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Hume On Sentiments And Reason

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An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals


The subject of the Enquiry is the contributions that moral sense and reason make in our moral judgments. Hume claims that moral sense makes the ultimate distinction between vice and virtue, though both moral sense and reason play a role in our formation of moral judgments. Reason is important when we have to make a judgment about what is useful, for reason alone can determine how and why something is useful to us or to others. Hume briefly addresses what moral judges usually include in their lists of virtues, what they leave out, and how they make these lists. He then returns to the classification of virtues he proposed first in the Treatise.

Hume first distinguishes between artificial and natural virtues. Artificial virtues depend on social structures and include justice and fidelity to promises; allegiance; chastity and modesty; and duties of sovereign states to keep treaties, to respect boundaries, to protect ambassadors, and to otherwise subject themselves to the law of nations. Hume defines each of these virtues and explains how each manifests itself in the world. He notes that artificial virtues vary from society to society.

Natural virtues, on the other hand, originate in nature and are more universal. They include compassion, generosity, gratitude, friendship, fidelity, charity, beneficence, clemency, equity, prudence, temperance, frugality, industry, courage, ambition, pride, modesty, self-assertiveness, good sense, wit and humor, perseverance, patience, parental devotion, good nature, cleanliness, articulateness, sensitivity to poetry, decorum, and an elusive quality that makes a person lovely or valuable. Some of these virtues are voluntary, such as pride, while others are involuntary, such as good sense.

As in the Treatise, Hume explains that reason does not cause our actions. Instead, moral sentiments, or passions, motivate us to act. In the Enquiry, however, Hume goes further to state that our actions are caused by a combination



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