BOOK 3 (‘Of Morals’)
PART 3 (Other Virtues and Vices)
Having dealt with the artificial virtues in Books 1 and 2, David Hume now turns to the natural virtues in Book 3. He starts by providing a brief recap on the natural virtues. These are the direct passions that directly impact pleasure and pain.
Sympathy is again the manner in which understand the natural virtues. We only need to observe the emotional reactions in other people in order to understand what is going on. This is similar to the artificial virtues, but unlike the artificial virtues – in which an individual act may not provide any benefit to society – in the case of the natural virtues, a virtuous act always helps society. This strengthens the argument that sympathy plays a leading role in our approval of moral actions, since any positive evaluation of an action is usually done because we approve of its public benefit.
However, Hume recognises a couple of objections to the sympathy theory. Firstly, how does sympathy explain the fact that we sympathise more with some people (eg close family) than with do with others (total strangers)? Shouldn’t sympathy work equally across the board? Hume suggests our moral character is generally assessed by those around us, meaning we are more inclined to reach out to people who already know us in order to enhance our moral understanding. We may even try to alter our passions in the process, although Hume notes that the passions are difficult to change.
Secondly, how does sympathy work in cases of luck, where someone is prevented from acting morally due to circumstances outside of their control? Hume doesn’t think this should be a fatal problem. Sympathy (via the imagination) is more interested in general principles than actual effects, so provided we can still see the general principles at work, this is enough for us to still deliver a moral judgement.
With sympathy discussed, Hume next provides a more detailed definition of the natural virtues. One of four elements is required: (1) the act must be useful to others, (2) the act must be useful to the moral agent, (2) the act is immediately agreeable to other people, or (4) the act is immediately agree to the moral agent. We also rate the virtuous act on the basis of its usefulness, even more so than private interest alone. Sympathy delivers a double benefit here. Apart from approving of the moral act itself, we also use sympathy to recognise the increased pleasure it creates in other people.
Hume next considers two specific types of natural virtues. The first is described as a ‘heroic virtue’, basically a form of honour that combines courage, ambition, love of glory and magnanimity. Although this is based on pride, it shouldn’t be interpreted in a negative way (ie, of someone who has a high opinion of himself). Rather, we approve of a well-grounded, humble pride, someone who has a proper sense of merit. Through sympathy we react with pleasure to experiencing such a pride, making it a virtue.
Two more natural virtues are goodness and benevolence. These sorts of ‘tender passions’ are not only good for society, but good for individuals as well. They also help to inspire other people to act towards the public’s benefit. We experience an immediate approval for acts performed out of kindness. Even small, almost trivial acts are approved via sympathy. Conversely the angry passions (ending with cruelty) are the most detested of all vices due to the negative impact they are likely to have on others. In short, your moral virtue closely matches how socially desirable you are to people.
Hume indicates that in addition to the natural virtues, we also treat natural abilities of the mind in a similar way. Both are similar in their causes and effects: they are both capable of producing pleasure in other people via sympathy.
Some people might argue that there is no moral ‘virtue’ in the natural abilities as the moral agent has made no specific choice to be virtuous, which is what moral goodness implies. However Hume rejects such an interpretation, pointing out that many virtues are also involuntary. In fact whether an act was voluntary or involuntary may not make a difference to our sense of moral evaluation. Hume accepts though that due to social pressures, people are more likely to approve of a voluntary act through sympathy, so he can understand why some moralists insist on a voluntary action.
The natural abilities are valued due to the positive effect they have on the person in question. Natural abilities also have an effect on reputation as a useful person is seen to be more valuable. On the other hand, having a good memory alone is usually insufficient for sympathy, as this fails to deliver any sensation of pleasure or pain.
Although Hume is mainly thinking of mental abilities, he accepts that other bodily accepts (even good fortune) could also be accommodated under his theory. Everyone finds beauty in good health. We also sympathise with the pleasure of having riches, so we approve of people with good fortune.
Book 3 and the entire Treatise ends with a brief summing up of the main points:
- Sympathy is the main mechanism by which we make moral distinctions
- Justice and other qualities of the mind are valued for their usefulness, and apart from sympathy, there is no way we can explain why actions of complete strangers cause us to have a moral reaction.
- Hume’s system is supported not only be solid argument, but it also shows why the virtues have dignity and happiness.
- Even though justice is artificial, we approve of the universal nature of justice, and how it extends to all of time and space.
- A life of virtue brings advantages to the recipient, such as enhanced reputation and personal satisfaction.
- While Hume’s system might seem ugly in wanting to break down human psychology into so many components, Hume believes this also allows a moral ‘painter’ to craft a beautiful and inviting picture of moral goodness.