Investigating Morality with David Hume

POLITY 48 (2016): 82-108

Abstract: Scholars are divided over the character of Hume’s moral theory: Is he a value-free social scientist or a moral sentiment theorist? This essay examines Book III of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature in order to understand the character of his moral investigations. I argue that Hume has a distinctive and insufficiently appreciated approach to morality that is both phenomenological and investigative. Political science must start with everyday moral opinion, but tensions within opinion compel us to search for moral foundations. Yet morality is not what it seems – a good in itself – but is a requirement for the successful functioning of society as a means for addressing deeply rooted problems in the human condition. Hume’s final analysis of morality must thus be sought in his treatment of the natural virtues. Through his investigation of morality, Hume offers us a political science more compelling than either positivism or moral sentiment theory.