How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?

Week 6: Human Nature in David Hume and Adam Smith



Week 6 David Hume and Adam Smith

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1. The British Enlightenment & moral philosophy.

sympathy, the imagination, and a historical ‘science of man’ – a culture (man-made) which changes.

the world is made by humans, therefore humans are able to understand it while nature is made by God...


2. Predecessors to David Hume and Adam Smith:

The Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713) wrote in 1699 An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit: virtue comes from a ‘moral sense’ the ‘sense of right and wrong’ – not from religion, self-interest, sensation or reason.  We also had a ‘natural affection’ or ‘social affection.’ Virtuous man is motivated by ‘a natural affection for his kind’.

Francis Hutcheson, (1694 – 1747) - both opposed Mandeville and Hobbes’s stress on ‘self interest’.


3. David Hume (1711 – 1776).

3.1 Life and work

1740: Treatise of Human Nature - one of the most widely read works of the time; a secular ethics based on a science of man.

1748 as Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and then in 1751 published Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.

After his death in 1776: Dialogues concerning Natural Religion


3.2 ‘Mitigated scepticism’ and a science of man:

We can only establish principles on the authority of experience (not observation, nor innate ideas). All knowledge (science, natural sciences etc) has ‘a relation to human nature [and must therefore ‘in some measure depend on the science of Man.


3.3 ‘Reason is the slave of the passions’

’ Feelings - including ‘sympathy’ - rather than reason are what govern behaviour. We are ‘moral subjects’ i.e. morals (moeurs, custom etc) shape us.


4. Adam Smith (1723 – 1790).

4.1 Smith’s ideas on ethics: we have an innate moral sense – ‘sympathy’. Putting ourselves in another’s place, and ‘becoming him/her.’


Extracts from Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” 1759:


Extract 1. “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary unto him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others when we either see it or are made to conceive it in a lively manner… By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation… we enter, as it were, into his body and become in some measure the same person with him.” (Opening words of TMS)


‘it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his  sensations.’


4.2 How ethical standards are formed: we see others as ‘mirrors’ to enable us to assess ourselves – we then imagine an ‘impartial observer.’


Extract 2.   Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see... and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view.  Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. 


Extract 3.   We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us.  This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct. [TMS I]


4.3 Democratisation of morality? Smith an egalitarian?