Home » Justice » The Role Of Virtue In David Humes Treatise Of Human Nature Essay

The Role Of Virtue In David Humes Treatise Of Human Nature Essay

In his Treatise of Human Nature David Hume offers two categories of virtue which aim to divide the moral terrain into the natural and the artificial virtues. In order to assess Hume’s distinction, I shall firstly establish what Hume identifies ‘virtue’ to be. I shall then proceed to catalogue two distinctions employed by Hume in establishing his distinction: their degree of partiality and equality and the motive distinction. As Hume’s distinction has been contested for its blurriness I shall thus proceed to refocus Hume’s distinction by arguing that it is their motive that ultimately keeps them distinct, thus justifying Hume’s distinction

Hume’s philosophical thinking breaks down morality into a three-part division. He distinguishes between the agent or he who performs the action, the receiver or he who is affected by the action, and the spectator who takes up the ‘general point of view’ to make judgment of an action based on sentiments of approval and disapproval. At T471, Hume states that ‘an action or sentiment, or character is virtuous or vicious; why? because its causes pleasure or unease of a particular kind. According to Hume virtue is said to come from the motive to act, and not the action in itself.

Thus virtue or vice belong with the agent carrying out an action. Hume continues that ‘if an action be either virtuous or vicious… it must depend upon durable principles of mind… actions themselves not proceeding from any constant principle, have no influence on love and hate, pride and humility; and are never consider’d in morality’ (T575). It is thus the motives of the agent that establish the spectators moral approval or disapproval. It is thus moral approbation or disapprobation of the agent’s motive to act that permits the distinction between virtue and vice according to Hume.

As outlined by James Fieser virtues are thus definable as ‘(a) features of an agent, (b) durable motives as opposed to actions and, (C) character traits opposed to passions’. Hume proceeds to divide the virtues into the natural and artificial. The grounds upon which Hume establishes these distinctions is contested. I shall therefore turn to catalogue the distinctions that Hume proposes in order to refocus his distinctions before justifying Hume’s distinction through an examination of their motives.

The first means of division that I wish to examine is Hume separation of the natural and artificial virtues by the degree of equality and partiality that they express. The latter according to Hume are impartial and equal whilst the former is partial and unequal. Hume argues that our observance of benevolence, for example, and thus all natural virtues inclines us to express a greater deal of benevolence towards those closer to and known to us. Hence the natural virtues will incline you to act in its accordance more strongly toward a friend over a stranger.

Thus Hume regards the natural virtues to be those virtues that can be expressed to a greater or lesser extent dependent upon familial relations between two agents and are hence partial and unequal in their manifestation. The artificial virtues however, are not dependent upon familial relations. Acting with a view to observe the virtue of justice, for example, is instead concerned with a compliance to convention. Hume identifies that the observance of an artificial virtue allows for’a general sense of common interest; which … ll members of society express to one another, and which induces them to regulate their conduct by certain rules’ (T490). They are thus not dependent upon familial relation but instead are acted in compliance with convention. Acting in accordance with the artificial virtues is thus equal and impartial in its manifested action as it is only concerned with other agent’s mutual compliance and not their familial relation. Secondly, Hume draws a distinction between the natural and artificial by means of their motive – motives that have secured the relevant approbation.

James Fieser establishes the distinction as: ‘The most basic cognitive point of difference between natural and artificial virtues is that artificial virtues are ideas of intention (design and forethought) whereas the natural virtues are neither ideas nor impressions but are instead … instinctive character traits. ‘ Hume considers the natural virtues as innate and instinctual and the artificial virtues as those dependent on the artifice of man. The natural virtues or instinctive character bring about instinctive mental passions which themselves bring about action.

According to Hume, the natural virtues ‘have no dependence on the artifice and contrivance of man’ (T574). They are those that are dependent from social instillation. They are independent of convention and instead appear the same in ‘all nations and all ages’ (T281). Hence natural virtues can be considered as innate to the human frame. The perception of Hume’s ‘common point of view’ sees an agent’s durable qualities bringing about a reflection of pleasure or pain, which in turn directly stimulates the passions, consequently bringing about the associated feelings of approbation or disapprobation.

Although, the artificial virtues also bring about the spectator’s moral approval, they are distinct from natural virtues in that they are not instinctive, but instead are dependent upon various conventions and artifice, or as Hume states in his Treaties reflect the ‘design, and projects, and view of man’ (T474). The difference between the motives is thus what supports the distinction between their corresponding natural and artificial virtues.

Thus I shall now to turn to engage in a critical discussion of the claim that the natural and artificial virtues are distinguished by their motives with the view to establishing a justification of Hume’s distinction. For Hume virtues are either immediately agreeable or useful to the agent in possession of said virtue or to others. Hume argues that moral approbation is brought about, to the credit of sympathy, by our idea of pleasure, which subsequently gives rise to a feeling of moral approbation (T580).

Hume thus establishes that, through sympathy, the qualities and character differences give rise to the relevant approval of the natural and the artificial virtues. Hume considers the natural virtues to include ‘generosity, charity, beneficence’ of which Hume classifies as those with ‘a tendency to the good of society’ (T578) in addition to temperance and assiduity of which he considers as ‘serviceable to themselves’ (T587), and finally wit and eloquence of which Hume considered immediately agreeable either to the agent or to others (T611).

These motives are natural in that the motive characteristics possessed by an agent are accessible and capable of giving rise to moral approbation independent of any artifice or contrivances that may be in place. An obvious counter example would be to suggest that to act with a charitable motive will be dependent to some degree on the conventions of a particular context. However, the virtuous motive here is the agents concern to act to help those in need, which is a motive in place regardless of convention.

Absent of convention the natural virtue would still be present within the agent. In regard to artificial virtues Hume takes up that in contrast to the natural virtues there are those virtues that are causally dependent on motives that are the product of artifice. Hume puts forward his primary example of justice. His notion of justice is specific and limited in the main to questions of property. Hume’s notion of justice in this instance appears to function as a restraint.

Hume argues that in the absence of convention ‘the avidity and partiality of men would quickly bring disorder into the world if not restrain’d by some general and inflexibe principles’ (T531). It is thus with a view to these ‘inconveniences’ that man has established theses rules. Hume argues that man has ‘restrained themselves by general rules, which are unchangeable by spite or nature, and by particular views of private or public interest’ (T352).

On Hume’s account artificial virtues exist in accordance with a rule that ‘men have ‘establish’d’ through conventions which act as restraints upon their actions in society. As Ken O’day writes in his discussion of justice: ‘There is, therefore, no original and natural motive to justice since justice requires the restraint of our avidity; rather the motive for justice comes from our avidity itself coupled with a recognition that it is best served by a convention. Our avidity is thus best aided by its own restraint upon the condition that we have partaken in the cooperation fashioned by the natural affections.

This recognition is consequently strengthened by custom and habit and a ‘cultivated affection for the pleasures of society’ The restraint of avidity by the understanding makes possible conventions securing the ‘stability of material goods’‘. These conventions concerning the stability of material goods establish the conventions of justice. Hence what distinguishes these artificial virtues is that the motive is only capable of giving rise to moral approbation in a context constructed by established artifice and conventions.

Whilst it is possible to consider situations where the motives of a charitable person, such as benevolence (a natural virtue), may be neither agreeable nor useful to the agent or others in a particular context, Hume would maintain that charity is not, under such conditions, virtuous. This is because Hume’s morally division of virtue and vice is established on the grounds that virtues are agreeable or useful to the agent or to others because it is what ermits him to explain our moral distinction which appeals to our moral sentiments of approbation and disapprobation. Furthermore, in addition to the motive the approval that it gives rise to upon the ‘general viewers survey’ depends too upon convention. In the absence of established convention, the rules of property, for example, do not require anything of an agent until such rule are established distinguishing the property of one agent from another.

However, Hume argues that the benefit that they yield is dependent on agents engaging collectively. In other words, the benefits of the artificial virtues are absent in the lack of collective action. Thus in contrast the natural virtues are established as those that posses both motive and subsequent approval upon the general viewer’s survey without the need for the presence of convention. Despite focusing his attention primarily on justice in his discussion of artificial virtues the same considerations apply to other artificial virtues.

Other than respect to the virtue in question Hume argues that there is no natural motive that would always end in actions that we recognize as virtuous. As O’day writes the exhaustion of the natural motives as possible explanations causes Hume to turn to the notion that the rules of justice may be artificially established. If it is of virtue to act justly, and if such an act is given agency by a virtuous motive it follows that a virtuous motive other than to act in regard to the virtue is required.

However, as Hume establishes there is no natural motive that is capable of moving an agent to consistently act as the virtue requires whilst also giving rise to moral approbation upon the common viewer’s survey. The regard to the virtue sets up an argument that is circular and is thus insufficient. In conjunction with Hume’s examination of the possible natural virtues it must therefore follow that such a motive must be born of artifice and thus be artificial in order serve its corresponding virtue.

As has been the discussion here the ‘durable motives’ of a moral agent that are not instinctive, become the artificial virtues, whilst the ‘durable motives’ that are instinctive character traits of the moral agent become the natural virtues. As O’day considers Hume’s distinction emerges as an effect of his moral theory and not a pivotal component of it. It is thus key that consequences are assessed rather than anything inherently within the distinction itself.

Thus labelled as an effect rather he cause of his moral theory the categorization of the natural and artificial virtues allows Hume’s psychology of moral motivation to be brought into focus for his reader. The natural virtues occur despite context whereas artificial virtues do not arise unless necessity or social convention calls for it. The classification of the natural and artificial distinction is determined by an assessment of motive. Actions resulting from convention categorizes the artificial, and in the absence of convention, such instinctual motives are thus natural.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.