- Series: Great Books in Philosophy
- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: Prometheus Books (May 1, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1591021464
- ISBN-13: 978-1591021469
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.4 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 14 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,170,141 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (Great Books in Philosophy)
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`These new Oxford University Press editions have been meticulously collated from various exatant versions. Each text has an excellent introduction including an overview of Hume's thought and an account of his life and times. Even the difficult, and rarely commented-on, chapters on space and
time are elucidated. There are also useful notes on the text and glossary. These scholarly new editions are ideally adapted for a whole range of readers, from beginners to experts.'
Jane O'Grady, Catholic Herald, 4/8/00. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
DAVID HUME was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on April 26, 1711. He entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of twelve but left a few years later without having been conferred a degree. Being a lifelong skeptic, Hume was taken with the French philosophers whose work was exemplary of the movement. In 1734, he made an intellectual pilgrimage to La Fleche, France, the town where Descartes had been educated. Three years later, this change of scene culminated in his book titled A Treatise of Human Nature.
After returning to England in 1737, the remainder of Hume's life was spent writing on psychology, morality, and politics. During this time, his bid for appointment as professor of ethics in Edinburgh proved unsuccessful because of his views on religion. From that point on, he was to undertake short-term positions of employment with powerful and influential people in the English government. These appointments included some travel to the Continent. From 1767 to 1768 he served as undersecretary of state for the northern department. Hume then returned to Edinburgh, where he died eight years later on August 25, 1776.
David Hume's works include: A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Treatise—Of the Understanding (1739), Of the Passions (1740), An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature (1740), Essays Moral and Political (1741-1742), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1758), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Political Discourses (1751), History of England (1754-1762), Four Dissertations (1757), and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published posthumously in 1779).
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He notes, "We may observe that in displaying the praises of any humane, beneficent man there is one circumstance which never fails to be amply insisted on---namely, the happiness and satisfaction derived to society from his intercourse and good offices.... As these topics of praise never fail to be employed, and with success, where we would inspire esteem for anyone, may it not thence be concluded that the UTILITY resulting from the social virtues forms, at least, a PART of their merit, and is one source of that approbation and regard so universally paid to them?" (Sec. II, pg. 11)
He suggests, "Thus the rules of equity or justice depend entirely on the particular state and condition in which men are placed, and owe their origin and existence to that UTILITY which results to the public from their strict and regular observance. Reverse, in any considerable circumstance, the condition of men: produce extreme abundance or extreme necessity, implant in the human breast perfect moderation and humanity or perfect rapaciousness and malice; by rendering justice totally USELESS, you thereby totally destroy its essence and suspend its obligation upon mankind." (Sec. III, pg. 19)
He observes, "Those who ridicule vulgar superstitions and expose the folly of particular regards to meats, days, places, postures, apparel have an easy task, while they consider all the qualities and relations of the objects and discover no adequate cause for that affection or antipathy, veneration or horror, which have so mighty an influence over a considerable part of mankind... Such reflections as these, in the mouth of a philosopher, one may safely say, are too obvious to have any influence, because they must always, to every man, occur at first sight; and where they prevail not of themselves, they are surely obstructed by education, prejudice, and passion, not by ignorance or mistake." (Sec. III, pg. 28-29)
He points out, "even in common life, we have every moment recourse to the principle of public utility and ask, What must become of the world, if such practices prevail? How could society subsist under such disorders? Were the distinction or separation of possessions entirely useless, can anyone conceive that it ever should have obtained in society? Thus we seem... to have attained a knowledge of the force of that principle here insisted on, and can determine what degree of esteem or moral approbation may result from reflections on public interest and utility. The necessity of justice to the support of society is the SOLE foundation of that virtue; and since no moral excellence is more highly esteemed, we may conclude that this circumstance of usefulness has, in general, the strongest energy and most entire command over our sentiments." (Sec. III, pg. 33-34)
He argues, "it is impossible for men so much as to murder each other without statutes and maxims, and an idea of justice and honor. War has its laws as well as peace; and even that sportive kind of war, carried on among wrestlers, boxers, cudgel players, gladiators, is regulated by fixed principles. Common interest and utility beget infallibly a standard of right and wrong among the parties concerned." (Sec. IV, pg. 40)
He states, "Whatever is valuable in any kind, so naturally classes itself under the division of USEFUL or AGREEABLE... that it is not easy to imagine why we should ever seek further, or consider the question as a matter of nice research or inquiry. And as everything useful or agreeable must possess these qualities with regard either to the PERSON HIMSELF or to OTHERS, the complete delineation or description of merit seems to be performed as naturally as a shadow is cast by the sun, or an image is cast not broken or uneven, nor the surface from which the shadow is reflected disturbed and confused, a just figure is immediately presented without any art or attention." (Conclusion, pg. 96)
In the Appendix, "Concerning Moral Sentiments," he observes, "attend to Cicero while he paints the crimes of a Verres of a Cataline... But if you feel no indignation or compassion arise in you from this complication of circumstances, you would in vain ask him in what consists the crime or villainy which he so vehemently exclaims against; at what time or on what subject it first began to exist; and what has a few months afterwards become of it... No satisfactory answer can be given to any of these questions upon the abstract hypothesis of morals; and we must at last acknowledge that the crime or immorality is no particular fact or relation which can be the object of the understanding, but arises entirely from the sentiment of disapprobation which... we unavoidably feel on the apprehension of barbarity or treachery... It appears that the ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by REASON, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind without any dependence on the intellectual faculties." (Pg. 110-111)
Surprisingly (to us), Hume said of this book in his autobiographical "My Own Life," that "in my own opinion ... [it] is of all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best." But while Hume's main philosophical arguments are actually presented more effectively in the Treatise, this is still "must reading" for anyone seriously studying philosophy.
Accordingly, I'll keep these comments short. The bottomline about "An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals" is that it's a great place to begin a study of philosophical ethics. It's short, clear, and droll. It analyzes key ethical concepts such as utility, sympathy, justice, and altruism. Most importantly, its argument can be followed by the average reader without extra commentary or exegesis. (I almost called it "smart," too -- but surely we can take that for granted. Everything Hume wrote was smart.)
Hume's approach to ethics is naturalistic, not metaphysical or religious. He sees ethical beliefs as rooted in utility and instinctive sympathy. These beliefs aren't "true" like the truths of math, and they don't bind people in any logical sense. Yet they are inescapable in personal life, necessary for social peace, and as natural as sex. There are other ways to see ethics, but Hume's way at least avoids jargon and recondite arguments. He gets his readers to think -- and that's why his book is such a great entry point. It's also a great read!
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