Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

HUME: Of Justice and Injustice Section II (Of the Origin of Justice and Property)

David Hume wants us to think hard about the meaning of justice within our society.  Hume believes that the first (basic) principle of human society… is the natural appetite between the sexes, which brings them together and keeps them together as a two-person society until their concern for their offspring binds them together in a new way.  In his view the sexual attraction of a man and a woman is the whole starting point of civilization.  They want to spend time together so they form a little two-person society.  Then once they have children their little society expands and they stay together in a new way: as a family.  Karl Marx doesn’t care for this starting point.  Marx says Let us not begin our explanation, as does the economist, from a legendary primordial condition.  Such a primordial condition does not explain anything; it merely removes the question into a grey and nebulous distance.  But another writer, Rousseau, agrees with Hume.  Rousseau wrote that the most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family.  And Rousseau goes on to explain that children remain bound to the father only as long as they need him for self-preservation.  As soon as this need ceases the natural bond dissolves.  It’s true that most children leave home when they’re capable of taking care of themselves.  The question now becomes: what holds a society together if these little families which make up society keep dissolving every eighteen years or so?  Hume’s answer: property.  Why property?  Because human beings are frail.  According to Hume Man seems at first sight to have been treated more cruelly by nature than any of the other species of animal on this planet, because of the countless wants and necessities with which she has loaded him and the slender means she has given him for getting what he needs.  We need many things in order to survive: food, shelter and clothing for starters.  Hume notes that in other creatures, these two particulars (the needs and the means to satisfy them) generally match each other… The fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the creatures in the forests have everything they need in order to survive: gills and fins, wings and beaks, fur and claws.  The case of man is different: to observe a total mismatch we must look to the case of man. The food he needs for survival either runs away from him or requires his labor to be produced, and he has to have clothes and lodging to protect him from being harmed by the weather; and… he doesn’t have the weapons or the strength or any other natural abilities that match up to his enormous needs.  So how can such a weak and frail creature survive?  We survive best in a society with other human beings.  And for society to survive it must protect the concept of private property: this belongs to me, that belongs to you.  It may seem unfair sometimes that some people have so much and other people have so little.  But Hume thinks this is a good trade-off overall: Property must be stable, and must be fixed by general rules. Even if in one instance the public is a sufferer, this momentary ill is more than made up for by the peace and order that are established in society by steady adherence to the rule. This may sound like a defense of the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and needy.  But Hume believes everyone comes out better under this arrangement: every individual person must find himself a gainer, on balance, because without justice society would immediately dissolve,  driving everyone into the savage and solitary condition that is infinitely worse than the worst situation that can possibly be imagined in society.  This verdict may sound extreme.  Is the savage and solitary condition really worse than the worst situation can possibly be in society?  Yes, says Hume.  You don’t want to be out there in nature all by yourself.  Hume agrees with another English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who writes that outside of society life would soon become solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  And for Hume this is what life would be like if we didn’t in some way make private property the foundation of our concept of justice.


Post a Comment

<< Home