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An Enquiry Concerning The Principles Of Morals Analysis Essay

At the end of his section on justice he repeats his conclusion that utility accounts for much of the merit of such virtues as humanity, friendship, and public spirit, and for all that of justice, fidelity, integrity, veracity, and some others. A principle so widely operative in these cases can reasonably be expected to exert comparable force in similar instances, according to the Newtonian method of philosophizing. Hume then finds utility to be the basic justification for political society or government, and he notes that “the public conveniency, which regulates morals, is inviolably established in the nature of man, and of the world, in which he lives.”

However, is utility itself a fundamental principle? We may still ask why utility is approved, to what end it leads. The alternatives are two: It serves either the general interest or private interests and welfare. Hume recognizes the plausibility of the self-love or self-interest theory, holding that all approvals are ultimately grounded in the needs and passions of the self, but he claims to prove decisively the impossibility of thus accounting for moral judgments.

The skeptical view that moral distinctions are inculcated through indoctrination by politicians in order to make people docile is very superficial, Hume says. While moral sentiments may be partially controlled by education, unless they were rooted in human nature the terminology of ethics would awaken no response.

However, granted this response, must it still be traced to self-interest, perhaps an enlightened self-interest that perceives a necessary connection between society’s welfare and one’s own? Hume thinks not. We often praise acts of virtue in situations distant in time and space, when there is no possibility of benefit to ourselves. We approve some virtues in our enemies, such as...

(The entire section is 760 words.)


The subject of the Enquiry is the contributions that moral sense and reason make in our moral judgments. Hume claims that moral sense makes the ultimate distinction between vice and virtue, though both moral sense and reason play a role in our formation of moral judgments. Reason is important when we have to make a judgment about what is useful, for reason alone can determine how and why something is useful to us or to others. Hume briefly addresses what moral judges usually include in their lists of virtues, what they leave out, and how they make these lists. He then returns to the classification of virtues he proposed first in the Treatise.

Hume first distinguishes between artificial and natural virtues. Artificial virtues depend on social structures and include justice and fidelity to promises; allegiance; chastity and modesty; and duties of sovereign states to keep treaties, to respect boundaries, to protect ambassadors, and to otherwise subject themselves to the law of nations. Hume defines each of these virtues and explains how each manifests itself in the world. He notes that artificial virtues vary from society to society.

Natural virtues, on the other hand, originate in nature and are more universal. They include compassion, generosity, gratitude, friendship, fidelity, charity, beneficence, clemency, equity, prudence, temperance, frugality, industry, courage, ambition, pride, modesty, self-assertiveness, good sense, wit and humor, perseverance, patience, parental devotion, good nature, cleanliness, articulateness, sensitivity to poetry, decorum, and an elusive quality that makes a person lovely or valuable. Some of these virtues are voluntary, such as pride, while others are involuntary, such as good sense.

As in the Treatise, Hume explains that reason does not cause our actions. Instead, moral sentiments, or passions, motivate us to act. In the Enquiry, however, Hume goes further to state that our actions are caused by a combination of utility and sentiment. In other words, we must care about the outcome if we are to care about the means by which it is achieved. Several sections of the Enquiry are devoted to utility, the first and most important of the four kinds of virtue, which Hume calls “virtuous because useful.” He also addresses benevolence and its role in the moral process. Specifically, Hume says that benevolent acts are virtuous because they are useful to many others.


Because he locates the basis of virtue in utility rather than in God-given reason, Hume’s list of virtues implicitly forms a rejection of Christian morality. Items such as ambition are vices under the old model, so Hume’s acceptance of them into his catalog is an insult to religious theorists. However, Hume is consistent in his theory that these traits are virtues because they fulfill his two requirements for moral sentiments: they must be useful to ourselves or others, or they must be pleasing to ourselves or others. Furthermore, Hume rejects the concept of morality as strictly voluntary. Instead, he divides his list into voluntary and involuntary virtues, claiming that separating them is necessary only when devising a system of reward and punishment. He is not interested in creating or endorsing such a system, so he makes no such distinctions in his moral philosophy.

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