Hume natural and artificial virtues

Categories: EthicsVirtueVirtues

In this essay I will discuss the differences between Hume’s ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ virtues. I will first give Hume’s explanation of why there is a need for a distinction or classification of virtues, and the basis on which he makes the distinction, before describing the two categories and their criteria. I will look at the problems with Hume’s account of the distinction, particularly justice. Finally I will describe how the various problems cast doubt on Hume’s distinction.

Hume’s Virtues and the need to distinguish In discussing the principles from which we determine moral good or evil, virtue or vice, Hume argues that because the number of situations we may encounter is ‘infinite’ it would be absurd to imagine an ‘original instinct’ or individual principle for each possibility. (T3. 1. 2. 6)1 Instead he suggests that, following the usual maxim of nature producing diversity from limited principles, we should look for more general principles.

Hume suggests looking for those general principles in nature but cautions on the ambiguous and various senses of the word ‘natural’.

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(T 3. 1. 2. 7) He says later that ‘the word natural… is of so loose a signification, that it seems vain to dispute, whether justice be natural or not’ (EPM Appx.

3. 9. ) It is important that he clears this up early, the categorisation of several virtues, notably ‘justice’, depends critically on a clear definition. Leaving ‘natural’ open to interpretation would also raise difficulties in placing many of the 70 or more ‘virtues he names. If the virtues could category hop it might cause problems for the idea of having a distinction at all.

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Having raised this issue he resolves it by describing various senses or contexts in which ‘natural’ could be commonly understood:

1. Nature can be understood as counter to, or ‘oppose’d to’, miracles and if understood in that context then everything, except miracles themselves but including virtue and vice, would be considered natural. (T3. 1. 2. 7) 1All quotes from David Hume are from An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. ed. Beauchamp T. L. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 hereafter abbreviated EPM; A Treatise of Human Nature. ed. Norton, M. and Norton, D. 1st ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2011, hereafter abbreviated T 1 2. Nature may also be understood in opposition to ‘rare and unusual’. Hume notes that ‘rare and unusual’ is imprecise and variable, dependent on observation.

Despite this vagueness Hume declares that if anything at all could be called natural in this context it would be the ‘sentiments of morality’ and supports this with the observation that no nation or individual ever showed ‘approbation or dislike of manners’. This ‘moral sense’ is so fundamental that only disease or madness could remove it. (T3. 1. 2. 8) Within this explanation Hume points out that it is ‘unphilosophical’ to conflate, as he suggests some systems do, virtue with natural and vice with unnatural. 3. The third natural context that Hume discusses is in opposition to ‘artifice’.

In this context Hume says it is not altogether clear whether virtue is natural or artificial, this can only be discovered on closer inspection of particular vices or virtues. He raises two further distinctions, civil and moral, (T3. 1. 2. fn 70) which will be raised in the course of his argument, but rather than closely define them suggests that ‘the opposition will always discover the sense’, which I take to mean that the correct interpretation of context will give you the type of natural under discussion.

Hume concludes then that virtues are divided for the purposes of his argument into two distinct categories; natural and artificial. Natural virtues Natural virtues are those which, according to Hume, occur naturally in man, natural dispositions or instincts which could occur in pre-societal humans, in small family groups with no organised government; self love, benevolence, charity, and many more, including some not usually mentioned; wit, good manners, and dialog. These natural traits could be classified as those needed to cooperate within small, personal groups and which are necessarily good and agreeable. They are essential, a part of ‘human nature’. Artificial virtues 2.

Artificial virtues are constructed by humans, they deal with extra familial, impersonal situations, those where natural virtues might be compromised by bonds of family or friendship. These virtues include justice (the main focus of Hume’s discussions of artificial virtues), fidelity, honesty and chastity. They are social conventions that don’t necessarily result in good in each individual act and in fact may result in pain on an individual basis. Problems with artificial virtues There seem to be some problems with artificial virtues. The idea that justice is artificial as argued by Hume in EPM 3.

1. 2, seems flawed. Here he describes a world of abundance, where there is enough of everything, where it is warm enough not to require clothes, where every individual is fully provided for. In this ‘happy state’, claims Hume, ‘every other social virtue would increase tenfold; but the … virtue of justice would never have been dreamed of’ (EPM 3. 1. 3). I am not convinced by this argument, it shows only that justice may be unnecessary in the idyllic circumstances described, not that it would not or could not arise. It is not artificial simply because it is not present in a particular situation.

Hume appears to weaken his own argument later in EPM and even questions his own previous claims. In the footnote (EPM Appx 3. 9 fn 64) Hume’s language is not forceful or decisive, ‘In the two former senses (unusual and miraculous), justice and property are undoubtedly natural. But as they suppose reason… confederacy among men, perhaps that epithet cannot strictly, in the last sense (i. e. artificial) be applied to them. ‘ In EPM Appx 3. 9 Hume poses the question that if self love, benevolence, reason and forethought are natural then cannot the same be said of justice, order, fidelity, property, and society, virtues he has previously listed as artificial.

‘Men’s inclinations,’, says Hume, ‘their necessities lead them to combine’. Even if we accept that in the ‘happy state’ these ‘necessities’ are minimal Hume still seems to be suggesting that men are inclined toward society and all that entails. He goes on to say ‘in so sagacious an animal, what necessarily arises from the exertions of his intellectual faculties, may justly be esteemed natural’. If that is the case then I see no reason why justice or society are special cases, and no reason why they would be judged differently to benevolence or self 3 love.

They unquestioningly arise from our intellectual faculties and arguably arise necessarily, on Hume’s account they must surely be natural. A natural virtue must, according to Hume, occur naturally in man, be a natural ‘disposition’, and result in good. Given that man is inclined to combine, and that suppressing inclinations will result in pain (ECHU 8. 1. 23) and conversely enabling that inclination will result in pleasure, and further that in a ‘happy state’ justice is not impossible, only unnecessary, then it could be argued that justice is in fact a natural virtue.

Even in the ‘happy state’ it is not difficult to imagine a situation where two people may wish for the same thing, a particular unique view or time spent with a particular person. Walking to your favourite view to find it occupied a person may well decide, as the other person was there first, that the just thing to do would be to leave them to it. Justice, and other artificial virtues, has a further problem. Hume claims that the the virtue of an action depends on the motive, rather than the action itself. Whether an action is judged virtuous is dependent on motive and that motive cannot be the virtue of the act itself. Being kind because it is virtuous to be kind is not virtuous.

According to Hume, if I ‘restore a great fortune’ to a miser or the seditious bigot then society suffers. When I repay the miser I am acting out of duty or obligation, I do what I do, not through a virtuous motive but because it is the ‘right’ thing to do. If that is the case then it seems that justice may not be a virtue at all. Conclusion In describing the differences between natural and artificial virtues it becomes apparent that the distinction is not always clear.

I have described how Hume explains the need to distinguish types of virtue and the criteria he uses. I have looked at the problems with Hume’s account in relation to the artificial virtues and established that, at least in the case of justice, they do not sit comfortably in a category separate from the natural virtues. The problem of the circularity may not only cause a problem with the distinction but may even suggest that justice is not a virtue at all. While this does not conclusively establish that the distinction does not stand it does show that it is not as firmly founded as Hume might claim.

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