Concerning the Principles of Morals By David Hume Summary and Analysis Section VI: Part 1

Summary

In this section of the Enquiry, Hume examines still further the way in which moral sentiments are influenced by one's observation of qualities found in the lives of other people. For example, indolence, negligence, carelessness, credulity, fickleness, and similar qualities are not regarded as praiseworthy even though they may give immediate satisfaction and pleasure to the persons who possess them. The fact that these qualities are detrimental to the best interests of these persons by making them less capable of carrying on business transactions and performing other useful activities is something that gives to the observer a sentiment of disapproval and a feeling of uneasiness. It is from feelings of this type that one derives a sense of obligation or duty to avoid the development of these same qualities within himself.

The qualities which have been mentioned are not absolutely bad in the sense that no amount of them is ever desirable under any circumstances. Rather, it is the Aristotelian doctrine of the golden mean which should be followed with reference to each of them. Qualities which are desirable when present in the right amount and under the right circumstances become detrimental to one's interests when there is either a deficiency or an excessive amount of them. The right amount is determined not by the way one feels about it at the moment but by a reasonable calculation with reference to one's entire nature and the proper development of his personality as a whole.

It is the possession of these qualities in something other than the right amount that gives rise to the sense of disapproval on the part of the one who observes them. Quite the opposite occurs when the same qualities are present in the right amount, for this gives to the observer a sense of easiness and satisfaction which is characteristic of the virtues. In all instances, it is the utility of the qualities in question that determines whether they shall be regarded as virtues or as vices.

In contrast with those thinkers who have maintained that moral sentiments are always the product of self-love, Hume insists that this is not true. His reason for believing that something other than self-love is involved is the fact that by no stretch of the imagination will it be possible for the observer of these qualities in other persons to exchange places with the ones who appear to benefit from them or in the case of the undesirable traits to suffer from their consequences. Since it is the other person who will reap the benefits or experience the ill effects, all selfish considerations are thereby excluded.

Anyone who feels no concern at all for what happens to his fellow humans and who maintains an attitude of complete indifference toward that which brings either prosperity or ruin to his country will not recognize any distinctions of a moral nature in the qualities which are exemplified in the lives of others. The fact that distinctions of this kind are recognized by the great majority of persons is convincing evidence that something more than selfish interests are involved.

Qualities are approved or disapproved on the basis of their being either useful or pernicious. This, according to Hume, is the sole foundation for all moral distinctions. Vices and virtues according to this criterion will compare most favorably with the one derived from those principles of morality which philosophers have tried to support in so many different ways.

Writers in the field of ethics could profit from the example used in the physical sciences, where the same explanation was given to account for the revolutions of the moon and the falling of bodies which are close to the surface of the earth. If the force of gravity is sufficient to account for the wide variety of falling bodies, it should be possible in a similar manner to explain the origin and existence of the principles of morality by referring to a single cause. A few typical illustrations will show how this can be done.

Discretion is one of the virtues which are so recognized because of their usefulness. Without it, one's relationship with neighbors and friends would always be imperiled. Human nature is such that there is always a strong tendency to give way to one's feelings and to allow a burst of temper to characterize the actions which follow. When this is done without restraint, it produces friction and at times even anger on the part of the persons involved. This brings harm not only to the ones who are spoken to but to the individual who does the speaking.

While it is true that one's temper can never be suppressed completely nor the feelings entirely eliminated, it is possible to exercise caution and to employ enterprise and restraint in alternate succession as the occasions demands. Nothing contributes more toward a happy and harmonious relationship with one's peers than the use of a wise discretion in what one says and does. It safeguards one's own interests and, at the same time, prevents injuries to others.

Industry and frugality are virtues whose benefits to the persons who possess them are so obvious that no argument is necessary to convince one of their merit. They provide a necessary means for the accumulation of goods, without which one would be unable to have security or the opportunity for the development of his capabilities and powers as a human being.

These virtues are again illustrative of Aristotle's doctrine of the golden mean, for when they are present in too great an amount, they produce the vice of avarice, and when they are deficient or lacking in the proper amount, they give rise to prodigality. The virtues which consist of the right amount are not only pleasing to the individuals who possess them but are useful in promoting their best interests. On the other hand, the vices of avarice and prodigality are disapproved because they are hindrances rather than a help toward the achievement of that which is good.

Honesty, fidelity, and truthfulness are virtues which are praised because of their immediate tendency to promote the best interests of society. Their value is not, however, confined to their immediate effects, for once these qualities have become an integral part of one's character, he will be known by others as a person who is stable, trustworthy, and capable of meeting important responsibilities. When these qualities are lacking, the person will be regarded as unstable and even contemptible.

The need for a stable and honorable reputation is the reason for the merit which is accorded to the virtue of chastity. This is (according to Hume) especially true so far as the status of women is concerned. The highest regard which can be acquired by their sex is derived from their fidelity. When this is lacking, they lose respectability and are regarded as cheap and vulgar by the members of the community in which they live. Because of the many opportunities presented to them for secret indulgence of physical appetites, the welfare of society is dependent on a certain amount of modesty and reserve on their part. A single failure in this respect is sufficient to damage their reputation for the rest of life.

Delinquency or cowardice on the part of men are usually overlooked when they have given evidence of a complete reformation of conduct. This is not true of the female members of society. Any dissolute

behavior on their part is usually thought to indicate a weakness of character, which means that they are lacking in the will power to carry out any new resolutions which they may wish to fulfill. Whether this is a correct judgment concerning the character of women in comparison with that of men is not the point which Hume is trying to establish. His chief concern is to point out the reason why chastity among women is valued so highly and its violation so strongly disapproved. The reason is that its usefulness in promoting the welfare of society is so great that decency and order among human beings cannot be preserved without it.

The list of qualities which are pleasant and agreeable to the persons who possess them and which, at the same time, may be regarded as virtues because of their usefulness to society as a whole can be extended to include a great deal more than the ones that have been mentioned. According to Hume, the list would include such items as temperance, patience, constancy, perseverance, forethought, secrecy, and facility of expression: "These and a thousand more of the same kind, no man will ever deny to be excellences and perfections."

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