Hume on justice

Notes for March 13

Main points

Hume’s account of justice is quite a bit like Hobbes’s moral philosophy. The similarities are obvious and we spent most of our time on some of the differences. We’ll return to this in our next session after the break.


We talked about three chief differences:

  1. Hume’s description of human psychology is much less egoistic than Hobbes’s.
  2. Hume discounts the risk of violence under anarchy; that’s Hobbes’s chief point about what is bad about the state of nature.
  3. Hume traces the origin of justice and property to what he calls conventions; Hobbes relies on covenants and authority.

I was a little shocked about the second point. The evidence we looked at earlier and common sense suggest that Hobbes was clearly right about the extent of violence in non-state societies. Really, there are two things going on here. Hume didn’t seem to think that the competition for scarce goods would lead to violence, either for reasons of competition or diffidence. In addition, he didn’t acknowledge the existence of slavery. We might give Hume a partial pass on violent combat as he didn’t have the ethnographic and archaeological studies that we do. But he had to have known about slavery. So what was he thinking when he wrote that “the external advantages of our body … may be ravished from us, but can be of no advantage to him who deprives us of them” (Treatise, 3.2.2, par. 7)? Eliot said he had some ideas, so maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks. (See the update below.)

When we return, we’ll discuss the third point. Danielle wasn’t convinced there is a significant difference between Hume’s conventions and Hobbes’s covenants. Charley didn’t think that anything like the story about the men rowing the boat could get to property. Those seem like excellent places to start.


I have some notes from a previous class on Hume’s moral philosophy in general. We’re going to go into much more detail on the specific topic of justice than we did then. But the notes on the natural and artificial virtues might help to put the material we’re talking about into context.

And from a subsequent publication

Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–40) did not do well. So he followed up with two philosophical works that were more sharply focused on specific topics, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).He really made his fortune as an essayist and historian. A couple of paragraphs from the latter seemed relevant to what we were talking about on Wednesday.

“Were there a species of creatures, intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is, that we should be bound, by the laws of humanity, to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally useless, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized EUROPEANS above barbarous INDIANS, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them. In many nations, the female sex are reduced to like slavery, and are rendered incapable of all property, in opposition to their lordly masters. But though the males, when united, have, in all countries, bodily force sufficient to maintain this severe tyranny, yet such are the insinuation, address, and charms of their fair companions, that women are commonly able to break the confederacy, and share with the other sex in all the rights and privileges of society.” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, sect. 3, par. 18–19)

Update on Hume on slavery

I had a bright idea this morning: do a search for the term “slave” in the PastMasters database of Hume’s collected works.Added March 24.

I haven’t had time to do a comprehensive study, but this passage from Hume’s celebrated essay “On the Populousness of Ancient Nations” (1752) seemed interesting. It tells us at least three things: Hume was quite aware of slavery, he thought it was barbaric, and he thought of it as being practiced by others.

The chief difference between the domestic economy of the ancients and that of the moderns consists in the practice of slavery, which prevailed among the former, and which has been abolished for some centuries throughout the greater part of EUROPE. Some passionate admirers of the ancients, and zealous partizans of civil liberty, (for these sentiments, as they are, both of them, in the main, extremely just, are found to be almost inseparable) cannot forbear regretting the loss of this institution; and whilst they brand all submission to the government of a single person with the harsh denomination of slavery, they would gladly reduce the greater part of mankind to real slavery and subjection.Who are the “passionate admirers of the ancients” and “zealous partizans of civil liberty” who “cannot forbear regretting the loss” of slavery and would “gladly reduce the greater part of mankind to real slavery”? But to one who considers coolly on the subject it will appear, that human nature, in general, really enjoys more liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of EUROPE, than it ever did during the most flourishing period of ancient times. As much as submission to a petty prince, whose dominions extend not beyond a single city, is more grievous than obedience to a great monarch; so much is domestic slavery more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever. The more the master is removed from us in place and rank, the greater liberty we enjoy; the less are our actions inspected and controled; and the fainter that cruel comparison becomes between our own subjection, and the freedom, and even dominion of another. The remains which are found of domestic slavery, in the AMERICAN colonies, and among some EUROPEAN nations, would never surely create a desire of rendering it more universal. The little humanity, commonly observed in persons, accustomed, from their infancy, to exercise so great authority over their fellow-creatures, and to trample upon human nature, were sufficient alone to disgust us with that unbounded dominion. Nor can a more probable reason be assigned for the severe, I might say, barbarous manners of ancient times, than the practice of domestic slavery; by which every man of rank was rendered a petty tyrant, and educated amidst the flattery, submission, and low debasement of his slaves.“On the Populousness of Ancient Nations.” In Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, Part 2, essay 11, paragraph 6.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted March 16, 2013 and updated March 24, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar