Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy

Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy

John B. Stewart
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 340
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    Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy
    Book Description:

    "The picture of Hume clinging timidly to a raft of custom and artifice, because, poor skeptic, he has no alternative, is wrong," writes John Stewart. "Hume was confident that by experience and reflection philosophers can achieve true principles." In this revisionary work Stewart surveys all of David Hume's major writings to reveal him as a liberal moral and political philosopher. Against the background of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century history and thought, Hume emerges as a proponent not of conservatism but of reform. Stewart first presents the dilemma over morals in the modern natural-law school, then examines the new approach to moral and political philosophy adopted by Hume's precursors Shaftesbury, Mandeville, Hutcheson, and Butler. Illuminating Hume's explanation of the standards and rules that should govern private and public life, the author challenges interpretations of Hume's philosophy as conservative by demonstrating that he did not dismiss reason as a key factor determining right and wrong in moral and political contexts. Stewart goes on to show that Hume viewed private property, the market, contracts, and the rule of law as essential to genuine civilized society, and explores Hume's criticism of contemporary British beliefs concerning government, religion, commerce, international relations, and social structure.

    Originally published in 1992.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6285-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-12)

    About ten years ago I began to write a few chapters on the politics of Adam Smith. Almost immediately I saw that to prepare myself I would have to revive, and perhaps correct, my knowledge of Hume, on whose moral and political philosophy I had published a book in 1963. Soon my plan changed so that what I had in prospect was two short volumes: one on Hume, the other on Smith. I had in mind an account that showed these two North Britons analyzing the needs of their times and prescribing for them; it was to be lucid and...

    (pp. 13-46)

    During David Hume’s formative years, Scotland was making a troubled new beginning. The union with England, from which so much had been hoped, seemed to have paid off badly. Scotland had given up her independence. What had she gained in return? Besides, by uniting with England, Scotland had accepted the Act of Settlement, enacted by the English Parliament in 1701, appointing the Hanoverians as Anne’s successors. Did not the ancient Scottish royal family, the Stuarts, have rights not lightly to be set aside? Yet another cause of division was religion. In 1690 the Scottish Parliament had sought to end the...

    (pp. 47-108)

    In his political tract,The Second Treatise of Government,John Locke rejects Hobbes’s view of man’s condition without government as strife-riven and amoral. In the state of nature, human beings already had rules; they lived, not as isolated individuals, but in society with established moral rights and duties. Thus Locke provided a stable base for both a house of representatives elected by “the people” and for a right to dismiss bad governors. But in another work,An Essay concerning Human Understanding,a work in which he carried no partisan brief, Locke dismisses the notion of innate ideas. Does this dismissal...

    (pp. 109-151)

    People generally conduct themselves, both privately and publicly, according to rules and standards of morality. Ordinarily they do what is regarded as right; misconduct, although not infrequent, is not usual. What, Hume asks, is the origin of these rules and standards, and why are they observed? He is not prepared to treat them as laws of Allah or any other god, or as the commands of lieutenants to whom a deity has delegated legislative authority; as St. Paul saw, even Gentiles often practice sound morality. Are they then, perhaps, laws of reason, as Grotius and Clarke said? To lay the...

    (pp. 152-193)

    Man by his nature and circumstances is a social animal. From this it follows, Hume submits, that rules of conduct are required; without such rules, society would be impossible by reason of conflict and strife. Lacking divine omniscience and benevolence, people need the guidance of generally accepted rules, whether they are rowing boats, playing games, passing on the road, walking in procession, selecting kings, appropriating land and houses, or engaging in conversation. Even when killing each other, they resort to rules: those who break the rules of war or dueling are held in contempt (E., 210–11). These rules are...

    (pp. 194-223)

    Is deliberate social and political reform, the reform of the institutions, laws, maxims, and practices of a society possible according to Hume? The answer most scholars give seems to be, “No; given his skepticism about reason and his consequent dependence on experience, Hume has no escape from conservatism; his philosophy requires that men rely on prevailing beliefs and customs.”¹ I disagree. Hume finds that people are of many different kinds—landowners and merchants, priests and soldiers, nobles and commoners—but by far his most important distinction is between those who have achieved true principles and all the others. The unreflective...

    (pp. 224-318)

    Once theTreatisehad been completed, Hume began writing as a “politician”; he changed his focus, narrowing it down from general moral philosophy to a different set of questions, to those economic and political questions most relevant to himself as a Scot living in eighteenth-century Britain.¹ Civil society has its principles and dynamics, but because just and lawful conduct is artificial, civil society is realized only through advances in knowledge. This means that “politicians,” who can do little or nothing to improve the family, the friendship, and the like, may be able to improve the polity and economy. They can,...

  12. INDEX
    (pp. 319-325)