Concerning the Principles of Morals By David Hume Summary and Analysis Sections VII-VIII

Summary

Besides those qualities which are approved on the basis of their usefulness either to ourselves or to others, there are a number of additional ones which are deemed to be praiseworthy because of their immediate effects and without any regard to their utility in connection with present or future needs.

One of these is the attitude of cheerfulness, which is not only agreeable to the person who possesses it but is of such a nature that it is readily communicated to others. The cheerful person has a capacity for enjoyment which surpasses that of the individual who has a sour and melancholy disposition. He can meet the trials and hardships of daily living without being conquered by them. He can be happy in spite of perplexing problems. His sunny and radiant disposition makes life more pleasant for himself, and other persons find it a most agreeable experience to be in his presence. Quite the opposite is true when one encounters the person who is melancholy and who seldom refrains from looking only on the dark side of life. The longer one stays in his company, the stronger will be the tendency to share his unhappy attitude. The experience will be both disagreeable and painful. The effects will be realized immediately and quite apart from any calculation of what the future consequences of these attitudes may be.

Another quality which wins immediate approval is what is often referred to as greatness of mind or dignity of character. We admire the individual who has the courage of his convictions and who dares to stand for what he believes to be right even though the position he holds is an unpopular one and will cause him to lose friends and financial benefits. The person who will not surrender his own soul for the sake of material gain or in order to win the plaudits of the crowd will be held in high esteem even by those whose interests may be injured by the cause which he supports.

This point is well illustrated by a number of examples taken from the literature of the ancient world. Alexander, the ruler of Greece, is commended for his refusal to accept the offers made to him by Darius the Persian. His refusal exemplified the strength of character that did not allow him to compromise his stand in order to win personal benefits for himself. Phocion, who suffered a martyr's death, is reported to have turned to one of his fellow sufferers who was likewise facing execution and said to him, "Is it not glory enough for you that you die with Phocion?"

Closely allied with these qualities is the philosophical tranquillity which enables one to rise above the affliction of pain, sorrow, anxieties, and various types of adversity. This quality is well illustrated in the character of the ancient Stoic philosophers. The true Stoic way of life was equally indifferent to poverty and prosperity, ease and discomfort, criticism and praise. To be sure, this goal of life was never completely realized. The ideal is far too high for perfect fulfillment by ordinary mortals. Nevertheless, it was a goal toward which one could strive, and moral progress could be measured in terms of proximity toward it.

At any rate, we find that insofar as these qualities can be observed in any human being, they have always carried with them a sense of grandeur and they have produced a feeling of admiration and respect. This can be seen in the high esteem which we all have for the Socrates of ancient Athens, who maintained an attitude of serenity in the face of poverty and domestic vexations and who refused to escape from prison at a time when he had a full opportunity to do so.

Benevolence is another quality which always wins immediate approval when one sees it manifested in other persons. Here again we have ample evidence to support the opinion that the approval of this quality is not due to its usefulness alone but also to the fact that as human beings we find it pleasant and agreeable to observe acts of kindness and mercy whenever we see them expressed. If the approval of these actions was due to their usefulness alone, we would not blame people in a kindly way for being too good when their generosity toward others exceeded its proper limits. Neither would we criticize in an adverse way the individual whom we regard as too high-spirited, too intrepid, or too indifferent toward the goods of fortune. We do make judgments of this kind whenever it seems to us that the actions under consideration have gone beyond that which is in harmony with the best interests of society.

We have seen that in general, the qualities which are approved are the ones that are useful either to ourselves or to the other members of the society to which we belong. But just as there are some additional qualities which we find immediately agreeable to ourselves, so there are still other ones which are immediately agreeable to other persons. One of these is politeness, or what is sometimes designated as having good manners in the company of those with whom we are associated.

The need for this quality arises from the natural tendency on the part of human beings to overestimate their own good points and to underestimate the evil ones. When this tendency is not held in check, the person who thus gives expression to his vanity and self-conceit makes himself especially obnoxious to those who observe his behavior. The same is true of the individual who, by preferring his own interests and comforts to those of his neighbors and associates, tries to get all he can for himself and to do so at the expense and discomfort of others. Calling such an individual impolite and disrespectful is one of the ways in which we express our disapproval of his conduct. On the other hand, we cannot help but admire the person who restrains these selfish and forward impulses in order to promote the happiness of others.

Wit and ingenuity are also appreciated and admired by those who happen to observe them. Without giving any consideration to the reasons why this is true, the fact remains that these qualities make for good companionship. They are a stimulus to good conversation, and when they are expressed with moderation and good sense, they add to the joys of association

The same can be said for such qualities as eloquence, modesty, cleanliness, and all of those habits of character which are usually associated with the idea of common decency. Even the use of the so-called white lie is generally approved, provided of course that there are no evil consequences of any more than a trivial nature and the untruth is stated solely for the purpose of being polite and of avoiding any unnecessary pain or embarrassment on the part of the one to whom it is told.

Hume concludes this section by stating that besides all these agreeable qualities, "there is a manner, a grace, an ease, a genteelness, an I know-not-what, which some men possess above others, which is different from external beauty and comeliness, and which, however, catches our affections almost as suddenly and powerfully."

Analysis

Sections VII and VIII of the Enquiry have to do with those qualities of action which are immediately agreeable either to ourselves or to others. These are included because there are certain qualities of action which are generally recognized as good quite apart from their usefulness in satisfying the needs of people at some future time. They are good because of the immediate pleasure and agreeableness which characterizes the experiences.

This might seem to suggest that Hume identifies the good with the pleasant, but this would be a misinterpretation of his doctrine. If the good and the pleasant were interchangeable terms, whatever is pleasant would necessarily be good, and this is something to which Hume would not agree. He recognizes as clearly as anyone else that a person may desire actions which are evil, and what is morally wrong may at the same time be pleasant and agreeable. What he holds is that what is good must be pleasant, but not everything that is pleasant is necessarily good.

The inclusion of these qualities which are immediately agreeable and pleasant brings to light one of the major points in Hume's theory of morals. Apparently he recognized more clearly than the most of his predecessors that knowledge concerning matters of fact cannot by itself produce any concrete action. Throughout the Enquiry, he has insisted that the source of morality is to be found in that which is useful for satisfying the needs of people. It is to a very large extent the function of reason to find out just what it is that is capable of satisfying these needs. But once this knowledge has been obtained, the individual will not act in accordance with it unless he has the desire to do so. Man is a creature who acts according to his desires, and these may or may not be in harmony with the information which the intellect supplies.

Among those qualities which are immediately agreeable to ourselves and are therefore regarded as good primarily for that reason, he enumerates such items as cheerfulness, greatness of mind, dignity of character, tranquillity, and benevolence. Among those which are immediately agreeable to others, he mentions politeness, good manners, wit, ingenuity, eloquence, modesty, and cleanliness. Although all of these qualities are in one sense of the word useful for the full development of one's personality and the immediate pleasure and satisfaction which they bring to the individuals involved, they are valued primarily for the pleasure and happiness which they bring to human beings. Hume is not in the strict sense of the term a hedonist, for while he recognizes that pleasure is a good thing, he knows that it is not the only thing that is good.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

According to Hume, principles of morality are




Quiz