It is generally recognized that no higher praise can be bestowed on an individual than to point out the many ways in which his activities have been useful in promoting the welfare of his fellow humans. Likewise, it may be said that nothing will indicate the disapprobation of people any more than the assertion that the person in question has never done anything which has been of significant use to the society in which he has lived. This commendation of usefulness and disapproval of the lack of it suggests that there must be some reason why people are in favor of the one and critical of the other. Various attempts have been made by ethical philosophers to account for this fact, and it is Hume's purpose in this section of the book to set the matter straight.
Skeptics have urged that all moral distinctions are the result of education which has been promoted by the politicians and the rulers of the state. These persons have produced the type of legislation that was favorable to their own selfish interests. They have professed an interest in the welfare of all the members of their society, but this has been merely a device to make the rules and regulations more acceptable to the people as a whole. By getting the people to believe that the new legislation is in their interests, the rulers have been more successful in serving their own selfish purposes.
Hume admits that some of the rules for governing the conduct of people have been brought about in this manner, but he is vigorously opposed to the idea that this description is adequate to account for all of them. That there is a strong element of selfishness in human nature is something that cannot be denied, but it is also true that human beings are so constituted that within certain limits they respond in a favorable way to that which promotes the welfare of others even though it brings no direct advantage to themselves. Actions may arise from selfish interests, but it is also possible that they may be the result of more generous motives. As much as we value our own happiness and welfare, we cannot help but admire the conduct of persons who are willing to set aside their own selfish interests in order to further the cause of justice and the welfare of humanity.
Some writers in the field of ethics have maintained that the actions which are usually called altruistic are in reality only disguised forms of self-interest. They support this claim by calling attention to the fact that man is a social being who is dependent on the members of society for those conditions which are essential to his own individual welfare. When the society to which he belongs suffers, he, as a member of that society, shares in the misfortune which has come to the group as a whole. In the same way, he profits as an individual from anything which promotes the welfare of the other members of his society.
Thus it appears that all concern for such social virtues as justice and benevolence arises from the selfish interests of the individuals concerned. Again, Hume admits that while this explanation may account for some of the so-called altruistic actions which people perform, it is not sufficient to account for all of them. He gives several reasons in support of this conclusion.
One of these reasons is the fact that we normally approve and even bestow high praise on virtuous actions of the past. We do this in spite of the fact that there is no way in which these past actions can be of any possible use to us in the future. Further than this, we even approve and applaud actions which may be contrary to our own interests. For example, in times of war and other forms of international conflict, we admire the heroic actions of our enemies when they risk their own lives and fortunes to save their fellow men. Our admiration for them still persists even though their actions have been of advantage to our enemies rather than to ourselves.
Some people will say that we admire these past actions and noble endeavors on the part of our enemies because we imagine ourselves being in such a plight that behavior of this kind would be a distinct advantage to us. Hume rejects this explanation for the reason that "it is not conceivable how a real sentiment can arise from an imaginary interest." One who stands close to the edge of a precipice may experience a fear which is largely imaginary, but the more he understands the precautions that have been taken for his safety the less will be his fear. Quite the reverse is true in the field of morals, where the more he thinks about the situation the more clearly he distinguishes between vices and virtues.