Hume on Justice and the Other Artificial Virtues



Book 3, Part 2, Section 1:  Natural vs. Artificial Virtue


For Hume, why is the judgment that an act is virtuous really a judgment about the motive?


A Potential Circularity of Motive and Judgment: 


 “To suppose, that the mere regard to the virtue of the action, may be the first motive, which produc’d the action, and render’d it virtuous, is to reason in a circle.” (T

For Hume, why does the original motive for a virtuous act have to be something other than the desire to be virtuous? 


What example does Hume use to illustrate his solution to the potential circularity?  Is it persuasive?



What is the original motive for just actions?


Not public interest.  Why not?


Not private benevolence.  Why not?


Solution:  Not a natural motive, but an artificial one, based on education and human conventions.



Section 2:  The Circumstances of Justice


What are the three kinds of goods?   Which one is the basis for the virtue of justice? 


What is the problem that justice is the solution to?


Why does the solution depend on conventions?


What is the motive for acting in accordance with the conventions of justice?





















Hume’s Three Collective Action Problems



(1) Languages as conventions.  The first collective action problem.


(2) The two rowers.  The iterated two-person prisoners' dilemma.


(3) Respect for property rights.  An n-person prisoners' dilemma.  Property rights are conventional, not natural.


What is the motivation that, according to Hume, produces solutions to all three CAPs?


Will self-interest yield the results Hume claims in all three cases?


The free rider problem in the n-person prisoners’ dilemma.

















                                             Everyone else   



Speaks English






I Speak English









I Speak French









Matrix 1.  In a convention game, if I know that everyone else speaks English, self-interest alone will motivate me to speak English.  No promise is necessary.
















                                             The Other Person      









I Cooperate



+3, +3



+1, +4



I Defect (D)


+4, +1


+2, +2



Matrix 2.  In a one-shot PD, self-interest alone will not motivate cooperation.  However, in an iterated PD, mutual conditional cooperation is a rational solution. 



















                                             Everyone else   









I Cooperate









I Defect (D)









Matrix 3.  In a one-shot n-person PD, self-interest will not motivate cooperation.  Even in the iterated n-person PD, self-interest is unlikely to motivate cooperation.  Effective sanctioning of defectors is almost always necessary to make cooperation rational.









Why is justice a virtue?  “Why [do] we annex the idea of virtue to justice, and of vice to injustice?” (T


When our interests are not involved, our response is based on what is good for society (“sympathy with public interest” T 


Question for Hume:  Why can’t reason discern the following relation of ideas:  Justice is acting in accordance with conventions that promote the good of society (or that solve CAPs)?


Hume’s challenge:  reason can’t motivate.


Response:  Why can’t reason determine that pain is objectively bad and motivate one to try to alleviate it (no matter whose pain it is)?
















Section 3:  The Arbitrariness of the Rules Determining Original Property


        The need is for general rules.  Almost any set of rules would be acceptable.  The rules are the product not of Reason, but of by the imagination, “the most frivolous properties of our thought and conception” (note 71, p. 323).


When we look at the actual rules of original acquisition, we find that they are arbitrary and not based on any intelligible principles.


The five sources of primitive acquisition: 


Present possession when property rights are first established;


Occupation = first possession;


Prescription = long possession (not typically first);


Accession = e.g., fruits of our garden;

Interesting example:  ownership of bays but not oceans.


Succession = On the death of the owner, possessions pass to those who are dearest to the owner.


Why are these five sources largely arbitrary?



Section 4:  Transfer of property by Consent


The remedy to the arbitrariness of the rules of primitive acquisition.






Section 5:  Promises


        Why does Hume think the obligation to keep one’s promise is conventional not natural?


        Promise-keeping (performing on a contract) is a Collective Action Problem.  What kind?


        The example of the surgeon and the robber.














Section 6:  More Proof of the Artificiality, or Conventionality, of the Three Fundamental Rules of Justice:  "stability of possession, transference by consent, and the performance of promises" (T








Section 7:  The Origin of Government


        Governments punish those who violate the conventions of justice.  Why, on Hume's account, are systems of punishment necessary to enforce those conventions?  How can they be established?


Men “cannot change their natures.  All they can do is to change their situation.” (T 3.2.7. 6)


Is his account correct?  Hume did not recognize the logic of a collective action problem, so he did not recognize the possibility of free riding.


        Enforcing the rules of justice solves a collective action problem.  What else can governments do?  Solve other collective action problems.