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An Excerpt from “The Political Thought of David Hume” by Aaron Alexander Zubia

Eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume has had an outsized impact on the political thinkers who came after him, from the nineteenth-century British Utilitarians to modern American social contract theorists. In The Political Thought of David Hume, Aaron Alexander Zubia examines the forces that shaped Hume’s thinking within the broad context of intellectual history, with particular focus on the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and the skeptical tradition.

Two of Hume’s contemporaries supplied strong counters to Hume’s characterization of justice as an artificial, rather than natural, virtue. His portrayal of justice and allegiance to government as artificial virtues in the Treatise and subsequent writings was unquestionably a Hobbesian play, one that accorded with Epicurean conventionalism. Numerous writers rebuffed Hume’s account of justice, including Lord Kames and Thomas Reid, whose arguments testify to the contractarian elements of Hume’s political thought.

According to Lord Kames, who believed his friend Hume was “justly esteemed the greatest philosopher of his time,” Hume, no less than Hobbes, founded justice on “agreement or convention.” By distinguishing society, which is “established . . . by a sort of tacit convention, founded upon a notion of public interest,” from a presocial and prepolitical state, Hume necessarily resorted to an idea of a “state of nature” in which there is no law of property. Lord Kames perceived as implicit within Hume’s own theory the presence of a “state of nature” in which “there can be no such thing as property” and which persists until “justice is established by convention, securing every one in their own possessions.” Lord Kames rightly perceived here that a central element of contractarian thinking, the state of nature, is present in Hume’s political theory, and persists until justice is created by agreement.

Lord Kames provided an alternative to Hume’s manner of thinking by reversing the order of cause and effect. Utility, according to Lord Kames, is not the cause of justice, but its effect. The sense of justice, the sense of right and wrong, is natural, and the sting of conscience is felt by anyone who commits a wrong, or is wronged, independent of convention or agreement. Lord Kames grounded property, specifically, in a hoarding appetite that assists reason and moves “us to provide against want.” Since individuals need to procure drink, food, shelter, and countless other resources to survive, it is a natural instinct, possessed universally, whether by untutored children or wild savages, that inclines us to understand the concepts yours and mine. Furthermore, Lord Kames asked, if pity, benevolence, friendship, and love are, as Hume maintained, natural affections that take society for granted, how is the natural affection that fits us for society—a sense of justice—alien to our native constitutions, so that society itself must operate on the more narrowly constrained, individual affection of self-love?

Hume had argued that it is the circumstances in which human beings are placed that compels them to create laws of property and trade, and courts of law. Those circumstances are limited generosity and moderate scarcity. Hume argued that if humans existed in a state of superfluity, they would hold all things in common. And if humans were morally upright as in the golden age, they would not need laws to help them to resolve controversies. But Lord Kames, responding to Hume’s second Enquiry, posited that it was the very sense of justice that made the alleged golden age what it was. What, after all, could keep men and women morally upright if not a strong sense of right and wrong?

In Lord Kames’s understanding of justice, it is the natural sense of right and wrong that contributes to the judgment of a political regime’s legitimacy. It is not simply the utile, but the honestum that serves as the standard by which to judge law and government. Rule in this case is not conventional, but natural, insofar as the law of morality possesses an authority that binds the conscience of man and that precedes any consent, or agreement. The honestum is not a human creation.

Thomas Reid observed that the artificiality of justice was “a favourite point in [Hume’s] system of morals.” But as the reviewer of Reid’s Essays on the Active Powers of Man observed in the Critical Review (October 1788), Hume’s depiction of justice as an artificial virtue was an inevitable result of his adoption of the Epicurean system: “In Mr. Hume’s improvement on the system of Epicurus, and his addition of the useful to the pleasurable, it was not easy to avoid making justice an artificial virtue, because our view of its morality must be derived from its ultimate tendency.” Reid thought that Hume’s error lay in supposing a fundamental difference between man in his natural state and in his civilized state, so that a person in the former, for example, would have no reason or motive to return something borrowed, because he would not grasp the concept of justice, which is the creation of civilized man.

When making the argument for justice as a natural virtue, though, Reid indicated that Hume theorized better than he knew. Reid pointed to specific instances in which Hume himself made assertions that took for granted the natural sense of virtue. For Reid, an individual, even in his natural state, once he has developed the use of reason, is capable of distinguishing just from unjust without reference to the distant good of society’s preservation. In a famous passage from the second Enquiry to which Reid referred, Hume acknowledged that a sensible knave, aware of an opportunity to break the law for his own advantage, without being caught and without bringing an end to society’s scheme of cooperation, would have every motive to violate the law for his own advantage. Hume argued, though, that the only consideration that might prevent the sensible knave from pursuing this course of action was aversion to the uneasiness that would attend the act of injustice. But where might this uneasiness arise other than in a natural sense of justice’s inherent baseness? If this sense of justice is as natural as Reid supposed and as Hume implicitly acknowledged, then Hume would have to give up his favorite claim that “justice is an artificial virtue, approved solely for its utility.”

Reid provided an additional argument, which is perhaps even more persuasive. When an individual reaches the age of reason, Reid contended, he, even in the natural state, would be able to distinguish between an injury and a favor. An individual would respond to a favor with gratitude and to an injury with resentment. An individual would respond to a favor with gratitude, because he would understand that he was given more than he was due. Similarly, an individual would respond to an injury with resentment, because he would understand that he was given less than his due, or had his due taken from him. Even in this natural state, then, an individual would have to understand what is due and what is not due. And this is the classical conception of justice, each being given his due, to which Reid subscribed, but which Hume regarded as vulgar. Even Hume, though, acknowledged that gratitude and resentment are original passions. If that is true, then humans know naturally what constitutes a favor and an injury. And as Reid concluded, “that which is neither a favour nor an injury is a just action.”

Reid opted for a more expansive definition of justice, one that included not only the potential to harm a person in his goods or property, but also the potential to harm a person in his family, liberty, and reputation. Surely, Reid supposed, Hume, who narrowly confined justice to property and contract, would not think it just even in the primitive state for an individual to “rob an innocent man of his life, of his children, of his liberty, or of his reputation.” Such action would be deemed an injustice whether “in the most savage” or “in the most civilized tribes of mankind.” But in order for Hume to acknowledge this, he would have to separate himself from Hobbes and assert that justice is not artificial.

(excerpted from chapter 3)

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