Natural Virtues

Class notes for 24 February

Main points

The natural virtues are qualities of a person that are either immediately agreeable or useful to the possessor of the quality or others.

The Natural Virtues
Quality is …
Immediately agreeable ( Useful (, 24;
To … Possessor Good humor, e.g. Prudence, e.g.
Others Wit, eloquence, e.g. Generosity, Benevolence, e.g.

Why do we think that others have good or bad qualities? It is easy enough to see how this works when the quality is agreeable or useful to me: that will lead me to think that the person with the quality is virtuous. But how do I think that someone else has a good quality when I do not benefit from it myself? Hume’s answer is sympathy, a psychological mechanism that enables us to share others’ feelings. So if you benefit a third party, I will think that you are virtuous by sympathizing with the third party’s good feelings.

Sympathy, as may be evident, is not a feeling itself but a mechanism that generates feelings. A quick perusal of the OED will give you a sense for what Hume would have taken the word to mean.

The indirect passions make an appearance too. When the good quality is thought to belong to me, I feel pride; when it is thought to belong to someone else, I feel love for that person. When the quality is thought to be bad, the feelings are, respectively, humility and hatred.

Remarkable circumstances

Hume notes two remarkable circumstances. I added a third.

Correcting our sentiments

Hume’s first remarkable circumstance is that sentiment can vary even though esteem does not. Translating, that means that we can think someone was good or bad without having particularly strong feelings about the person. That looks like a problem for Hume since he holds that thinking someone is good or bad just involves having a feeling of pleasure or pain.

Hume’s answer is that we correct our sentiments and think about how we would feel if we observed the person we are judging from an impartial point of view.

We talked about two questions. First, how does Hume think we accomplish this? That is, does he give a story that is good enough to reconcile his theory about how we make moral judgments with the observed facts about the moral judgments that we make?

Second, does Hume explain why we “correct” ourselves in this way? This can be tricky. Although he proposes an analogy with visual perception, he cannot mean for us to have taken that too literally: I correct my visual perception that a distant mountain is tiny because there is a fact about how large the moutain is. But there are no such facts about ethics, he maintains. I don’t think Hume has a straightforward answer to this, and it isn’t even clear to me that he has to answer it. But, I would think that it would have something to do with our social nature and the role that judgments of virtue and vice play in making social life possible. Roughly, we can get along and minimize our conflicts with one another if we agree about this sort of thing.

Max pointed out that this does not show that it’s important to correct our opinions so as to agree with everyone in the world since we do not have to get along with everyone in the world. True enough. Does that mean that each society has its own standards that are true for its members, but not for others? We’ll return to this on the last day.

Virtue in rags

The second remarkable circumstance is that we sometimes think people are virtuous even if they do not produce agreeable or useful results. This is slightly similar to one of Kant’s observations about our common thinking about the good will.

Hume’s answer is that we identify good characteristics by their typical effects. If there is a good reason why a person’s characteristics do not produce their typical effects, such as that the person is in prison, the desert, or rags (extreme poverty), we go ahead and regard the person as virtuous anyway. We’re primarily interested in motivation and character and the virtuous person in rags has the motivations and character traits that we regard as virtuous.

As I said, this is an observation that Kant made too. But Kant drew the conclusion that the effects of one’s motivations and character never matter as far as moral virtue is concerned. Hume held they do not matter only in unusual circumstances.

Natural abilities

My addition to this list of remarkable circumstances is the observation that, for Hume, the division between qualities of character and physical abilities and characteristics is quite shallow. Both can be agreeable or useful, after all.

Does that show that there is something wildly mistaken about Hume’s theory? For example, it seems unfair that someone might be vicious due to factors that he had no control over. It also seems that the vicious person ought to be in an entirely different category of “bad” than a homely person.

Hume’s defense is that this is the way things are. He might add that, if he’s right, it is more humane not to hold ourselves and others up to a standard that we cannot possibly meet, given the way things, in fact, are.