Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, May 11, 2009

11. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

Note: This post is the eleventh in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

There's a few more chapters in the Efficient Society that I haven't covered, but I think it's time to move on for now. For a change, I'll talk about a book not written by a Canadian in the last 15 years.

David Hume, the Socttish philosopher, wrote, 'An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals' back in 1777. As a result, it's not under copyright (not yet, anyway) so the whole book is available for free online and I can cut and paste freely into a blog post. Of course a lot of cutting and pasting can make a long post, so here's the short version of my summary of Hume's work:

Things are moral (good) to the extent that they are useful to mankind or agreeable to us. Our sense of morals is like our sense of perspective, where things close to us (our own well-being, the well-being of our family members, etc.) register as large sentiments, and those far away from us (people we read about it in books, people we’ve never met) register as smaller sentiments. Thus, people are genuinely concerned with the well-being of others (i.e. they are altruistic), but will typically put greater weight on their own cares, unless their reason has been trained to overcome the illusion of moral perspective and realize that all people are equally important.

Finally, there can sometime be a conflict between what is useful to ourselves and what is useful to society but in this case what is useful to society takes precedence.

And here's the long version:

Section 1: Of the General Principles of Morals

At the outset, Hume considers the arguments that morals derive from our reason vs. the arguments that morals derive from our sentiments and concludes that the arguments on both sides are so strong that morals must derive from both, with sentiment aligning with reason in the majority of cases.

"These arguments on each side (and many more might be produced) are so plausible, that I am apt to suspect, they may, the one as well as the other, be solid and satisfactory, and that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions. The final sentence, it is probable, which pronounces characters and actions amiable or odious, praise-worthy or blameable; that which stamps on them the mark of honour or infamy, approbation or censure; that which renders morality an active principle and constitutes virtue our happiness, and vice our misery; it is probable, I say, that this final sentence depends on some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species. For what else can have an influence of this nature? But in order to pave the way for such a sentiment, and give a proper discernment of its object, it is often necessary, we find, that much reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained."

He then notes that if we can discover the origin of the moral sentiments that would settle the question of whether they are a matter of sentiment or reason, and argues that only an empirical (as opposed to deductive) approach is likely to get any results,

"As this is a question of fact, not of abstract science, we can only expect success, by following the experimental method, and deducing general maxims from a comparison of particular instances. The other scientific method, where a general abstract
principle is first established, and is afterwards branched out into a variety of inferences and conclusions, may be more perfect in itself, but suits less the imperfection of human nature, and is a common source of illusion and mistake in this as well as in other subjects. Men are now cured of their passion for hypotheses and systems in natural philosophy, and will hearken to no arguments but those which are derived from experience. It is full time they should attempt a like reformation in all moral disquisitions; and reject every system of ethics, however subtle or ingenious, which is not founded on fact and observation."


Hume notes that the most universal praise attaches to benevolent tendencies such as "SOCIABLE, GOOD-NATURED, HUMANE, MERCIFUL, GRATEFUL, FRIENDLY, GENEROUS, BENEFICENT"

He then goes on to note that in offering praise to any person or item, people always insist upon how useful that person or thing was to society and concludes,

"Upon the whole, then, it seems undeniable, THAT nothing can bestow more merit on any human creature than the sentiment of benevolence in an eminent degree; and THAT a PART, at least, of its merit arises from its tendency to promote the interests of our species, and bestow happiness on human society."

He notes that many actions can be either praiseworthy or not, depending on the usefulness of the result,

"Giving alms to common beggars is naturally praised; because it seems to carry relief to the distressed and indigent: but when we observe the encouragement thence arising to idleness and debauchery, we regard that species of charity rather as a weakness than a virtue."


In this section, Hume sets out to show that public utility is the sole source of the principles of justice.

First he points out that the concept of justice would be meaningless if there were no scarcity or any need for considerations of utility,

"We see, even in the present necessitous condition of mankind, that, wherever any benefit is bestowed by nature in an unlimited abundance, we leave it always in common among the whole human race, and make no subdivisions of right and property. Water and air, though the most necessary of all objects, are not challenged as the property of individuals; nor can any man commit injustice by the most lavish use and enjoyment of these blessings."

There’s an interesting point by Hume in this section on how in a time of war, there is a change in the rules,
"The rage and violence of public war; what is it but a suspension of justice among the warring parties, who perceive, that this virtue is now no longer of any USE or advantage to them? The laws of war, which then succeed to those of equity and justice, are rules calculated for the ADVANTAGE and UTILTIY of that particular state, in which men are now placed."

Having read Jane Jacobs 'Systems of Survival' I can't help but think of the Guardian syndrome where, among other differences from the commercial syndrome, honesty is no longer a virtue, instead replaced by 'deceit for the sake of the cause' and how it might line up with Hume's notion of 'the laws of war' where the rules are calculated for the advantage of particular state.


Here, Hume argues that government as well only survives because it is useful,
"It is evident, that, if government were totally useless, it never could have place, and that the sole foundation of the duty of allegiance is the ADVANTAGE, which it procures to society, by preserving peace and order among mankind."


Hume comments that many philosophers have rejected the notion that what is moral is what is useful because it is hard for us to explain why we should associate a positive sentiment with something that is useful unless we have been taught to do so.

"perhaps the difficulty of accounting for these effects of usefulness, or its contrary, has kept philosophers from admitting them into their systems of ethics, and has induced them rather to employ any other principle, in explaining the origin of moral good and evil. But it is no just reason for rejecting any principle, confirmed by experience, that we cannot give a satisfactory account of its origin, nor are able to resolve it into other more general principles."

Then Hume moves to a long discussion of the notion that morals arise from 'self-love' or a 'regard to private interest'.

"It has often been asserted, that, as every man has a strong connexion with society, and perceives the impossibility of his solitary subsistence, he becomes, on that account, favourable to all those habits or principles, which promote order in society, and insure to him the quiet possession of so inestimable a blessing, As much as we value our own happiness and welfare, as much must we applaud the practice of justice and humanity, by which alone the social confederacy can be maintained, and every man reap the fruits of mutual protection and assistance.

This deduction of morals from self-love, or a regard to private interest, is an obvious thought, and has not arisen wholly from the wanton sallies and sportive assaults of the sceptics. To mention no others, Polybius, one of the gravest and most judicious, as well as most moral writers of antiquity, has assigned this selfish origin to all our sentiments of virtue."

Hume is very skeptical of this viewpoint.

"the voice of nature and experience seems plainly to oppose the selfish theory.

We frequently bestow praise on virtuous actions, performed in very distant ages and remote countries; where the utmost subtilty of imagination would not discover any appearance of self-interest, or find any connexion of our present happiness and security with events so widely separated from us.

A generous, a brave, a noble deed, performed by an adversary, commands our approbation; while in its consequences it may be acknowledged prejudicial to our particular interest.

Where private advantage concurs with general affection for virtue, we readily perceive and avow the mixture of these distinct sentiments, which have a very different feeling and influence on the mind."

"It is but a weak subterfuge, when pressed by these facts and arguments, to say, that we transport ourselves, by the force of imagination, into distant ages and countries, and consider the advantage, which we should have reaped from these characters, had we been contemporaries, and had any commerce with the persons. It is not conceivable, how a REAL sentiment or passion can ever arise from a known IMAGINARY interest; especially when our REAL interest is still kept in view, and is often acknowledged to be entirely distinct from the imaginary, and even sometimes opposite to it."

He summarizes where we are in his overall argument,
"Usefulness is agreeable, and engages our approbation. This is a matter of fact, confirmed by daily observation. But, USEFUL? For what? For somebody's interest, surely. Whose interest then? Not our own only: For our approbation frequently extends farther. It must, therefore, be the interest of those, who are served by the character or action approved of; and these we may conclude, however remote, are not totally indifferent to us."

Hume goes on at some length in his arguments on the issue of self-love vs. a more general concern for the wellbeing of man with one interesting comment being the following footnote,
"It is wisely ordained by nature, that private connexions should commonly prevail over univeral views and considerations; otherwise our affections and actions would be dissopated and lost, for want of a proper limited object. Thus a small benefit done to ourselves, or our near friends, excites more lively sentiments of love and approbation than a great benefit done to a distant commonwealth: But still we know here, as in all the senses, to correct these inequalities by reflection, and retain a general standard of vice and virtue, founded chiefly on a general usefulness."

One of the more remarkable passages (to me) in the book is the following,

"It is needless to push our researches so far as to ask, why we have humanity or a fellow-feeling with others. It is sufficient, that this is experienced to be a principle in human nature. We must stop somewhere in our examination of causes; and there are, in every science, some general principles, beyond which we cannot hope to find any principle more general. No man is absolutely indifferent to the happiness and misery of others. The first has a natural tendency to give pleasure; the second, pain. This every one may find in himself. It is not probable, that these principles can be resolved into principles more simple and universal, whatever attempts may have been made to that purpose. But if it were possible, it belongs not to the present subject; and we may here safely consider these principles as original; happy, if we can render all the consequences sufficiently plain and perspicuous"

Hume can't account for why we might have a 'fellow feeling' for other people, but he has the trust in his own observational powers to stick to his conclusions nonetheless and not to try and conjure up some explanation where none is available. Of course, Darwin and his theory of evolution came many years after Hume, so Hume didn't have the necessary knowledge to make a good guess anyway, but I was impressed that rather than make a bad guess, he just stuck to his guns in defending his observations on the areas he could observe directly, even if he couldn't account for the 'why' of what he was observing.


Qualities that make us less effective in getting useful things done are considered as personal faults,
"It seems evident, that where a quality or habit is subjected to our examination, if it appear in any respect prejudicial to the person possessed of it, or such as incapacitates him for business and action, it is instantly blamed, and ranked among his faults and imperfections. Indolence, negligence, want of order and method, obstinacy, fickleness, rashness, credulity; these qualities were never esteemed by any one indifferent to a character; much less, extolled as accomplishments or virtues."

"Besides DISCRETION, CAUTION,ENTERPRISE, INDUSTRY, ASSIDUITY, FRUGALITY, ECONOMY, GOOD-SENSE, PRUDENCE, DISCERNMENT; besides these endowments, I say, whose very names force an avowal of their merit, there are many others, to which the most determined scepticism cannot for a moment refuse the tribute of praise and approbation. TEMPERANCE, SOBRIETY, PATIENCE, CONSTANCY, PERSEVERANCE, FORETHOUGHT, CONSIDERATENESS, SECRECY, ORDER, INSINUATION, ADDRESS, PRESENCE OF MIND, QUICKNESS OF CONCEPTION, FACILITY OF EXPRESSION, these, and a thousand more of the same kind, no man will ever deny to be excellencies and perfections."


We count as moral, actions and temperaments that we like to be around.

"Whoever has passed an evening with serious melancholy people, and has observed how suddenly the conversation was animated, and what sprightliness diffused itself over the countenance, discourse, and behaviour of every one, on the accession of a good-humoured, lively companion; such a one will easily allow that cheerfulness carries great merit with it, and naturally conciliates the good-will of mankind."

Some more comments from Hume that hint at two different sets of ethics, one for 'civilized' cultures and one for militaristic ones,
"It is indeed observable, that, among all uncultivated nations, who have not as yet had full experience of the advantages attending beneficence, justice, and the social virtues, courage is the predominant excellence; what is most celebrated by poets, recommended by parents and instructors, and admired by the public in general. The ethics of Homer are, in this particular, very different from those of Fenelon, his elegant imitator; and such as were well suited to an age, when one hero, as remarked by Thucydides [Lib.i.], could ask another, without offence, whether he were a robber or not. Such also very lately was the system of ethics which prevailed in many barbarous parts of Ireland; if we may credit Spencer, in his judicious account of the state of that kingdom."


I'll just let Hume speak to this one,

"It is the nature and, indeed, the definition of virtue, that it is A QUALITY OF THE MIND AGREEABLE TO OR APPROVED OF BY EVERY ONE WHO CONSIDERS OR CONTEMPLATES IT. But some qualities produce pleasure, because they are useful to society, or useful or agreeable to the person himself; others produce it more immediately, which is the case with the class of virtues here considered"

"We approve of another, because of his wit, politeness, modesty, decency, or any agreeable quality which he possesses; although he be not of our acquaintance, nor has ever given us any entertainment, by means of these accomplishments. The idea, which we form of their effect on his acquaintance, has an agreeable influence on our imagination, and gives us the sentiment of approbation. This principle enters into all the judgements which we form concerning manners and characters."


The idea that what is moral is what is useful was pretty obvious, says Hume,
"It may justly appear surprising that any man in so late an age, should find it requisite to prove, by elaborate reasoning, that Personal Merit consists altogether in the possession of mental qualities, USEFUL or AGREEABLE to the PERSON HIMSELF or to OTHERS. It might be expected that this principle would have occurred even to the first rude, unpractised enquirers concerning morals, and been received from its own evidence, without any argument or disputation. Whatever is valuable in any kind, so naturally classes itself under the division of USEFUL or AGREEABLE, the UTILE or the DULCE, 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 every thing 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 reflected upon water."

"And it seems a reasonable presumption, that systems and hypotheses have perverted our natural understanding, when a theory, so simple and obvious, could so long have escaped the most elaborate examination.

But however the case may have fared with philosophy, in common life these principles are still implicitly maintained; nor is any other topic of praise or blame ever recurred to, when we employ any panegyric or satire, any applause or censure of human action and behaviour. If we observe men, in every intercourse of business or pleasure, in every discourse and conversation, we shall find them nowhere, except the schools, at any loss upon this subject."

Hume here makes a nice distinction between universal moral judgements vs. personal circumstances,
"When a man denominates another his ENEMY, his RIVAL, his ANTAGONIST, his ADVERSARY, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of VICIOUS or ODIOUS or DEPRAVED, he then speaks another language, and expresses sentiments, in which he expects all his audience are to concur with him. He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony."


Here, Hume basically restates his earlier contention that morals require both sentiment (in order to motivate us towards moral action) and reason (for us to determine what is truly useful, and hence moral).


Here Hume restates and elaborates on his arguments against the notion that man is motivated strictly by self-interest rather than, at least in part, a concern for his fellow man.


Although buried in a late appendix, this is perhaps the most relevant section of Hume's work to the issues of externalities and prisoner's dilemmas that we've been discussing.

Hume notes that for the social virtues, the usefulness is immediately apparent and realized as in the case of a parent which goes to help their child without concern for whether mankind as a whole will be helped or hurt by this action, but the case is different for the virtue of justice,

"The case is not the same with the social virtues of justice and fidelity. They are highly useful, or indeed absolutely necessary to the well-being of mankind: but the benefit resulting from them is not the consequence of every individual single act; but arises from the whole scheme or system concurred in by the whole, or the greater part of the society. General peace and order are the attendants of justice or a general abstinence from the possessions of others; but a particular regard to the particular right of one individual citizen may frequently, considered in itself, be productive of pernicious consequences. The result of the individual acts is here, in many instances, directly opposite to that of the whole system of actions; and the former may be extremely hurtful, while the latter is, to the highest degree, advantageous."

Note the correspondence between the notion of individual acts which have a result opposite to the impact on the whole system, and the concept of the Prisoner's dilemma where people act on their self-interest but end up worse off overall.

Hume moves to an analogy,
"The happiness and prosperity of mankind, arising from the social virtue of benevolence and its subdivisions, may be compared to a wall, built by many hands, which still rises by each stone that is heaped upon it, and receives increase proportional to the diligence and care of each workman. The same happiness, raised by the social virtue of justice and its subdivisions, may be compared to the building of a vault, where each individual stone would, of itself, fall to the ground; nor is the whole fabric supported but by the mutual assistance and combination of its corresponding parts."

Note that the situation analogized here is less that of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and more that of the Stag Hunt, where results can be achieved through coordinated action only but people are better off cooperating than they are betraying each other.

Hume moves from here to,
"For if it be allowed (what is, indeed, evident) that the particular consequences of a particular act of justice may be hurtful to the public as well as to individuals; it follows that every man, in embracing that virtue, must have an eye to the whole plan or system, and must expect the concurrence of his fellows in the same conduct and behaviour. Did all his views terminate in the consequences of each act of his own, his benevolence and humanity, as well as his self-love, might often prescribe to him measures of conduct very different from those which are agreeable to the strict rules of right and justice.

Thus, two men pull the oars of a boat by common convention for common interest, without any promise or contract; thus gold and silver are made the measures of exchange; thus speech and words and language are fixed by human convention and agreement.

Whatever is advantageous to two or more persons, if all perform their part; but what loses all advantage if only one perform, can arise from no other principle There would otherwise be no motive for any one of them to enter into that scheme of conduct."

Hume doesn’t develop this line of thought much further, instead turning to a discussion of private property and how it is instituted because it is good for society as a whole, even though certain individuals may be worse off because of it.


This appendix is just semantics. :)

A final note, which I put at the bottom since it doesn’t really tie in to the bigger ethical questions, but which I thought was interesting all the same.

Chapter 9 in 'The efficient society' (one of the ones I didn’t cover), is on the topic of equality and how it trades off (or doesn’t) against equality.

In this chapter, Heath talks at length about the ‘Wilt Chamberlain Argument’
"What shook Cohen's faith in Marxism was the "Wilt Chamberlain argument" It started as a rumour back in the late 1960's. A young graduate student named Robert Nozick was reported to have come up with the ultimate refutation of Marxism. Nobody had seen the actual text of it, but informal summaries spread like wildfire throughout the academy, largely by word of mouth. When Nozick finally did publish, in 1974, leftist scholars throughout the Western world went into full scale damage control mode. But there was little that could be done. The Wilt Chamberlain argument proved irresistable.

What is this argument? How could it have such a powerful effect? And what does Marxism have to do with Wilt Chmaberlain?

Nozick asks us to consider the following scenario: Imagine a society in which the extremes of poverty and wealth have been eliminated. Everyone lives a confortable, middle-class existence and enjoys approximately the same amount of wealth. Suppose that in this society many people like to watch basketball, and so the skills of talented basketball players such as Wilt Chamberlain are in high demand, Now suppose that Wilt makes the following deal: he agrees to play only if a twenty-five cent surcharge is added to the cost of tickets at home games, with all of the extra revenue going straight to him.

Here comes the punch line. "Let us suppose that in one season one million people attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain winds up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to this income? Is this new distribution unjust? ...

...It is very difficult to see anything wrong with this new distribution. Each of the fans who comes to a Chamberlain gamevoluntarily gives up twenty-five cents in order to see Wilt play. For them, it's a good deal. They are willing to pay a bit more in order to see a great player. Like all exchanges, it generates an efficiency game."

When I read this, I was always puzzled that this argument could really be something that wasn’t obvious all along, so I was amused to see how concisely Hume dealt with the topic back in 1777.

"But historians, and even common sense, may inform us, that, however specious these ideas of PERFECT equality may seem, they are really, at bottom, IMPRACTICABLE; and were they not so, would be extremely PERNICIOUS to human society. Render possessions ever so equal, men's different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality."

Nothing new under the sun around here, other than a good advertisement for the condensed wisdom contained in Hume's excellent work.

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