About Concerning the Principles of Morals


In his autobiography, written shortly before his death in 1776, David Hume made the following statement. "In the same year 1752 [sic] was published, at London, my Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals; which in my own opinion (who ought not to judge on that subject) is, of all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best." He had published by this time a number of books and several essays dealing with a wide range of subjects, but throughout his life his major interest had been in the field of philosophy, and in this area it was the subject of morality with which he had been most deeply concerned. Although his philosophical writings did not receive at first any wide popular acclaim, they did attract the attention of scholars and won the respect and admiration of some of the leading men of letters.

Because Hume was a liberal as well as independent thinker and did not hesitate to attack popular notions concerning morality and religion, his writings created a considerable amount of opposition. He was bitterly opposed by some of the leading men of the church and was charged by them with being a heretic and an enemy of the Christian faith. On the philosophical side, he was severely criticized by the rationalists, who insisted that his teachings, if carried to their logical conclusions, would undermine not only the foundations of morality and religion but even of knowledge itself.

During the century which followed Hume's death, his critics assumed that they had successfully replied to his arguments. Among philosophers and theologians, it was a generally accepted belief that many of his ideas had been refuted and his influence would continue to wane. This situation prevailed until about the end of the nineteenth century, but since that time there has been a remarkable change. During recent decades, the prestige of his writings has risen to greater heights than ever before, and Hume is now regarded as one of the great philosophers of modern times.

Some familiarity with Hume's writings is usually considered to be an essential element in what is called a liberal education. His ideas constitute one of the most fruitful sources for contemporary systems of philosophy. This is especially true in regard to the field of ethics. Until comparatively recent times, the subject of morality has been presented from what is primarily either a rationalistic or a theological point of view. Now the trend is almost entirely in the opposite direction. The empirical method, which has been proven to be so successful in the natural sciences, has been extended to include the areas of morality and religion. In this respect, it has followed the course which was developed and used by David Hume.

The study of Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals will be especially beneficial to those who wish to understand more thoroughly what is going on at the present time in what is often referred to as the new morality or the contemporary revolution in ethics. Two centuries have passed since the book was written, and to understand its real significance one must try to see it in the light of the conditions and circumstances which prevailed at that time.

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