David Hume

Read key details about the David Hume philosophy. The concept of David Hume's Ethics is also discussed in this article.

In addition to his philosophical scepticism and empiricist theory of knowledge, David Hume (1711-1776) also made significant contributions to moral philosophy. Ethical concerns in Hume’s work include how human emotions influence our thoughts and actions, the nature of moral judgement, and what it means to lead a morally upright life. Philosophers and psychologists working in fields like meta-ethics, moral psychology, and virtue ethics find Hume’s ethical theories to be useful even in the twenty-first century.

There are several unique philosophical viewpoints in Hume’s moral philosophy. A rationalist view of morality, in which humans make moral judgments and understand right from wrong solely via rational reasoning, is rejected by him. Hume argues that our feelings heavily influence moral judgments.

To put it another way, it’s because we have the necessary emotional capacities, in addition to our capacity for reason, to evaluate if an activity or a person is ethically wrong or morally right. Humans’ ability to discern the beauty of things is what gives rise to moral judgments and other forms of human evaluations, says Hume.

Key Propagations

The ability to empathise with other people’s experiences and thoughts is critical to this process of moral judgement since it allows us to share their thoughts, sentiments, and emotions. As a result, Hume sees a strong link between morality and human society.

Furthermore, Hume’s difference between natural and artificial virtue is a well-known feature of his thought. Hume’s portrayal of human greatness acknowledges our proclivity to extol the virtues of the good friend and the inspiring leader alike. Finally, Hume’s moral philosophy has a naturalistic slant to it. As opposed to relying on religious or spiritual authority for moral guidance, Hume prefers to develop a moral theory based on actual research into the nature of human behaviour.

The connection between reason and moral judgement was a hotly contested topic in moral philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moral rationalism was a position that Hume eschewed. According to moral rationalists, ethics are based exclusively on intellectual considerations, without the influence of sentiments or impulses. Because of the nature of a relationship with another person, a logical human being who is innocent of any wrongdoing, it would be unethical for him to murder them. Such relationships imply moral truths just as clearly as they imply mathematical truths.

The Moral Sense Hypothesis of David Hume

Humans, according to Hume, must possess some other ability to discern between moral good and bad if they can’t do so just based on reason. When it comes to moral sentimentalism, Hume is a naive idealist. Our ability to feel pleasure and suffering in reaction to certain aspects of character, rather than our capacity to “reason alone,” allows us to differentiate between virtue and vice.

The Concept of Right and Wrong

Moral sense theory asserts that moral distinctions are detected in a manner similar to the way we perceive the world around us. According to Hume, virtue gives the viewer a certain kind of happy experience, whereas vice provides the observer with a specific painful sensation. This is not to say that all pleasurable sensations are morally acceptable, but that all morally acceptable sensations are also delightful. Our enjoyment of a person’s character is different from our enjoyment of wine, just as our enjoyment of music is different from our enjoyment of wine. This is similar to how our enjoyment of music and wine are distinct. If you’re feeling good about yourself because you are doing good things for others, then you’re experiencing a form of moral approval.

Hume believes his rejection of moral rationalism contributes to the common experience of pleasure and pain when confronted with virtue and vice, respectively. Hume claims that everything in the mind is either a memory or an impression. An impression, according to Hume, is the initial and most powerful appearance of a sense of feeling in the human mind. That first impression is kept in memory in the form of a concept, which is a less powerful copy. The comparison of our conceptions is central to all of Hume’s reasoning. A comparison of concepts can only lead to an understanding of morality, hence moral rationalism must think that this is the only way to arrive at this understanding. Moral distinctions cannot, however, be created solely by comparing concepts, as Hume has demonstrated that moral distinctions are not the product of reason. There must be an emotional basis for making moral judgments because it is impossible to compare thoughts.

Final Words

When it comes to moral virtue and natural aptitude, according to Hume, there isn’t much of a distinction between the two groups. To comprehend his stance, we must address the following question: why must a virtuous feature or disposition be a mental attribute or quality? It’s not that other attributes don’t get the thumbs up from the crowd. When it comes to sex appeal, fitness, and health, Hume has a lot to say. At the same time, he acknowledges how we value physical appearances and have a soft spot in our hearts for those who have money.

Virtue is restricted to mental attributes, as it is meant to represent personal merit or a collection of traits and features that we admire most about other people. In other words, we are who we are because of our mental characteristics. As a result, while Hume does not reject the existence of bodily merit, he does not believe that it belongs within the purview of moral philosophy as it currently exists.


Frequently asked questions

Get answers to the most common queries related to the UPSC Examination Preparation.

Who was David Hume?

Ans. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and writer famed for philosophical empiricism...Read full

What was it that Hume was sceptical of?

Ans. Philosophically, he challenged the idea of a “permanent self” and maintained that ...Read full

Is Hume a believer in cause and effect?

Ans. In the Treatise, the only text in which he makes this difference, Hume sees cause and effect as both a ...Read full

Is Hume a believer in free will?

Ans. One of the most influential expressions of the “compatibilist” stance, which holds that hum...Read full