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§2. The Elements of Hume ’s Problem
To begin: consider such natural virtues as benevolence and generosity,
clemency and charity, love of life and kindness to children (T:, ).
These are all quite easy for Hume to explain. This is because he ascribes
to them two features.
First, they are natural dispositions (or what he sometimes calls implanted
instincts) to perform certain kinds (types) of actions on certain kinds (types)
of occasions—to be kind to children, say, when they need kindness.
Second, their performance gives rise to good in each case: a single act
of kindness to children, in itself, always produces good (T:).
As we would have expected, we learn further in paragraph that only
the natural virtues existed in the rude and natural condition of humankind
before the civilized state. So a third feature of the natural virtues is that
they constitute the natural and partial morality of our affections. This was
the morality of the ﬁrst stage. At that time the virtues of justice, ﬁdelity,
and honesty did not exist, and mention of them would have been greeted
as unintelligible and sophistical.
. By contrast with the ﬁrst feature above, the artiﬁcial virtues of justice,
ﬁdelity, and honesty are understood as dispositions of character to comply
with certain schemes of rules or conventions, dispositions that do not express an original principle of our nature, or of one or more implanted instincts. In such cases the rules and conventions are too varied and numerous, too complex and changing, to be the objects of original principles, or
even of a small number of such principles. And to go beyond a small number of principles might endlessly multiply hypotheses about our nature and
undercut the idea of a science of human nature (T:xvi–xix; ).
As we shall see, in contrast with the second feature above, a single act
of justice or ﬁdelity, when taken by itself, is often contrary to the good of
society and on balance may produce harm. Yet we still think that the just
action should be done, and done from a sense of duty.
from a sense of duty or benevolence, or hypocritically, hoping our ostensibly morally worthy action
will serve us in good stead later. Hume’s mistake is not to see that we need the two concepts of
moral worth of character and the concept of right applied to actions as kinds. He uses only the
concept of moral worth to answer two different questions and thus falls into error because this
one concept cannot give the answer to both the question whether an action (as type) in abstraction
from motive is right and whether a particular action, now looking to its motive, is morally worthy.
This is all there is to his short argument and the alleged circle. A fuller discussion is found in J. L.
Mackie, Hume’s Moral Theory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, ), pp. –.
. Thus Hume’s problem is this: How did human beings, beginning in
the rude and natural state, and possessing only the natural virtues, eventually reach the civilized stage in which they also possessed the artiﬁcial virtues, with the features just noted?
Now, this is a question about origins, and when Hume talks in this
section in paragraphs – (T:–) about the original motive to justice,
I believe that he means the original motive that might, for the ﬁrst time,
have led to just schemes of rules or conventions. He argues that this original
motive to justice could not have been private interest or reputation, or selflove, or regard for public interest, or the love of mankind (since there is
no such thing), or private benevolence, or regard for the interests of the
party concerned. For none of these as original principles or implanted instincts would have led to or sustained conventions of justice as we know
Hume says in paragraph (T:) that he wants to maintain that “it
may be establish’d as an undoubted maxim, that no action can be virtuous,
or morally good, unless there be in human nature some motive to produce it, distinct
from the sense of its morality.” The italics indicate the importance in his mind
of what he is saying. Yet the statement is hard to interpret. In the following
two paragraphs Hume himself says it is not true. For he grants in paragraph
(T:–) that when we are in civilized society, and educated according
to its practices, then if we have made a promise to repay a sum of money,
our regard to justice (our sense of its morality), and our abhorrence of
villainy and knavery, are sufﬁcient reasons for us to repay the debt.
Thus I am led to interpret the italicized statement of paragraph
(T:) as in effect imposing a condition on any account of how civilized
society with its conventions and rules of justice could have come about. It
cannot arise directly, or indirectly, from the natural virtues alone; it will
essentially rely upon understanding and judgment, design and intention. In
this process it will be moved by interests that are entirely natural, present
from the start, and fully part of human nature. It turns out that these interests are, importantly, our concern for ourselves, our family, and our friends.
. Before we turn to this, two remarks. First, Hume uses the idea of
virtue, I suggest, because virtues as dispositions belong to our character;
they are psychological features of our person that together inﬂuence what
we do and how we behave. To have and to acquire the virtues belongs to
our nature. It is not surprising that Hume should use this idea, given his
aim of showing that morality is a natural fact.
The other remark is that Hume is rejecting the natural law doctrine
coming down from medieval Christianity and found in Grotius, Pufendorf,
and Locke. Recall that for them moral obligation rests on natural law or
on divine law. This law is addressed to us by God, who has legitimate
authority over us as our creator; it is a dictate of divine reason or of divine
will. In either case we are directed to comply on pain of penal sanctions.
And while this law commands only what is, all things considered, good for
us and human society, it is not in acting from it as for our good that we
fulﬁll our obligation, but rather in acting from it as imposed by God and
seeing ourselves as obedient to God’s authority.
Now, here it is obvious that God’s law when supported by sanctions
can give us a motive for doing many things to which we have, in Hume’s
sense, no natural inclination. If we fear God’s sanctions, as we must, then
we have a motive of fear for not doing whatever God will punish. So against
this background, with which Hume is well acquainted, we might read paragraph in another way as follows:
It may be established as an undoubted maxim, that no action can be
virtuous, or morally good, unless there is in human nature some motive to produce it, distinct from a motive arising from its being sanctioned as a divine command.
Thus understood, this statement becomes a maxim of inquiry that imposes a condition that we must meet in trying to account for the origin of
justice and of property, the subject of III:ii:, to which we now turn.
§. The Origin of Justice and Property
This section contains Hume’s main theoretical sketch of the origins of
justice and property. It takes up two questions, which are explained as follows: ﬁrst, the manner in which the rules of justice are established by the
artiﬁce of men (paragraph [T:]); and second, what reasons lead us to
annex the idea of virtue to justice—that is, complying with the rules of
justice (paragraph [T:]).
Note that for the most part Hume means by justice the basic conventions regulating property: its stability and possession, its transference by
consent, and the performance of promises. He calls these basic conventions
“laws of nature” (T:), even “fundamental” laws (T:); also “laws of
justice” (T:), “rules of justice” (T:), and “rules of morality” as well
(T:). I shall often call them “conventions of justice,” since “convention”
is Hume’s term for indicating their distinctive features that make them essential to human society. By these laws of justice he doesn’t mean any laws
governing property that we might imagine established, but laws with those
features, which I shall discuss below.
Outline of Section by Paragraphs (Treatise:–)
The two questions to be examined: ﬁrst, how the rules
of justice are established by the artiﬁce of human beings,
paragraphs –; second, why we annex the idea of virtue
to justice, paragraphs –.
The inconveniences of our situation in nature alone remedied by society; affection between the sexes makes us
aware of these beneﬁts.
The circumstances of justice: the subjective circumstances of the limited generosity of our temper; the objective ones of the instability of external goods in view of
the scarcities of nature.
The remedy, which our uncultivated ideas of morality
cannot supply, is given by artiﬁce, or better, by judgment
and understanding, which promote conventions mutually
recognized as in the common interest.
The work and consequences of justice: once established,
little remains to be done toward harmony and concord;
avidity is given the proper direction to control itself; and
the rules of justice are simple and obvious.
The state of nature as a golden age is a useful ﬁction in
showing the origin of justice in the inconveniences of our
selﬁshness and in the scarcities in nature; abundance and
benevolence would make justice unknown.
Concluding observations on how rules of justice are es[ ]