David Hume's Political Theory

David Hume's Political Theory: Law, Commerce and the Constitution of Government

NEIL McARTHUR
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442684263
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  • Book Info
    David Hume's Political Theory
    Book Description:

    David Hume's Political Theorybrings together Hume's diverse writings on law and government, collected and examined with a view to revealing the philosopher's coherent and persuasive theory of politics.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8426-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-15)

    This is a book about David Hume’s political theory. It asserts both this theory’s philosophical originality and its historical importance. Among all the early advocates for liberal, commercial society, Hume is arguably the most compelling. Unlike his predecessor Bernard Mandeville, he is not content to offer a picture of a society that is no more than a ‘grumbling hive’ of avaricious self-promoters. Instead, Hume holds up a positive vision of a society that is open, humane, cultured, sociable, and peaceful – in a word, civilized. Then, he argues that a particular form of government – one that is based on...

  6. 1 Hume’s Indissoluble Chain
    (pp. 16-36)

    In my introduction I cited Hume’s contention that a particular moral quality, humanity, is ‘the chief characteristic which distinguishes a civilized age from times of barbarity and ignorance,’ and that it is linked by an ‘indissoluble chain’ to knowledge and industry.¹ We may question how he can privilege these particular traits, given his seemingly sceptical and emotivist account of morality. If Hume thinks morality is merely a matter of sentiment – the best traits of character being those we affectively approve of on observing them in action – how can he tells us that we should approve of some rather...

  7. 2 Barbarous Government and the Perils of Discretion
    (pp. 37-56)

    In theTreatiseHume shows how we arrive at the basic social conditions governing society. People observe ‘that the principal disturbance in society arises from those goods, which we call external’ (i.e., those which we have acquired ‘by our industry and good fortune’), and ‘from their looseness and easy transition from one person to another.’¹ As a result, a set of conventions emerges to govern this transition. ‘The convention for the distinction of property,’ Hume says, ‘and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society.’²

    ‘It is well known,’ says...

  8. 3 General Laws and Civilized Government
    (pp. 57-81)

    If we study Hume’s reflections on the problem of law and government in his essays, his accounts of these exceptional monarchs, and (most fruitful of all) his analysis of the shortcomings of England’s laws through its history, we can extract from these texts a set of fairly specific criteria that characterize systems of general laws.

    I propose that, ideally for Hume, general laws have the following characteristics:

    1. They apply to everyone, including the magistrates themselves.

    2. They are rigid in their execution – dictating uniform treatment of offences and ensuring officials carry out their duties in the prescribed fashion.

    3. They are...

  9. 4 Luxury and the Ancient States
    (pp. 82-101)

    I have said that in identifying the civilizing process with increased levels of ‘luxury,’ Hume meant to be provocative. Luxury had few friends during the eighteenth century. Some of luxury’s most prominent opponents were Christian writers, and Hume certainly was aware of the Christian condemnation. Writing of England after the fall of Rome, he talks about the monks who ‘inveighed bitterly against the vices and pretended luxury of the age.’¹ He finds this ironic since the Britons were, during this era,

    a people so rude, who had not, without the assistance of the Romans, art of masonry sufficient to raise...

  10. 5 The Case of Britain
    (pp. 102-115)

    Hume spent many years studying and writing about the history of Britain. It is by far his most detailed case study, and not surprisingly, as he tells the story, it illustrates exactly the sort of reinforcing cycle of structural economic change and cultural development that he predicts most societies will follow. Hume thinks that, while it was far from perfect, Britain had become, by his day, the model of a civilized society. We have already seen that for Hume the ideal constitution balances the principle of liberty and authority. ‘In all governments,’ he says, ‘there is a perpetual intestine struggle,...

  11. 6 Hume’s Precautionary Conservatism
    (pp. 116-136)

    I now wish to take up in more detail the question with which I began: What sort of conservative is Hume? As we have already seen, Hume has often been taken to be a conservative, even ‘the first conservative,’ philosopher. And he undoubtedlyisa conservative of some kind. He says, for instance, in a passage I quote in full below (and try to place in context): ‘in the general distribution of power among the several members of a constitution, there can seldom be admitted any other question, thanWhat is established?’ And he says that, except under the rarest...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 137-144)

    ‘The differences of moral sentiment … are very obvious,’ Hume says in the secondEnquiry, ‘which proceed from general riches or poverty, union or faction, ignorance or learning.’¹ I have tried to explain why he thinks this is so and why this view plays a central role in his political philosophy as a whole. I have argued that, for Hume, differences in morals are not merely a matter of individual sentiment or judgment. Rather, the spread of humanity and good taste depends on the manners of the age and nation in which we live. We now see that these in...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 145-174)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 175-186)
  15. Index
    (pp. 187-193)