises from the fact that moral sentiments are said to have their origin in the feelings. Whose feelings are referred to in this connection? Is it the person who makes the judgment or the persons whose welfare may be affected by it? Since the feelings are necessarily private and no one would voluntarily act for the sake of the welfare of other persons unless the idea was pleasant and agreeable to himself, it would appear that what one does for others is really done for the sake of his own pleasure.

This conclusion, however, does not follow from the facts. It is quite possible that one's objective may be the welfare of others, and any pleasure which he may or may not receive from it is merely incidental to the action itself. An act that is performed for the sake of others can be called a selfish act only by defining selfishness so broadly that it would be logically impossible to have an exception to it. In this case, the term would become meaningless since it would be equivalent to saying that one does what he does. For self-love, or selfishness, to be a meaningful term, it must be defined in a way that is exclusive of some actions. In other words, it must be possible to distinguish between those actions which are exclusive of the welfare of others and those which are inclusive of it. Only the former can rightly be designated as acts of self-love.

The third appendix explains somewhat further the meaning of the term justice as it was used in the earlier sections of the Enquiry. In these discussions, it was pointed out that justice, like all of the other virtues, is but a means for meeting the needs of people. In an ideal society where all the needs of all the people are supplied in abundance, there is no need for justice and therefore none would exist. This seems simple enough for anyone to understand, but when we stop to consider the application of the principles of justice to the particular problems which arise in human society, a number of complications appear.

How, for example, can one say that a criminal is treated justly when he has been deprived of his property, his liberty, and perhaps even his life? Can we say that his needs have been met by this type of treatment? What about the situation that arises in connection with international warfare when innocent people are killed and their property destroyed in order to defeat the enemy? Is it just and right for society to provide for all the needs of people who refuse to put forth any efforts to take care of themselves?

Hume's answer to these questions is that justice is designed to meet not merely the present particular needs of any individual but has to do with the future even more than the present and with society as a whole rather than certain particular units which may be included in it. This means that at times it may be necessary to sacrifice the present needs of individuals under certain circumstances in order to achieve the larger goal that includes the future and well-being of society as a whole.

It should perhaps be pointed out that Hume's empirical method of accounting for the meaning of justice is scarcely adequate to support all that he has maintained concerning it. Experience does indicate very clearly the changing element that is involved in the application of justice to existing circumstances, but it does not point to any permanent or unchanging element in it. The unchanging element is nevertheless just as important as the changing element. The very fact that Hume makes reference to the "principles" of justice is sufficient to show that he recognizes something about the nature of justice that is not fully revealed by use of the empirical method. Again, his insistence that the future needs of society as a whole should be given preference to the present needs of certain individuals is something that remains constant and is not influenced by changing circumstances.

In the fourth appendix, an attempt is made to eliminate some of the confusions which arise from the misuse of words. One of these consists in the identification of virtues with talents. The Greeks, for example, were often prone to identify goodness with intelligence. Plato had taught that ignorance was the chief source of evil. To call one stupid was regarded as a kind of reproach which carried with it a certain moral condemnation. The same idea has been carried over into modern times and has given support to the belief that education will overcome the evils that are present in society.

Hume recognizes the error that is involved in this type of procedure, which has so often been characteristic of rationalistic moral philosophy. He states correctly that goodness is not the same as intelligence. Goodness always involves an act of the will. It is not the particular abilities with which one is endowed that determines his moral quality but rather the use which he makes of whatever talents he may possess.

Another source of confusion has been the identification of what one believes to be right or wrong in the moral sense with the commands of God. This implies an absurd assumption on the part of the person who claims to know with infallible certainty just what the will of God is. It leads to arrogance, intolerance, and even persecution of innocent persons. One should recognize that ideas about right and wrong come first of all from human experience, and it is not until after this has been done that they are said to be commands of God.

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