Why does Hume consider Justice to be an Artificial Virtue?

Subject: Law
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 2043
Topics: Justice, Human Nature, Humanism, Morality

What is an Artificial Virtue? 

According to Hume, artificial values are the basis that forms the way in which he perceives justice about his moral philosophy. They form a critical part in his way of thinking since it shows how we can create our virtues beyond what is handed to us by Mother Nature and forms a civic and organized society. According to Human, the absence of artificial virtues encourages an inherently selfish race, which has nothing to unite us in a logical social body.

To understand the meaning of artificial virtues, we must first consider what Hume considers as a virtue. In its simple definition, virtue is a character trait, a moral excellence a quality regarded as being good. 

Individual virtues are characteristics that promote individual and collective well-being. There are two occurrences of virtue according to Hume, the first being a natural virtue. It forms a basis in which one can differentiate between natural and artificial virtues

In his point of view, Home notes that to have artificial virtue is to have a virtue that is purely developed either due to social convictions enforced or not within you. This is emphasized in his treatise of Human nature, which he states that not all of our virtues are natural since some virtues that produce pleasure using an artifice arise from necessities and circumstances of human humankind. Some of the traits that he considers artificial virtues are the ones we need for effective cooperation since our natural sentimentalities are too partial to allow these without intervention. Hume summarizes that among artificial virtues include honesty regarding property often referred to as justice or equity, commitment to a promise, obedience to the laws of nations, and loyalty to one’s government, good manners, chastity, and modesty

In one way or another, this leads us to our next point of discussion, that why artificial virtues were regarded as of great importance by Hume and his moral philosophy. After considering Hume’s perception and theoretical background to what makes an artificial virtue, it is seen that one of the greatest element in artificial virtue is justice. Hume believes that although it might not be immediately apparent, variation between natural virtue and justice is that which is good, resulting from the past, due to a single act, something is done out of passion; while a single act of justice, seen in itself, may not conform to the good of the society. Hume, therefore, states that the importance of justice as an artificial value cannot be ignored; citing the thinking as to why a society that has no artificial virtues it establishes is doomed to fail. For instance, Hume discusses two scenarios, that of limited kindness and inadequacy of resources to demonstrate just how vital artificial values and particularly, justice can be to keeping order, control, and a way of living in social coherence.

Because of lack of generosity, Hume asserts that people are compassionate although it is not enough to explain a just behaviour. On the contrary, while Hume sees human beings as possessing natural virtues leading us towards a way of compassion and a general consent to a behaviour of not hindering others from being happy, they are not adequate alone to make up a set of values where actions and resources are to be at all-time considered fair and equal. Apparently, for a moral system of reasoning, this circumstance cannot be avoided if possible, therefore further emphasizing the significance of artificial values according to Hume’s school of thought.

In addition, Hume claims that existence of the scarcity of resources in a world of purely natural values may also cause social mayhem and possibly cause an obstacle to the quest for the good. Put together scarcity of resources and lack of generosity, and this leads to a situation whereby not everyone will have a guarantee on their fair share. Lack of justice encourages situations where people will conflict with one another and always questioning their share in a given arrangement. Justice, with its capacity to offer a warning to those with a feeling to incite conflict, is therefore incredibly imperative to Hume, and a critical role to play as an artificial virtue.

Nevertheless, it is not enough to demonstrate the prerequisite for artificial virtues as a whole. In his Treatise,  Hume continues to suggest that the virtues of material faithfulness and honesty of promises and contracts, both indispensible to bring together the agreements of what is believed a typical society, are artificial, not natural virtues. Hume denotes to these kinds of artificial values with a general term regarded as conventions, and these arise to deal with situations of scarcity and limited generosity which create good relations amongst people and from which it will benefit everyone in the end. Hume argues that such agreements develop slowly, citing the example of two people carting on the oars of a boat: Two people pulling the oars of a boat do it as an agreement though they have not promised one another. Such an agreement comes gradually and gains force by slow progress, and by our repetitive experience of the problem of contravening it

In summary, Hume then points out artificial virtues as those that develop in us not naturally, but because of the arrangements of an enlightened society. Nonetheless, what makes them imperative in Hume’s moral philosophy and regards them as fundamental to creating a peaceful, moral society are the personal virtues that Hume classifies as artificial, rather than considering them as a collection. While he discusses some, such as agreements to honour promises and to recognize private property, justice plays a critical role. Although it is an abstract concept, Hume considers it one of the most conventional pillars of society, leading to the creation of agreements binding us in a code of conduct and saving us from vice. Therefore, the need of artificial virtues lies in their ability to separate us from the unfriendly creatures falteringly reconnoitred in a putative world of purely natural virtues, and the world of civilized sociable people we identify and express in human existence.

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According to Hume, justice plays a very critical role in the respect of a property. According to him, respect of a personal property is the main moral obligation that is instituted through a well created natural law that only exists before independent human beliefs.  Hume disagree with Lock’s view by viewing justice as an artificial virtue meaning that it is only through contrivance or an artifice that can produce the moral consent that makes it a virtue. According to his discussion in a treatise of human nature, Hume argues that justice, often referred as equity and honesty, is artificial before explaining the origin of the agreement on which it depends and why observance to that agreement is considered as a virtue. This argument depends on a main thesis on the way he approaches ethics that the ethical merit of a deed is as a result of ethical merit which is a sign of virtuous motive. It should be noted that the term motive is very broad in how Hume uses it, comprising of character traits, dispositions, abilities, and repeated passions together with occurring desires. In turn, the virtue of a motive recognized by the moral sense, by way of feelings of moral admiration that commonly depend in partly or entirely on sympathy with those who have or affected by the motive. From his main virtuous ethics thesis, Hume derives the overall principle that can be termed as “First Virtuous Motive Principle”: i.e. for there to be a virtuous action, there must be a virtuous motive in the first place apart from the ethical duty to the action in itself. This principle is as a result of Core Virtue Ethics Thesis, which Hume argues; the only remedy could be a vicious circle, where the ethical merit of a deed would to be as a result of the antecedent virtue of the intention that fashioned it, whereas the virtue of that intention could only be resultant, in turn, from the precursor ethical merit of the action it expresses. On Hume’s account, duty can also be regarded as an intention to act, and even a morally laudable one, but only can be done  when the ethical nature of such an action in question has already been created by the way it relates to other virtuous motives. Hume holds that when we act from a duty, we either have the intentions of hiding from our selves 

From the action of duty, which he holds, we can seek to hide from ourselves deficiency of virtuous and moral intention or instill it in ourselves through a habit. After Hume proved his First Virtuous Motive Principle, he completes his Circle Argument through the application of the principle to the observations on the motives to actions of justice so as to make argument that it must, that is, on pain of circularity whether an artificial virtue or not.

Furthermore, his use of this kind of argument has appeared disgracefully problematic, though, for three key reasons. First and fore most, it seems that, in spite of the necessities of his First Virtuous Motive Principle, he doesn’t allow that there can be any other virtuous motive that may help to explain the full range of actions of justice apart from the sense of duty to do them.

On the other hand, it looks like that in at least two other passages Hume unambiguously denies that there exists any such an intention. Secondly, it looks that, given his review of possible motives; he should not have agreed that there is any other virtuous intention for justice apart from the sense of duty. Hume considers three probable motives: first, public benevolence, secondly the private benevolence, and thirdly the self-interest. 

But then again, Hume claims that neither type of benevolence is adequate to stimulate the full range of just action; and while he allows a significant role to “self-interest” in the source of justice, Hume seems to acknowledge that it, too, cannot eventually stimulate the full range of actions of justice. Thirdly, it seems that he cannot acknowledge that there is the “first virtuous” non-moral cause to justice devoid of controverting his conative psychology. At some point, Hume seems to agree, and even insist, that one can constantly adhere to the demands of justice only through the application of set rules to control one’s conduct freely without putting into considerations pain and pleasure, thus taking the set rules as authoritative

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Conversely, his theory of motivation looks like it requires only the prospective pleasure, and pain can eventually stimulate action, hence his theory provides no clear way that regulates action through an authoritative rule.

Finally, it can be said that all of this is disastrous for him. This is because since Hume believes that the First Virtuous Motive Principle is an inevitable consequence of the Essential Virtue Ethics Thesis, and Hume cannot consent that there is no intention to justice that satisfy the demands of the Principle devoid of allowing either that the essential thesis of his virtue ethics is untrue or that he is incorrect to describe justice as a virtue 

Since Hume locates foundation of the virtue in utility rather than in god given reason, his list of virtues rejects Christian morals indirectly. In his old model, items such as ambitions are vices, thus his acceptance of such items into his list is a great insult to religious scholars. Nonetheless, is true in his theory that such traits are virtues since they make up his twin needs for moral opinions: they must be beneficial to us and also others or they must be good to ourselves or others. In addition, rubbishes the issue of morality as purely voluntary. Rather, breaks down his list into voluntary and non-voluntary virtues, citing that separating them is only necessary when creating a rewarding system of reward and punishment. Hume is not interested in endorsing or creating such a system, thus he does not distinguish his moral philosophy.

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  1. David, H., 2003. David Hume –Treatise on Human Nature Book 3. Routledge.
  2. John, M., 1980. Hume’s Moral Theory. Routledge.
  3. Jonathan, H., 1981. Hume’s Theory of Justice. Oxford.
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