In order to address this question, I will first document just what it is that Hume identifies as a "virtue". Then I will explore the rationale that Hume employs to distinguish between the natural and artificial virtues. Only then can I outline the importance of this distinction within Hume's moral philosophy. I will conclude that he is indeed justified in drawing the distinction.
Hume's analysis of morality distinguishes between three distinct roles: the agent, the receiver, and the spectator. The moral agent is the person who performs an action. The receiver is any person affected by the action. The spectator is the person who approves or disapproves of the action.
"An action, or sentiment, or character is virtuous or vicious; why? because its view causes a pleasure or uneasiness of a particular kind." [T471]
"The hypothesis we embrace is plain. . .. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary." [E289]
Virtues and vices are features which belong to the agent and not the spectator. They are properties of the agent's motives, rather than the agent's actions. They are not passions in the agent, or the spectator.
"no action can be laudable or blameable, without some motives or impelling passions" (T483).
"If any action be either virtuous or vicious, 'tis only as a sign of some quality or character. It must depend upon durable principles of the mind, which extend over the whole conduct, and enter into the personal character. Actions themselves, not proceeding from any constant principle, have no influence on love or hatred, pride or humility; and consequently are never consider'd in morality." [T575]
The spectator's feelings of moral approval/disapproval arise only when the passions of love, hate, pride and humility are evoked. The agent's action alone cannot trigger passions in the spectator. It requires something "durable" within the agent: "this relation [to action] alone is too feeble and inconstant to be a foundation for these passions. It reaches not the sensible and thinking part, and neither proceeds from any thing durable in him, nor leaves any thing behind it; but passes in a moment, and is as if it had never been" (T 349). It follows, therefore, that moral approval or disapproval is of the agent's "durable" motives -- habits of character, or character traits. The character trait and not the action, is what warrants the label of a virtue or a vice.
"Thus, virtues are
(1) features of an agent, as opposed to those of a spectator,
(2) durable motives, as opposed to actions, and
(3) character traits, as opposed to passions."(1)
The virtues that Hume catalogues under the heading "artificial" includes justice, keeping promises, allegiance, and chastity. Under the heading of "natural" virtues fall benevolence, meekness, charity, and generosity. There is, however, considerable debate over the grounds that Hume employs to establish the distinction that he draws.
For example, Thomas Reid, in his Essays on the Active Powers of Man(2) commented that the natural virtues "are those natural affections of the human constitution which give immediate pleasure in their exercise." Whereas the artificial virtues "are such as are esteemed solely on account of their utility. . .." For Reid, Hume's natural virtues are those character traits which inspire sympathetic pleasure in the spectator, while the artificial virtues are merely useful (presumably, in the judgement of the spectator).
J.L.Mackie, in contrast, argues that "a natural virtue, for Hume, is a disposition which people both naturally have and naturally approve of, while an artificial one is a disposition for which neither of these holds."(3) Hence, for Mackie, Hume's natural virtues are those which naturally evoke a spectator's approval, whereas artificial virtues do not. However, in Book III of the Treatise, Hume frequently comments that the spectator's approval of artificial virtues is the same as that with the natural ones. For example: "Though justice be artificial, the sense of its morality [in the spectator] is natural." [T619] and "it [justice] is naturally attended with a strong sentiment of morals; which can proceed from nothing but our sympathy with the interests of society. We need no other explication of that esteem, which attends such of the natural virtues, as have a tendency to the public good" [T9]. Sympathy is the basis of approval for all virtues, both natural and artificial alike.
Ted Ponko, as another example, suggests that Hume employs an act/rule differentiation to distinguish between natural and artificial virtues.(4) For Hume's natural virtues, according to Ponko's argument, every act benefits (or is pleasurable to) an individual. Whereas for Hume's artificial virtues, the benefit comes only when they are adhered to as a rule. Ponko supports this reasoning with a quote from the Treatise:
"The only difference betwixt the natural virtues and justice lies in this, that the good, which results from the former, arises from every single act, and is the object of some natural passion: Whereas a single act of justice, consider'd in itself, may often be contrary to the public good; and 'tis only the concurrence of mankind, in a general scheme or system of action, which is advantageous." [T579]
However, in other passages, Hume also argues that rules of justice stem from passional interests which could not be natural and inartificial:
". . .if men pursu'd the publick interest naturally, and with a hearty affection, they wou'd never have dream'd of restraining each other by these rules; and if they pursu'd their own interest, without any precaution, they wou'd run head-long into every kind of injustice and violence. These rules, therefore, are artificial, and seek their end in an oblique and indirect manner; nor is the interest, which gives rise to them, of a kind that cou'd be pursu'd by the natural and inartificial passions of men. [T496]
Hume's emphasis here on the agent's natural pursuits and passional interests shows the significance for Hume of the agent's "durable" motives and consistent habits of character. Both Ken O'Day(5) and James Fieser(6) present arguments along this line wherein Hume's distinction between natural and artificial virtues focuses on the motives of the agent.
There appears to be little dispute that Hume believes that natural virtues are instinctive. This is seen in the Enquiry where he argues that justice is not instinctive and therefore not a natural virtue:
". . . the sentiment of justice is either derived from our reflecting on that tendency [of justice to promote public utility], or like hunger, thirst and other appetites, resentment, love of life, attachment to offspring, and other passions, arises from a simple original instinct in the human breast, which nature has implanted for like salutary purposes." [E201]
Hume, in this passage, lists both bodily appetites (hunger, thirst) and mental passions (resentment, love of life, attachment to offspring) as arising from simple instincts. Obviously, the first group originates from a bodily source, while the second originates from a mental source. According to Hume's psychology, bodily appetites involve impressions at the level of sensation, and at the level of reflection (or the passions). The mental passions, however, only involve impressions of reflection (or passions). In other words, the instinctive character traits of the natural virtues initiate instinctive mental passions which in turn motivate action.
The artificial virtues, then, are those character traits in an agent which bring about a spectator's moral approval but are not natural virtues. And since they are not instinctive, can only be intentions.
". . . 'tis evident, that the actions themselves are artificial, and are perform'd with a certain design and intention" [T475].
Intentions involve thinking in terms of design and forethought. And intentions are ideas of reason rather than ideas of sensations (perceptions). Hume explains that ideas of reason can excite a passion "by informing us of the existence of something which is a proper object of it [i.e. the passion]" [T 459]. Hume claims that for the artificial virtues our initial instinctive interests are "augmented by a new artifice, and that the public instructions of politicians, and the private education of parents, contribute to the giving us a sense of honour and duty in the strict regulation of our actions" [T533-534]. The artificial virtues hold out the prospect of pleasure because we are trained to expect it.
"The most basic cognitive point of difference between natural and artificial virtues is that artificial virtues are ideas of intention (design and forethought) whereas the natural virtues are neither ideas nor impressions but are instead … instinctive character traits. Further, natural and artificial virtues differ in how they produce actions. Natural virtues (as instinctive character traits) immediately produce passions which in turn motivate willful actions. Artificial virtues (as rational or fanciful intentions) hold out an artificially instilled prospect of pleasure or pain which evokes a passion; this, in turn motivates willful actions."(7)
The natural virtues are instinctive character traits (durable motives) in the moral agent. Hume adopts the position that any natural property appears the same in all nations and all ages [T281]. And he maintains that it is an empirical demonstration that the natural virtues are natural properties -- hence instinctive. For the natural virtues, the spectator's sensation (perception) of some durable qualities in the agent evokes the sympathetic ideas (of reflection) of pleasure or pain, which in turn directly stimulates the passions (in the spectator) of love or hate and the associated feelings of approbation or disapprobation.
The artificial virtues are those durable intentions (habits of character) in the moral agent that are not instinctive. For the artificial virtues, the spectator's sensation (perception) of some durable intentions in the agent indirectly stimulates the passions (in the spectator) of love or hate and the associated feelings of approbation or disapprobation. The stimulation is indirect because it depends not on the spectator's sympathetic idea of the pleasure or pain experienced by the agent, but on the spectator's trained expectation of pleasure and pain from the agent following the appropriate rules.
As can be seen from the foregoing discussion, the distinction that Hume draws between the natural and artificial virtues is a consequence of his moral theory, not a fundamental component of it. So its importance within Hume's moral theory derives from its causes, rather than anything inherent in the distinction itself. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the distinction is almost invisible in the Enquiry. Hume does not employ the terms "natural virtue" and "artificial virtue" in the Enquiry. (Although there is a short comment on the artificiality of justice in section 3 [E201-204].)
As a symptom rather than a cause, then, the distinction between the natural and artificial virtues is important for its role in focussing the attention of the audience on a number of key elements of Hume's theory of the psychology of motivation. Chief among these is the role of pleasure and pain in both the agent and the spectator as a motivator (to action in the agent, and to approbation or disapprobation in the spectator). Secondly is the role of empirical observation in the identification of which categories of "durable motives" are to be classed as natural virtues (because they show up the same way in all cultures and at all ages).
Aside from its role as consequent, the distinction play a pivotal role in Hume's later thinking on Politics and the proper organization and functioning of the State. Because he identifies as artificial (and hence reliant on education and training), the virtues of justice and allegiance, he can justify extensive interference by the State in the indoctrination of the population as to the proper pleasures and pains to expect from suitably just and allegiant behaviours. But that is a topic for political philosophy, not moral philosophy.
Given that the distinction is arguably a logical consequence rather than cause of his theories of psychology and ethics, it would seem that Hume is indeed properly justified in making it. If he had done anything else with the virtues, he would have properly been called to account on the grounds of logical inconsistency.
Ultimately, of course, Hume's distinction rests on the empirical observation that the virtues he classifies as natural are indeed instinctive character traits in the agent, and that those he classifies as artificial are dependent on the education and training of the agent. So far at least, it would appear that evolutionary psychology is demonstrating that Hume's choice of which virtues fall into which categories is more likely right than wrong. (Two possible exceptions might be promise keeping and meekness, which evolutionary psychology suggests may more appropriately be oppositely classified.)
On balance, then, it would appear that Hume is indeed justified in making the distinction.
(1) Fieser, James; "Hume's Motivational Distinction Between Natural and Artificial Virtues" in British Journal of the History of Philosophy, 1997, Vol 5, pp 373-388
(2) Reid, Thomas; "Essays on the active powers of man", in The Works of Thomas Reid, ed. William Hamilton, Maclachlan and Stewart, Edinburgh, Scotland. 1877, Vol. II, p. 652.
(3) Mackie, J.L.; Hume's Moral Theory, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, England, 1980, pg 76
(4) Ponko, Ted; "Artificial Virtue, Self-Interest and Acquired Social Concern" in Hume Studies, Vol. IX, Number 1, April 1983, 46-58.
(5) O'Day, Ken; "Hume's Distinction between the Natural and Artificial Virtues," in Hume Studies, 1994. Vol. 20, pp. 121-142.
(6) Fieser, James; "Hume's Motivational Distinction Between Natural and Artificial Virtues" in British Journal of the History of Philosophy, 1997, Vol 5, pp 373-388
(7) Fieser, James; "Hume's Motivational Distinction Between Natural and Artificial Virtues" in British Journal of the History of Philosophy, 1997, Vol 5, pp 373-388
Fieser, James; "Hume: Moral Theory", The Internet Encyclopedia
of Philosophy, URL=
Hume, David; A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. 1978. [pages of which are referred to in the text of the essay as "Tnnn"]
Hume, David; Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, Clarendon Press, Oxford, England 1975. [pages of which are referred to in the text of the essay as "Ennn"]
Hume, David; Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, Eugene Miller (ed.), Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana. 1985.
Morris, William Edward; "David Hume", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/hume/>.
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