Concerning the Principles of Morals By David Hume Summary and Analysis Section VI: Part 2

Summary

Among the qualities useful to ourselves which are generally considered to be praiseworthy, it is appropriate to mention bodily endowments and goods of fortune. Consideration of these will add further support to the general thesis concerning the origin and existence of moral sentiments. Among the ancient Greeks, it was customary to recognize beauty and strength in one's physical body as a mark of esteem. Men were admired for their broad shoulders, flat bellies, and well-proportioned bodies. Women were held in high esteem for their physical beauty. Their system of education was designed to promote physical charm and bodily health, as well as the proper development of the mind.

The appearance of the body was considered to be in some sense an index of the soul, for one who was careless in his physical appearance would in all likelihood manifest similar traits in his conduct with his fellow humans. Beauty of the body and physical strength were both praised and admired, and the reason for it was the fact that these qualities were especially useful as means toward the fulfillment of those purposes for which human beings existed. A homely or deformed body was regarded as one of the greatest of misfortunes, and to be deprived of normal physical capacities was something that was not only regretful but was usually treated with contempt. Impotence among men and barrenness in women were occasions for reproach.

Even in the case of statuary, it was a rule of the greatest importance to see that the figures were properly balanced and placed on the right center of gravity. Any departure from this rule would produce something that was ugly, for it would convey the ideas of falling, breakage, and pain.

With regard to fortune or the accumulation of private possessions, it has usually been recognized that the amount of material goods which one can call his own is one way of determining the respect and esteem in which he is held by his fellow humans. To be sure, this is not the only factor that is important in estimating the moral worth of an individual, but under normal conditions it does indicate something about one's habits of industry, attention to matters of thrift, and the soundness of judgment in affairs relating to business transactions.

If we ask ourselves why it is that people generally admire the rich and powerful in their midst, we will find that it is something more than selfish interests on our part that causes us to hold them in such high esteem. We simply cannot help but admire and approve those qualities in persons from whom we have no reason to suspect that we will ever derive any benefits. We even admire courage, thrift, and industry on the part of our enemies, although the fact that they possess these qualities may in the end prove quite disastrous to ourselves.

Analysis

The earlier sections of the Enquiry were devoted very largely to the task of showing that usefulness to ourselves and to others is the source of all moral sentiments. It now remains to see whether this explanation is sufficient to account for all of those qualities of conduct which are approved and disapproved by people in general. This appears to be necessary because any adequate system of moral philosophy must explain the origin of moral sentiments and must be able to account for all types of behavior which are recognized as morally good or evil.

Hume begins in this section by examining a number of those qualities which are useful to ourselves. These include such items as discretion, industry, honesty, truthfulness, chastity, bodily endowments, and material goods. The list is not intended to be an exhaustive one, but it is sufficient to illustrate the class of qualities which he has in mind.

At the beginning of this discussion, it is pointed out that whether these qualities are approved or disapproved is dependent on being present in the right amount. In this respect, Hume follows the principle that was set forth in Aristotle's doctrine of the golden mean. According to this doctrine, a certain quality constitutes a virtue when it is present in the right amount, but the same quality will be a vice when it is present in either a deficient or an excessive amount. The right amount must always be determined by reason rather than feelings, and it must be calculated with reference to the proper development of the personality as a whole. When interpreted in this manner, it can be seen quite readily that each of the qualities enumerated in this section is approved because of its usefulness to the individual who possesses it.

Discretion, which is the ability to make wise decisions on important matters, is a quality the value of which can scarcely be overestimated. It enables one to evaluate merit in the persons with whom he is associated, to estimate the risks that are involved in business transactions, and to choose the better of alternative courses of action. So long as this quality is exercised in the right amount, it is useful to oneself and is something that he cannot help but admire in others. When it is carried to the extreme point which causes one to postpone any decision because of the possibility that he might be wrong, it becomes detrimental to one's own welfare and is something that one disapproves when he sees it in other persons.

What is true of discretion can also be said concerning honesty, truthfulness, industry, chastity, and the other qualities that are mentioned. Under ordinary conditions, truthfulness and honesty are not only useful in the promotion of individual welfare but are essential for the transaction of social relationships. It is conceivable, however, that conditions may arise in which strict adherence to either of these qualities will be detrimental to the welfare of the persons involved. In instances of this kind, they are no longer approved. Industry and thrift are greatly admired for their usefulness in making one's life productive and of benefit to the society in which he lives, but when they are carried to the extreme of miserliness and lack of concern for the welfare of others, they become vices rather than virtues.

Physical characteristics such as good posture, avoidance of excessive fat, gracefulness, and similar qualities are useful and admired unless they are carried to the extreme where they become ends in themselves rather than a means to the development of one's entire personality. The admiration which we normally feel toward the rich and the prosperous is due primarily to the fact that we credit them with the possession of those qualities which we approve, and this is likely to continue so long as their material goods are used for proper ends. When this condition no longer prevails, our attitude toward them is bound to change.

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