Does Hume think that it is always in one's interest to be virtuous?

The brief answer is "No!"  But in order to explain that answer I will first have to document just what it is that Hume identifies as a "virtue" and consequently what it is Hume believes constitutes acting virtuously.  Then I will have to document the distinction that Hume draws between the "natural" and the "artificial" virtues, since it will turn out that different answers to the title question will derive from the different categories of virtues.

What are virtues in Hume's terminology?

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.  Although he separates these three moral roles, he does allow that all three roles may be embodied within the same individual.

"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" (T349).  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)

What is Hume's distinction between the natural and the artificial virtues?

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.

Both Ken O'Day(2) and James Fieser(3) present arguments to the effect that Hume's distinction between natural and artificial virtues focuses on the motives of the agent, and not on the moral evaluation of the spectator.

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.  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.  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 (ie. instinctive) virtues.  And since they are not instinctive, they 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]" [T459].  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."(3)

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, therefore, 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.

What is the importance of this distinction?

It is Hume's psychological theory that our emotions, feelings, and desires (what he calls "passions") are original, vivid and lively perceptions and not copies of perceptions (what he calls "ideas").  Those emotional reactions that "arise immediately from good or evil, from pain or pleasure" that we actively experience [Treatise] or think about in prospect [Treatise] he refers to as "direct passions" and include desire (for pleasure), aversion (of pain), hope, fear, grief, and joy.  He includes here the desire that good comes to those we love and harm to those we hate, even though they do not proceed from pain and pleasure but produce them [Treatise].  What he calls the "indirect passions" (pride, humility, shame, love, hatred) he describes as being generated in a second-hand way (by way of our direct passion of sympathy with the thought or experience of pain or pleasure in others).  So it is the experience of pleasure or pain, or the expectation of pleasure or pain that is the foundation upon which our preferences and motivations (our "desires") are based.

Hume argues that all motivation depends upon theses desires.  No action can be motivated solely by belief.  Regardless of what beliefs we may hold, we are not motivated to act unless we have some kind of desire for the consequences of the action.  Since Hume then reasons that because moral values are inherently motivating, moral values can not be just beliefs.  Virtuous actions must therefore be motivated by desires.  In his exploration of the psychology of motivation, Hume does not distinguish between specifically moral desires and other non-moral desires.  It is rather later, when he discusses the basis of moral reactions in the spectator and the role of the passion of sympathy that Hume marks the distinction.  Virtuous actions therefore derive from our (sometimes sympathetically) inspired desire for pleasure (or the avoidance of pain). 

We can therefore adopt the premise that for Hume, the notion of "one's interest" would be understood to mean whatever it might be that aids and abets the agent's pursuit of the desire for pleasure (or the avoidance of pain).  In other words, for the purposes of evaluating the essay's title question, we must treat the role of the spectator who judges whether an action is virtuous as combined with the role of the agent who judges whether the action is motivational ("in one's interest" = "aids and abets the agent's pursuit of the desire for pleasure").  In terms of Hume's three-fold segregation of moral roles, and his psychological theories of motivation, the essay's title question must be interpreted as asking "Does Hume think that acting virtuously always aids and abets the agent's pursuit of the desire for pleasure?"

For the natural virtues, then, since they are instinctive character traits in the agent, we can recognize that any virtuous action by an agent would necessarily be in the agent's interest.  A (naturally) virtuous action would be one that the agent/spectator acknowledges as aiding and abetting the agent's pursuit of the desire for pleasure -- and is therefore motivating.  And is at the same time, in the agent/spectator's judgement, symptomatic of the agent's "durable" motives and consistent habits of character.

For the artificial virtues, however, the situation is different.  The agent's motivation for (artificially) virtuous action depends not on the agent/spectator's sympathetic idea of the pleasure or pain experienced by the agent, but on the spectator's trained expectation from the agent following the appropriate rules.  Since such moral training is artificially constructed, it opens the very real potential for virtuous actions (whose motivations are by definition consistent with the trained expectations) to be inconsistent with what actually does (or might) aid and abet the agent's pursuit of the desire for pleasure. 

Hume was very cognizant of this gap between "virtuous action" "one's (immediate) interest".  One has to stipulate "immediate" interest here to make it clear that one is referring to the passions that motivate rather than the reason that judges.  Reason can judge that the longer term interests of the agent might be best honoured by actions not immediately desirable.  But virtuous actions are, by definition, motivated actions.  And motivations are the province of the passions and not of reason.  Hence, in the case of the artificial virtue of Justice, for example, Hume can say -

"From all this it follows, that we naturally have no real or universal motive for observing the laws of equity, but the very equity and merit of that observance; and as no action can be equitable or meritorious, where it cannot arise form some separate motive, there is here an evident sophistry and reasoning in a circle. Unless, therefore, we will allow, that nature has establish'd a sophistry, and render'd it necessary and unavoidable, we must allow, that the sense of justice and injustice is not deriv'd from nature, but arises artificially, tho' necessarily from education, and human conventions." [T]

Thus, the brief answer provided at the start.  According to his theories of psychological motivation and moral (virtuous) evaluation, when it comes to the artificial virtues, Hume does not think that it is necessarily always in one's immediate interest to be virtuous. 


Notes & References

(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)  O'Day, Ken; "Hume's Distinction between the Natural and Artificial Virtues," in Hume Studies, 1994. Vol. 20, pp. 121-142.

(3)  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=, downloaded June, 2010.

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=<>.

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