Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, September 30, 2016

HUME: Justice (Natural or Artificial?)

This selection is a chapter taken from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  It’s hard reading and leads many readers to more questions than answers.  Maybe that was Hume’s intention.  He’s pretty clear where he stands on the question of justice; it’s mostly “artifice or contrivance.”  Hume believes “our sense of every kind of virtue is not natural, there are some virtues that produce pleasure and approbation by means of an artifice or contrivance, which arises from the circumstances and necessity of mankind.  Of this kind I assert justice to be.”  This sounds like justice is a relative term to Hume.  It’s not arbitrary but arises from the particular conditions of society.  Hume goes on to say that “though the rules of justice be artificial, they are not arbitrary.  Nor is the expression improper to call them laws of nature, if by natural we understand what is common to any species, or even if we confine it to mean what is inseparable from the species.”

Let’s try to unpack what Hume means by all this.  He starts from the outside, what we can see with our own eyes.  “When we praise any actions, we regard only the motives that produced them… the external performance has no merit.  We must look within to find the moral quality.”  For Hume the important thing is not what someone is doing, but why they’re doing it.  He uses this example: “suppose a person to have lent me a sum of money on condition that it be restored in a few days… what reason or motive have I to restore the money?”  Kant tries to answer that very question in First Principles of Morals (GB5).  He says suppose a man “finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money.  He knows that he will not be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to repay it in a definite time.  He desires to make this promise, but he has still so much conscience as to ask himself: Is it not unlawful and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this way?  Suppose, however, that he resolves to do so, then the maxim of his action would be expressed thus: When I need money, I will borrow money and promise to repay it, although I know that I can never do so.  Now this principle of self-love or of one’s own advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare; but the question now is, Is it right?”  We’re right back to the question of justice.  For Kant justice is a universal law.  The standard we should use to determine right from wrong is to ask ourselves: what if everyone did it?  What if everyone borrowed money with no intention of ever paying it back?  Kant believes universal law is the natural foundation for virtue.

Hume thinks that may be true for a man “trained up according to a certain discipline and education.  But in his rude and more natural condition, if you are pleased to call such a condition natural, this answer would be rejected as perfectly unintelligible and sophistical.  For one in that situation would immediately ask you: Wherein consists this honesty and justice, which you find in restoring a loan?”  In modern terms Hume seems to be saying: show me the money, show me justice.  He doesn’t share Kant’s optimism that people will do the right thing, once they know what the right thing is.  Instead Hume says “self-love, when it acts at its liberty instead of engaging us to honest actions, is the source of all injustice and violence.”  And besides, Hume continues, “there is no such passion in human minds as the love of mankind.”  We’re selfish creatures and “the sense of justice and injustice is not derived from nature, but arises artificially, though necessarily, from education and human conventions.”  Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.  Hume says justice is a virtue.  Can virtue be taught?  This was a question Socrates was keenly interested in.  He might ask Hume: what do you mean by virtue and justice?  You claim the rules of justice are artificial but they’re not arbitrary.  What do you mean by that, exactly?  Hume is one of the few people who would really be able to talk with Socrates.      


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