Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.
When the Philosophy Bites podcast group released their second book, they took the opportunity to gather clips from 70 philosophers they had interviewed, and compile all their individual answers to a single common question: Who is Your Favourite Philosopher? Listening through their choices, a total of thirty philosophers received votes. Nineteen names were given 1 vote, including such luminaries as Plato, Socrates, Sartre, Marx, Locke, Russell, and several obscure personal choices. Five philosophers managed to get 2 votes: Hegel, Bentham, Rousseau, Hobbes, and Descartes. These lowest twenty-four philosophers earned just a couple more votes (29) than the next five in the top six did: John Stuart Mill (4), Wittgenstein (5), Nietzsche (5), Aristotle (6), and Kant (7). But the runaway winner with twice the number of votes (14) as his nearest competitor was David Hume, garnering a whopping 20% of the highest admiration from those polled. What might Hume say about this? In a moment of humility, he might say:
Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude.
Or in a moment of stubborn Scottishness, he might say:
Fain wou'd I run into the crowd for shelter and warmth; but cannot prevail with myself to mix with such deformity. I call upon others to join me, in order to make a company apart; but no one will hearken to me. Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that storm, which beats upon me from every side. I have expos'd myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer?
As an amateur philosopher putting forth a controversial position, I understand why so many philosophers identify with this kind of sentiment. But what are some of the more important things Hume said that drew such widespread admiration?
Principles taken upon trust, consequences lamely deduced from them, want of coherence in the parts, and of evidence in the whole, these are every where to be met with in the systems of the most eminent philosophers, and seem to have drawn disgrace upon philosophy itself.
Morality is a subject that interests us above all others: We fancy the peace of society to be at stake in every decision concerning it. Without this advantage I never should have ventur'd upon a third volume of such abstruse philosophy, in an age, wherein the greatest part of men seem agreed to convert reading into an amusement, and to reject every thing that requires any considerable degree of attention to be comprehended.
Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.
A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.
If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour which it is impossible ever to satisfy.
Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organised, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind Nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!
Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.
It is seldom, that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom, that it must steal upon them by degrees, and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes, in order to be received.
The richest genius, like the most fertile soil, when uncultivated, shoots up into the rankest weeds; and instead of vines and olives for the pleasure and use of man, produces, to its slothful owner, the most abundant crop of poisons.
Honour is a great check upon mankind: But where a considerable body of men act together, this check is, in a great measure, removed; since a man is sure to be approved of by his own party, for what promotes the common interest; and he soon learns to despise the clamours of adversaries.
It is a great mortification to the vanity of man, that his utmost art and industry can never equal the meanest of nature's productions, either for beauty or value.
He is happy, whose circumstances suit his temper; but he is more excellent, who can suit his temper to any circumstances.
Hume was a beautiful writer who found religion ridiculous, thought deeply about a wide variety of subjects, brought a new clarity to psychology and emotions, and looked to nature for answers to it all. But still, he was writing in the middle of the 18th century so he ended up with some conclusions that might today be called "bat-shit-ball-to-the-wall lunacy" in a three-minute cartoon summary:
That was amusing. But let's look at Hume's thoughts in a slightly more considered way by seeing how he fared in my analysis of his survival among the fittest philosophers.
David Hume (1711-1776 CE) was a Scottish philosopher, economist, historian, and a key figure in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume is often grouped with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others as a British Empiricist.
The classic philosophical treatment of the problem of induction was given by Hume. Hume highlighted the fact that our everyday habits of mind depend on drawing uncertain conclusions from our relatively limited experiences rather than on deductively valid arguments. For example, we believe that bread will nourish us because it has done so in the past, despite no guarantee that it will do so. However, Hume immediately argued that even if induction were proved unreliable, we would have to rely on it. Rather than approach everything with severe skepticism, Hume advocated a practical skepticism based on common sense, where the inevitability of induction is accepted. Yes. The universe is larger than we can know and it is moving and changing. Eternal and absolute knowledge is unlikely to be found. We must rely on probability and act with confidence and caution according to the likelihood of our knowledge being true.
Hume, along with Thomas Hobbes, is cited as a classical compatibilist about the notions of freedom and determinism. The thesis of compatibilism seeks to reconcile human freedom with the mechanist belief that human beings are part of a deterministic universe, whose happenings are governed by the laws of physics. Compatibilists define free will in a way that allows it to co-exist with determinism. Hume argued that in order to be held morally responsible, it is required that our behavior be caused and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honor, if good; nor infamy, if evil. This is correct. The physics and chemistry of the universe is blind and determined. Biology, on the other hand, seems to have endowed at least one species with the ability to override the predominant pulls on our nature, thereby giving us the freedom that compatibilists define as free will.*
Needs to Adapt
In a famous sentence in the Treatise, Hume circumscribes reason's role in the production of action: Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. We are not bound by any laws of nature to act on every emotional state we feel. Reason arises in nature to help life choose between actions that satisfy short-term desires or long-term needs. The joy of the survival of life is our deepest feeling so reason can be said to serve that emotion, but reason rules over other emotions as it instructs us about which actions we should take and which emotions we should feel.
Hume's views on human motivation and action formed the cornerstone of his ethical theory. Given that one cannot be motivated by reason alone, requiring the input of the passions, Hume argued that reason cannot be behind morality: Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. Morality does arise from the ultimate emotion - the joy of the survival of life. Our reason is required to uncover which actions are ultimately moral or not.
Hume does not believe, as Locke does, that private property is a natural right, but he argues that it is justified since resources are limited. If all goods were unlimited and available freely, then private property would not be justified, but instead becomes an "idle ceremonial.” Hume also believed in unequal distribution of property, since perfect equality would destroy the ideas of thrift and industry. Perfect equality would thus lead to impoverishment. There are no natural rights - in the state of nature, unchecked competition reigns and might makes right. In a society, we cooperate in order to better compete with death. Members of society receive rights in return for their participation. Property should be accumulated according to effort and participation in that society - not according to means or need. Perfect equality is trying to attain perfect cooperation, when a balance between cooperation and competition is what is required.
Hume is well known for his treatment of the ‘is–ought’ problem. Hume stated that many writers make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. However, Hume found that there seems to be a significant difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be), and it is not obvious how we can get from making descriptive statements to prescriptive. Life is alive. Life ought to act to remain alive. All else flows from this solution to the is-ought problem.
*Note that this section is changed from my original publication. I essentially agreed with Hume about moral responsibility, but was ignorant of the nuanced view that compatibilists take, so I thought that word implied more logical contorting than actually occurs in that philosophical camp. I now realise my position on free will is a compatibilist one as well.
I would also like to acknowledge that my treatment of Hume ended with a trifling dismissal of the greatest problem in moral philosophy—the bridging of the is-ought divide. I presented my conclusion without any of the justification necessary for philosophers to believe it—or so I've continued to discover—and so to remedy this, and to strengthen probably the most important claim in my philosophy (as I said, all else flows from this), I've written a lengthy and serious derivation of this claim about getting oughts from is and I hope to have it published in a philosophy e-magazine soon. Let me know if you'd like an advance copy. It's 26 pages long with over 60 references scattered throughout, so expect it to take a bit of time to read. I hope it gets read though because I do think it's probably the most important thing I've ever written. I'll be sure to post a link to it if it does get published, and I may copy segments of it here in future blog posts.