Hume's genetic account of property is striking for its lack ofpatriarchal assumptions about the family, its explicit denial that thecreation of ownership does or can depend on any promise or contract,and its concept of convention as an informal practice of mutualcompromise for mutual advantage that arises incrementally and entirelyinformally, without the use of central authority or force.
Does this account resolve the circularity problem? Is there anynon-moral motive of honest action? Some interpreters say yes, it isgreed redirected, which removes the circle. But this presents twodifficulties: first, our greed is not in fact best satisfied by justaction in every case, and second, Hume denies that this motive isapproved. Some interpret Hume as coping with the first difficulty bysupposing that politicians and parents deceive us into thinking,falsely, that every individual just act advances the interests of theagent; or they claim that Hume himself mistakenly thought so, at leastin the Treatise (see Baron, Haakonssen, and Gauthier). Othersclaim that Hume identifies a non-moral motive of honest action (albeitan artificial one) other than redirected greed, such as a dispositionto treat the rules of justice as themselves reason-giving (Darwall) orhaving a policy of conforming to the rules of justice as a system(Garrett). Still others say there is no non-moral motive of honestaction, and Hume escapes from the circle by relaxing this ostensiblyuniversal requirement on virtuous types of behavior, limiting it tothe naturally virtuous kinds. These interpreters either claim thatthere is no particular motive needed to evoke approval for conformityto the rules of property — mere behavior is enough (Mackie)— or that we approve of a motivating form of the moral sentimentitself, the sense of duty (Cohon).
Hume argues that we create the rules of ownership of propertyoriginally in order to satisfy our avidity for possessions forourselves and our loved ones, by linking material goods more securelyto particular individuals so as to avoid conflict. Within small groupsof cooperators, individuals signal to one another a willingness toconform to a simple rule: to refrain from the material goods otherscome to possess by labor or good fortune, provided those others willobserve the same restraint toward them. (This rule will in time requiremore detail: specific rules determining who may enjoy which goodsinitially and how goods may be transferred.) This signalling is not apromise (which cannot occur without another, similar convention), butan expression of conditional intention. The usefulness of such a customis so obvious that others will soon catch on and express a similarintention, and the rest will fall in line. The convention developstacitly, as do conventions of language and money. When an individualwithin such a small society violates this rule, the others are aware ofit and exclude the offender from their cooperative activities. Once theconvention is in place, justice (of this sort) is defined as conformitywith the convention, injustice as violation of it; indeed, theconvention defines property rights, ownership, financial obligation,theft, and related concepts, which had no application before theconvention was introduced. So useful and obvious is this invention thathuman beings would not live for long in isolated family groups or influctuating larger groups with unstable possession of goods; theiringenuity would quickly enable them to invent property, so as to reapthe substantial economic benefits of cooperation in larger groups inwhich there would be reliable possession of the product, and they wouldthus better satisfy their powerful natural greed by regulating it withrules of justice.
A related but more metaphysical controversy would be stated thustoday: what is the source or foundation of moral norms? In Hume's daythis is the question what is the ground of moral obligation (asdistinct from what is the faculty for acquiring moral knowledge orbelief). Moral rationalists of the period such as Clarke (and in somemoods, Hobbes and Locke) argue that moral standards or principles arerequirements of reason — that is, that the very rationality ofright actions is the ground of our obligation to perform them. Divinevoluntarists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as SamuelPufendorf claim that moral obligation or requirement, if not every sortof moral standard, is the product of God's will. The moral sensetheorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirementsto pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature,which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness(whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides withthe moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are thekinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain andpleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that makeup our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, thatwe are bound by moral requirements at all.
Hume, David: Causation | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Hume's predecessors famously took opposing positions on whether humannature was essentially selfish or benevolent, some arguing that manwas so dominated by self-interested motives that for moralrequirements to govern us at all they must serve our interests in someway, and others arguing that uncorrupted human beings naturally careabout the weal and woe of others and here morality gets its hold. Humeroundly criticizes Hobbes for his insistence on psychological egoismor something close to it, and for his dismal, violent picture of astate of nature. Yet Hume resists the view of Hutcheson that all moralprinciples can be reduced to our benevolence, in part because hedoubts that benevolence can sufficiently overcome our perfectly normalacquisitiveness. According to Hume's observation, we are both selfishand humane. We possess greed, and also “limitedgenerosity” — dispositions to kindness and liberalitywhich are more powerfully directed toward kin and friends and lessaroused by strangers. While for Hume the condition of humankind in theabsence of organized society is not a war of all against all, neitheris it the law-governed and highly cooperative domain imagined byLocke. It is a hypothetical condition in which we would care for ourfriends and cooperate with them, but in which self-interest andpreference for friends over strangers would make any wider cooperationimpossible. Hume's empirically-based thesis that we are fundamentallyloving, parochial, and also selfish creatures underlies his politicalphilosophy.
SparkNotes: David Hume (1711–1776): Context
Interpreters disagree as to whether Hume is an instrumentalist or askeptic about practical reason. Either way, Hume denies that reasoncan evaluate the ends people set themselves; only passions can selectends, and reason cannot evaluate passions. Instrumentalistsunderstand the claim that reason is the slave of the passions to allowthat reason not only discovers the causally efficacious means to ourends (a task of theoretical causal reasoning) but also requires us totake them. If Hume regards the failure to take the known means toone's end as contrary to reason, then on Hume's view reason has agenuinely practical aspect; it can indeed classify some actions asunreasonable. Skeptical interpreters read Hume, instead, as denyingthat reason imposes any requirements on action, even the requirementto take the known, available means to one's end. They point to thelist of extreme actions that are not contrary to reason (such aspreferring one's own lesser good to one's greater), and to theRepresentation Argument, which denies that any passions, volitions, oractions are of such a nature as to be contrary to reason. Hume neversays explicitly that failing to take the known means to one's end iseither contrary to reason or not contrary to reason (it is not one ofthe extreme cases in his list). The classificatory point in theRepresentation Argument favors the reading of Hume as a skeptic aboutpractical reason; but that argument is absent from the moralEnquiry.
In his political essays Hume certainly advocates the ..
Hume claims that moraldistinctions are not derived from reason but rather fromsentiment. His rejection of ethical rationalism is at leasttwo-fold. Moral rationalists tend to say, first, that moral propertiesare discovered by reason, and also that what is morally good is in accordwith reason (even that goodness consists in reasonableness) and what is morallyevil is unreasonable. Hume rejects both theses. Some of his argumentsare directed to one and some to the other thesis, butambiguities in the text make it unclear which he means to attack incertain places.