Book 3: Of Morals
Part 1: Of virtue and vice in general
Hume begins Book 3 by examining the nature of moral evaluation, offering a critique of moral rationalism and a defense of moral sentimentalism: in the terms of his overall system, Hume is arguing that the evaluations in our mind are impressions, not ideas. His main target is the rationalism of such philosophers as Clarkeand Balguy, which posits „eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses of things, which are the same to every rational being that considers them”, in effect classifying morality alongside mathematics under „relations of ideas”. Hume’s principal arguments against this rationalism rest on Book 2’s thesis that there is no opposition between reason and the passions: reason alone cannot motivate us, and „passions, volitions, and actions” cannot be in agreement or disagreement with reason. This thesis „proves directly„, he writes, that an action’s moral status cannot consist in the action’s agreement or disagreement with reason, and it „proves indirectly” that moral evaluation, which has a practical influence on us and can „excite passion[s] and produce or prevent actions”, cannot be „the offspring of reason”. Nor can the morality of an action be founded on the true or false judgments causally linked to it: no immoral action is wrong due to its arising from a mistake of fact, or (contra Wollaston) due to its causing false judgments in others.
After summing up this critique, Hume develops a „more particular” case against rationalism, recalling his system’s two kinds of reasoning: „the comparing of ideas” and „the inferring of matter of fact”. Now as for demonstrative reasoning, the four abstract relations from Book 1 seem perfectly irrelevant to morality, and indeed it is hard to see how any relation could have just the right scope (holding only between someone’s psychology and external situation) and the right practical implications as well (somehow it must be certain a priori that no rational being could consider these relations without being motivated accordingly). Consider the immorality of parricide and incest: this cannot consist merely in the abstract relations at play, for the very same relations can be found in perfectly non-moral contexts involving inanimate objects and animals. And as for probable reasoning, Hume famously contends that we observe nothing in an action besides its ordinary non-moral qualities—experience reveals no moral qualities unless one looks to the moral feelings in one’s own mind, so that virtue and vice are (like the secondary qualities of modern philosophy) „not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind”. This first section ends with the famous is-oughtparagraph.
Hume is thus left endorsing a moral sentimentalism somewhat like that of Hutcheson: „Morality… is more properly felt than judg’d of”. The moral evaluations in our mind are impressions—”nothing but particular pains or pleasures”—and Hume’s task is to explain how certain kinds of „action, or sentiment, or character” produce these special moral sentiments in us. But a problem arises: since pleasant or painful feelings can be produced by inanimate objects, why doesn’t sentimentalism succumb to the same objection Hume has just raised against rationalism? First, he contends there are many different kinds of pleasure and pain, and that the moral sentiments (which arise „only when a character is consider’d in general, without reference to our particular interest”) have a distinctive feeling, noticeably different than the feelings called up by inanimate objects (or matters of self-interest). Second, he reminds us that the four indirect passions are produced by pleasant or unpleasant qualities in ourselves or other persons, not inanimate objects. This objection dispatched, Hume closes with two points about the psychological origin of moral sentiments. First, on the working assumption that nature tends to produce variety from „a few principles”, he hopes to find „general principles” underlying our moral psychology. Second, to the question of whether these principles are „natural”, he replies that it depends on the meaning of „natural”: they are not miraculous, nor are they rare, but they might sometimes draw on human artifice (his system will include both natural virtues and artificial virtues), adding that none of these meanings can sustain the popular view (defended by Butler) that „virtue is the same with what is natural, and vice with what is unnatural”. Before proceeding to his detailed examination of moral psychology, Hume takes a parting shot at moral rationalism and its „incomprehensible relations and qualities, which never did exist in nature, nor even in our imagination, by any clear and distinct conception”.
Part 2: Of justice and injustice
Hume devotes Part 2 to the „artificial virtues”: those positive character traits that would have no moral appeal were it not for social conventions established by human artifice. The most important of these virtues is justice, and in the first section Hume offers his so-called „circle argument” to show that justice would not be seen as a virtue in a hypothetical world lacking the relevant social conventions. First, Hume contends, character-based motives are morally more fundamental than actions: we approve of an action only insofar as it indicates some virtuous motive in the agent’s character, so that what makes an action virtuous in the first place is the virtuous motive it proceeds from. But this motive must be an ordinary motive in human nature, as opposed to the distinctive moral motive of performing the action because it is virtuous (i.e., a „sense of duty”). After all, this moral motive presupposes that the action already counts as virtuous, and it would be circular to derive the action’s virtue from a motive which itself presupposes the action’s virtue. And so if justice were a natural virtue, there would have to be an ordinary motive in human nature that could make someone obey the rules of justice. But according to Hume, no such motive can be found: unbridled self-interest leads us away from justice, concern for reputation only goes so far, impartial public benevolence cannot explain all cases of justice and is not even a true element of human nature (contra Hutcheson, we love others only in a limited and discriminating way), and private benevolence for our nearest and dearest cannot explain the universal and impartial nature of justice. Thus there is no motive capable of making justice count as a virtue, not until certain social conventions come into place. Hume closes this section by adding that we evaluate motives largely by comparison with what we consider to be normal human psychology, and that the rules of justice are so „obvious” and „necessary” an invention that they can still be deemed „natural” to the human species.
Hume next devotes an important and lengthy section to two questions: First, how is the social convention of justice established? And second, why do we invest the rules of justice with moral significance? His answer to the first question begins with our need for society. Humans are not strong, skilled, or secure enough to meet our needs alone, and only society can offer additional labor force, specialization, and mutual aid—all important advantages of society learned of through growing up in families. But this necessary social union is threatened both by human selfishness (or rather „confin’d generosity”) and by the scarcity and instability of external goods. And since our uncultivated natural affections cannot overcome these obstacles (we see nothing wrong with having a normal amount of selfishness and generosity), it is left to our reason and self-interest to find a solution: through „a general sense of common interest” that is „mutually expressed” and known to everybody, we gradually develop a social convention for the stabilizing and safeguarding of external goods, with improved compliance and stronger social expectations feeding into each other, a process Hume compares to the development of languages and currency. He insists that this convention is not a promise, famously illustrating the point with the example of two men agreeing to row a boat together, simply from a sense of mutual advantage rather than from any promise. And as justice is defined in terms of such a convention, so too the related concepts of „property, or right, or obligation” can mean nothing in its absence.
Since the chief obstacle to society (our selfishness, especially our insatiable acquisitiveness) is in fact the very motive responsible for society, the growth of social order depends less on our moral qualities than on our intellectual qualities. But since stabilizing external goods is such a „simple and obvious” rule, the convention is established with little delay, so that „the state of nature” is a „mere philosophical fiction”—not very realistic but useful for theorizing. Similarly edifying, „the golden age” (a fictional time of superabundant resources and universal brotherly love) helps shed light on the origins of justice: were it not for certain non-ideal circumstances (selfishness, limited generosity, resource scarcity, resource instability), the rules of justice would be pointless. Real-world cases also illustrate the idea: close personal relationships bring one’s private belongings into common ownership, and free goods like air and water are allowed unrestricted use. And this general point, Hume says, reinforces three earlier points: (1) Public benevolence cannot be why we obey the rules of justice, for it would only make these rules pointless. (2) Moral rationalism cannot make sense of justice: mere abstract reasoning can neither account for the fact that justice hinges on specific background conditions, nor produce the concern for our interests that originally leads us to establish the rules of justice. (3) Justice is an artificial virtue: though the whole purpose of justice is to serve our interests, the connection between justice and our interests dissolves in the absence of the relevant social convention. For without this convention, wholehearted pursuit of the public interest would make justice pointless and unrestrained pursuit of private interests would leave justice in ruins. And likewise, without this convention, certain individual acts of justice (e.g., returning money to a villain) would run contrary to our private interests and even the public interest: such unfortunate acts are worth performing only because of our convention-based expectation that others will follow our example and reinforce the „whole system”, which does serve everyone’s advantage.
Hume’s answer to the second question is that our approval of justice and disapproval of injustice is based in sympathy with the public interest. Justice was established to serve our interests, but when society grows large enough, we might lose sight of how injustice threatens social order. Fortunately, the threat can be made vivid again when I myself am the victim of injustice, or when I impartially sympathize with others threatened by injustice. Their sympathetically communicated negative feelings form the basis of my disapproval of injustice, and this evaluation subsequently extends to my own behavior through the influence of general rules and sympathy with the opinions of others. Three additional factors then reinforce these moral sentiments: (1) Public leaders propagandize on behalf of justice (contra Mandeville, this technique works only by appealing to and intensifying moral sentiments we already have). (2) Parents instill children with a reliable and deeply rooted concern for the rules of justice. (3) Concern for reputation makes us scrupulously avoid injustice as a matter of personal principle.
The next four sections see Hume completing his examination of justice as an artificial virtue: he argues that „the three fundamental laws of nature, that of the stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises” are all based on human convention. He begins by discussing the general rule of stability and its applications. To make a peaceful establishment of society, we must avoid controversial „particular judgments” about who is best suited to make use of what resources, and instead adopt a general rule of present possession, simply as a „natural expedient” with all the appeal of custom. Once society has been established, the additional rules of occupation (i.e. „first possession„), prescription (i.e. „long possession„), accession (e.g. „the fruits of our garden”), and succession (i.e. inheritance) are developed. These rules are largely the product of the imagination, with ownership determined by the association of ideas. Second, because „rigid stability” would of course bring great disadvantages (resources having been allocated by mere „chance”), we need a peaceful way to induce changes in ownership: thus we adopt the „obvious” rule of transference by consent. And as for the related rule of „delivery” (physically transferring the object or some symbolic token thereof), this is simply a useful technique for visualizing „the mysterious transition of the property” (property being an inconceivable quality „when taken for something real, without any reference to morality, or the sentiments of the mind”), much as Catholics use imagery to „represent the inconceivable mysteries of the Christian religion”.
Hume then examines the final „law of nature”—the performance of promises—giving a two-stage argument that promise-keeping is an artificial virtue. First, promises are naturally unintelligible, for there is no distinctive mental act for promises to express, neither resolutions nor desires nor a direct willing of the act. And as for willing an obligation, this is too absurd to be plausible: given that changes in obligation require changes in human sentiment, it is plainly impossible to will an obligation into existence. But second, even if promises were naturally intelligible, they could not create an obligation: i.e., even if we were foolish enough to mentally will an obligation, nothing would change, since no voluntary act could ever change human sentiments. Hume also reprises the circle argument, arguing that there is no motive for promise-keeping other than a sense of duty in doing so.
How, then, does the artificial convention of promising come about? The first two laws of nature, for all their usefulness, leave many further opportunities for mutual advantage unrealized (e.g., non-simultaneous cooperative exchanges of labor), unable to overcome the meanness of human nature in the absence of „mutual confidence and security”. But unvirtuous individuals will soon learn to cooperate with each other simply from a self-interested expectation of the benefits of future cooperation, and special language is introduced to express one’s resolution to perform one’s part (on penalty of social distrust)—thus the practice is distinguished from the favors of true friends, and secured through staking one’s reputation on faithful performance. The convention is then made moral in the same way as before („[p]ublic interest, education, and the artifices of politicians„) and a fictional act of the mind („willing an obligation”) is fabricated to make sense of the moral obligation. Finally, Hume reinforces this explanation by observing that a promise obligates you even if you mentally crossed your fingers, but does not obligate you if it was honestly unintended or if you were obviously joking, and yet does obligate you if your devious insincerity is apparent to shrewd observers, and yet does not obligate you if induced by force (alone among all motives): „[a]ll these contradictions”, Hume says, are best explained by his convention-based account of promising. He adds that the „terrible” Catholic doctrine of intention (viz., that a sacrament is invalidated if its minister is in the wrong state of mind) is actually more reasonable than the practice of promising—since theology is less important than promise-keeping, it can afford to sacrifice utility to consistency.
Finally, Hume reviews these „laws of nature” and offers three additional arguments for their artificiality. (1) Justice is commonly defined in terms of property, and yet it is impossible to understand property except in terms of justice. But since there is no natural sentiment of approval for the practice of justice described in neutral language, „abstracting from the notio[n] of property” (e.g., restoring an object to its first possessor), justice is not a natural virtue. (2) Justice and injustice come in bright lines and sharp boundaries, whereas our natural moral sentiments come in degrees. (3) Justice and injustice are universal and general, whereas our natural moral sentiments are partial and particular: e.g., justice might decide in favor of a featherbrained and filthy-rich bachelor instead of a level-headed man trying to support his destitute family, setting aside as irrelevant all the circumstances that engage our affections in favor of the latter.
In the next six sections, Hume completes his „system concerning the laws of nature and nations” with a lengthy discussion of government. The need for government arises from our short-term thinking: though lawful conduct is clearly in our interest, we get carried away by a dangerous „narrowness of soul, which makes [us] prefer the present to the remote”, so that rule violations become more frequent and therefore more strategically advisable. Humans are incapable of overcoming this weakness and changing our nature, no matter how much we may regret it from a clear-sighted long-term perspective, so we must instead change our situation and turn to the artificial expedient of government: giving fairly disinterested public officials the power to enforce the laws of justice, to decide disputes impartially, and even to provide public goods otherwise underproduced due to free rider problems.
Hume then critiques the liberal Whig theory of government as deriving its authority only from the consent of the governed, as traced back to an original contractbetween ruler and people. He agrees with the rudiments of the Whig theory: simple societies can long subsist without government, for it is war between societies that first brings serious social disorder (from conflict over the spoils of war) and then government, with military leaders becoming political leaders at a public assembly. But though government typically originates in a social agreement, promising cannot be its one and only source of authority. For, as Hume has argued, promise-keeping itself originates in a social convention serving the public interest, so that if government serves the public interest by „preserv[ing] order and concord in society”, then it gains an authority of its own equivalent to that of promise-keeping. We have a parallel interest in both: promise-keeping is a human invention needed for social cooperation, and government is a human invention needed (in large and advanced societies) for reliably enforcing such practices and thereby preserving social order, with neither invention serving a more general or more significant interest than the other. And the two run parallel morally as well: promise-breaking and anti-government action are both disapproved of primarily from a sense of common interest. Thus there is no sense founding the one in the other. Hume also appeals to the opinions of everyday people (which in questions of morality and other sentimentalist domains „carry with them a peculiar authority, and are, in a great measure, infallible”), who see themselves as born to obedience independently of any promising, tacit or otherwise, even to authoritarian states—an understanding reflected in legal codes on rebellion.
But Hume agrees with the Whigs about the right of resistance when governments become tyrannical. Our interest in government consists in „the security and protection, which we enjoy in political society”, and therefore disappears as soon as the authorities become intolerably oppressive. And though our moralobligation to allegiance might be expected to linger on stubbornly due to the influence of general rules, our familiarity with human nature and the history of tyrantswill give us additional general rules marking out exceptions to the common rule. And thus public opinion („perfectly infallible” in questions of morality) is not wed to any exceptionless rule of „passive obedience„, but is perfectly willing to „make allowances for resistance in the more flagrant instances of tyranny and oppression”.
The next problem of allegiance is who exactly is the rightful ruler? And according to Hume, such questions are often irresolvable by reason, and it can be wise to simply go with the flow in the „interests of peace and liberty”. Again, Hume agrees that political society begins with a social agreement promising allegiance to certain people. But once a government acquires its own authority by serving the public interest, it is (paradoxically) in our interest to renounce our interest and simply abide the powers that be, lest we fall into divisive controversies over the best possible ruler. Questions of succession are then answered with five somewhat arbitrary principles: (1) long possession: the influence of custom favors long-established forms of governments, though it takes longer to acquire a right to large nations; (2) present possession: few governments have any better claim to authority than successfully holding onto power; (3) conquest: we favor glorious conquerors over detestable usurpers; (4) succession: along with the clear advantages of hereditary government, Hume emphasizes our imaginative tendency to associate parents with children and pass belongings from one to the other; (5) positive laws: lawmakers may change the form of government, though any drastic departures from tradition are apt to diminish popular allegiance. And with so many distinct principles, the choice of ruler is sometimes wonderfully clear, and sometimes hopelessly unclear. In a closing discussion of the Glorious Revolution, Hume defends keeping the right of resistance unformulated and out of the legal code, and extending this right from cases of direct oppression to cases of interbranch constitutional encroachment in „mix’d governments”, adding two „philosophical reflections”: first, Parliament’s authority to exclude the heirs of rulers they have deposed, but not the heirs of rulers who simply died, derives from mere imaginative inertia; second, a contested change in authority may acquire legitimacy retroactively from a stable line of successors.
Hume then examines international law: the similarities between individuals and entire nations yield the same three laws of nature as before, but the special needs of nations call for special rules (e.g., diplomatic immunity). But because cooperation among nations is „not so necessary nor advantageous as that among individuals”, moral rules have significantly less force in international contexts and „may lawfully be transgress’d from a more trivial motive”—i.e., a weaker natural obligation brings a weaker moral obligation. Only general practice can determine exactly how much weaker the obligation is, and indeed the fact that the rules are recognized to be weaker in practice shows that people have „an implicit notion” of their artificiality.
The final section examines the social rules governing the sexual behavior of women („chastity and modesty„), which Hume takes to nicely illustrate how artificial virtues grounded only in social interest can nevertheless acquire universal force. It is boringly obvious that these rules are not exactly natural, and yet they solve a natural problem: a child needs both parents, parents need to know the child is theirs, and paternity is subject to uncertainty. And since questions of sexual fidelitycannot be settled in courtrooms, society needs informal norms (with weakened evidential standards and heightened reputational import) policing fidelity in women. Indeed, Hume adds, given female weakness in the face of sexual temptation, society needs women to feel a strong aversion to anything even suggestive of infidelity. This solution might sound unrealistic in the abstract, but nature has made it a reality: those personally concerned with infidelity have swept along the unconcerned in their disapproval, molded the minds of girls, and extended the general rule into apparently irrational territory, with „debauch’d” men shocked at any female transgression and postmenopausal women condemned for perfectly harmless promiscuity. Men instead stake their reputation on courage (a partly natural virtue) and enjoy looser sexual norms, fidelity in males (like cooperation among nations) being less important for society.
Part 3: Of the other virtues and vices
Hume finishes the Treatise by examining the „natural virtues”: those character traits approved of independently of social conventions. In a general review of morality and the passions, he reminds us that human psychology is driven by pain and pleasure, which call up direct passions and then the indirect passions that explain moral evaluation and which „qualities or characters” count as virtuous or not. And since the indirect passions apply to actions only as indicating something stable in the agent’s mind, the moral sentiments are also directed primarily at „mental qualities” and only derivatively at actions.
After this review, Hume presents his central „hypothesis” concerning the natural virtues and vices: moral evaluation of these traits is best explained in terms of sympathy. The hypothesis is supported by three points: sympathy is so „very powerful” that mere observation of an emotion’s causes or effects can communicate the emotion to us, the beauty we find in anything useful stems from sympathy with the pleasure it might bring its users, and likewise the moral beauty we find in the artificial virtues stems from sympathy with the public interest that these virtues serve. Given these three points, and given that natural virtues and social utility often go together, parsimony dictates that we also explain the natural virtues in terms of sympathy. Hume finds the connection between virtue and utility fairly obvious: it inspired Mandeville’s erroneous account of virtue as a fraudulent invention of conniving politicians, and indeed the connection is even stronger with natural virtues than with artificial virtues. For though artificial virtues may harm society in particular cases (promoting the public interest only when mediated by a „general scheme”), natural virtues help society in every case, which makes it even more probable that sympathy explains moral evaluation of the natural virtues.
Hume further develops his sympathy-based account of the natural virtues by considering two objections. First, variability and impartiality: how can something as variable as sympathy account for moral impartiality of the sort that recognizes virtue in loved ones and complete strangers alike? Hume’s answer is that, because variability in moral evaluation would lead to hopeless practical conflict, we correct ourselves in our „general judgments” by fixing onto a „common point of view”: i.e., we focus on the people within someone’s sphere of influence, and evaluate his character by sympathetically considering how they are affected by his character traits. Indeed, we perform similar corrections for our senses and our aesthetic judgments. Of course, our passions may resist correction, so that only our language is changed; but we still know that our emotional favoritism of some over others would go away if we were equally close to them all, which is perhaps enough to settle „a general calm determination of the passions”. Second, moral luck: how can sympathy explain cases where unusual external circumstances have prevented someone’s internal character from having its usual effects? Hume’s answer is that the imagination follows general rules, focusing more on something’s general tendencies than its actual effects, and that our moral sentiments are influenced accordingly. Naturally, we will feel even stronger approval when the general tendency is actually realized, but we deliberately set aside moral luck to correct our general moral judgments. This explains how we can manage such „extensive sympathy” in morality despite our „limited generosity” in practice: it takes „real consequences” and particular cases to „touch the heart” and „controul our passions”, but „seeming tendencies” and general trends are enough to „influence our taste”.
He finishes this general treatment of the natural virtues with a fourfold classification: every natural virtue is either (1) useful to others, (2) useful to the person himself, (3) immediately agreeable to others, or (4) immediately agreeable to the person himself. Of these „four sources of moral distinctions”, the most important are the virtues of usefulness, which please us even when mere private interest is at stake: thus we approve of prudence and frugality, and while the vice of „indolence” is sometimes indulged (as an excuse for the unsuccessful or a veiled boast of sophistication), „dexterity in business” wins approval by sheer sympathy with the person’s private interest. The two categories of useful virtues are often blended together by sympathy: what hurts me ends up paining others as they sympathize with me, and what hurts others ends up paining me as I sympathize with them. Less important are the virtues of immediate agreeableness: instead of reflecting on the positive tendencies of a mental quality, we simply find it pleasant in and of itself (e.g. wit, insouciance). And even here sympathy plays a major role: we approve of these virtues in large part because they bring pleasure to others or the person himself. Hume concludes with „a general review of the present hypothesis”—viz., that we evaluate character by sympathetically considering its impact on the person himself and others within his sphere of influence—and a brief remark on how „good or ill desert” is explained in terms of the benevolence or anger that come with evaluating (i.e. loving or hating) another person.
Hume then applies his „general system of morals” to two kinds of virtue: the rough „heroic virtue” of the great, and the kind-hearted virtue of the good. As for heroic virtue, it derives its merit from a suspect source: pride. Pride has a bad name because the idea of someone superior to us can be so immediately disagreeable, but Hume distinguishes between „ill-grounded” and „well-grounded” pride. Ill-grounded pride pains us by comparison, when someone else overrates their own merit and this idea of a superior becomes more than an „idle” fiction and reaches a medium level of strength. But someone else’s well-grounded pride brings us pleasure by sympathy, when the idea is so strong in us that we fully believe in their merit. And thus well-grounded pride is a virtue, thanks to its usefulness and agreeableness to the person himself. Now, because we are so prone to the vice of excessive pride, social harmony demands artificial rules („rules of good-breeding„) against the open expression of any pride at all. But „a man of honour” is still expected to have a healthy internal sense of his own merit, and those whose modesty goes too far are scorned for their „meanness” or „simplicity”. Thus it is that heroic virtues—”[c]ourage, intrepidity, ambition, love of glory, magnanimity, and all the other shining virtues of that kind”—are chiefly admired for the „well-regulated pride” they embody. Indeed, though excessive pride is harmful to oneself (even when courteously concealed from others), and military glory is often extremely harmful to others, nevertheless there is something admirable and „dazzling” in the pride of a hero, due to the immediately agreeable „elevated and sublime sensation” he experiences. Hume adds that our disapproval of open pride even in those who have never insulted us (e.g. historical figures) is due to an additional sympathy with the people around them.
As for the virtues of „goodness and benevolence”, Hume explains their merit primarily in terms of their positive impact on others. The section begins by reviewing Hume’s account of moral evaluation from the common point of view, and of sympathy with a person’s sphere of influence. Here the „tender passions” are not only themselves good for society, they are needed to direct other virtues towards the public good. But there is also a more immediate approval, as we are simply „touch’d with a tender sentiment” or sympathetic to characters like our own—this is why even benevolent „trifles” and excesses in love still win approval, as the love in their minds easily converts into love in our minds for them. As for the contrasting „angry passions”, they are judged by comparison with humanity in general—such passions are excused when normal, sometimes scorned when absent, and even applauded when impressively low, though „they form the most detested of all vices” when they „rise up to cruelty„—and for its negative impact on others. Indeed, in general, your moral virtue is mostly determined by how desirable you are in different social relations.
Hume finishes by explaining how his system accommodates not only the „moral virtues” but also the „natural abilities” of the mind, and by downplaying the distinction as not very important and largely a matter of mere terminology. Virtues and abilities are alike, Hume contends, in their „causes and effects”: they are mental qualities that produce pleasure and elicit approval, and we all care about both. To the objection that the distinction matters because the approval of abilities feels different from the approval of virtues, Hume responds that our approval of different things always feels different (e.g., with different virtues). To the objection that virtues are unlike abilities in being voluntary and involving free will, Hume replies that many virtues are involuntary (especially the virtues of the great), that voluntariness has no clear relevance to the process of moral evaluation, and that we have no free will other than mere voluntariness. But voluntariness helps explain why „moralists” think the distinction matters: in contexts of moral exhortation, Hume explains, it is important to focus on those qualities that are most responsive to social pressure, rather than approving indiscriminately of any mental excellence, like everyday people and ancient philosophers.
These natural abilities of the mind are valued mainly for their usefulness for the person himself: e.g. prudence, sagacity, industry, patience. Sometimes immediate agreeableness is most important, whether to others (e.g. wit, eloquence, charisma, even cleanliness) or the person himself (e.g. cheerfulness). Our judgments are influenced by empirical associations between a quality and a person’s age or walk of life (e.g., disapproval of levity in the old). Natural abilities also influence our evaluations by making an able person more consequential in life, for good or ill. The question of why we are less inclined to value a person according to the quickness and accuracy of their memory Hume explains by noting that (unlike the intellect) „the memory is exerted without any sensation of pleasure or pain; and in all its middling degrees serves almost equally well in business and affairs”.
Thus far Hume’s account has dealt exclusively with mental qualities, but he goes some way to accommodate „bodily advantages” and „the advantages of fortune„, which are equally capable of eliciting „love and approbation”. Thus women love a strong man in sympathy with the utility a lover of his could be expected to receive, everyone finds beauty in healthy and useful body parts, and an immediate pleasure or dismay arises from the perception of regular features or „a sickly air”, respectively. Thus we esteem the wealthy by sympathy with the pleasure their riches give them, reinforced by their being more consequential. Hume notes that, though he cannot explain why, the feeling of approval is more determined by the kind of subject contemplated (e.g., an inanimate object, or a person) than by the kind of mechanism driving the approval (e.g., sympathy with utility, or immediate agreeableness).
The conclusion of Book 3, and therefore the Treatise as a whole, briefly recapitulates the reasoning for Hume’s thesis that „sympathy is the chief source of moral distinctions”. Indeed, most would agree that justice and „the useful qualities of the mind” are valued for their usefulness, and what besides sympathy can explain why we care about the public good or „the happiness of strangers”? This „system of ethics” is not only supported by „solid argument”, Hume adds, but it can help moralists show the „dignity” and the „happiness” of virtue. First, it puts morality in a good light to see it derived from „so noble a source” as sympathy: we end up approving of virtue, the sense of virtue, and even the psychological principles underlying the sense of virtue. And while the artificiality of justice may seem unattractive at first, this disappears when we remember that since „[t]he interest, on which justice is founded, is the greatest imaginable, and extends to all times and place”, therefore the rules of justice are „stedfast and immutable; at least, as immutable as human nature”. Secondly, a life of virtue pays off quite well, bringing immediate advantages, an enhanced social reputation, and the „inward satisfaction” of a mind able to „bear its own survey„. So, while Hume presents himself as a theoretical „anatomist” who dissects human psychology into ugly bits, his work is well-suited for the practical „painter” who styles morality into a beautiful and inviting ideal.