david hume on moral judgement (2008)

What, according to Hume, makes a judgement moral?

Humans inevitably come across stimulus that they have to respond to. We make judgements on the world around us. Concerning moral decisions, unless we have put considerable effort beforehand to consciously be moral, moral decisions seem to be separate from our everyday experience. We encounter life, we come across problems, we solve them the best we can. But what is the best decision? Is the best decision always the moral decision? What is the value of making a moral judgement?

The 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume talked considerably about this. In his book A Treatise of Human Nature, he first outlines the complications of choosing the moral decision:

“Were every single instance of justice, like that of benevolence, useful to society; this would be a more simple state of the case….. and as the advantage to society results only from the observance of the general rule…. the case here becomes more intricate and involved.”                                                           “

                        “Hume, [1], Appendix 1, Paragraph 2.”

Hume first recognises an important point: a moral decision is not always clear cut. There are always multiple perspectives to consider. Hume says that when faced with a moral judgement, firstly our reason reacts, instructing us to decide a certain way, and it is humanity that judges the action right or wrong, in favour of the most useful or beneficial action:

reason instructs us in the several tendencies of actions, and humanity makes a distinction in favour of those which are useful and beneficial.”

                        “Hume, [1], Appendix Paragraph 3.”

And so from this, we can understand Hume’s perspective of moral judgement. A judgement is moral if it is benefit to humanity. It is this pragmatic principle that assesses the right or wrongness of a judgement. Without this principle, judgements would neither be immoral or moral.

“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.”

                        “Hume, [2], Book III, Part III, Section I, Paragraph 4.

Hume gives us examples of the useful position. He looks at calling something beautiful, like the strength of a horse, fertility of a field, security of a vessel. The reason why, according to Hume, they would be called beautiful, is because they fulfil the requirements to produce a certain desired effect.

“Here the object, which is denominated beautiful, pleases only by its tendency to produce a certain effect. That effect is the pleasure or advantage of some other person.”

                        “Hume, [2], Book III, Part III, Section I, Paragraph 8.

But when it is not an object that we know of, but rather a stranger: another person, then one does not judge out of our desired pleasurable effect, but our sympathy towards the other person. By knowing they have the ability to feel like us, we recognise the most effective outcome would be to produce an end that is agreeable, and thus employ sympathy as a tool for making a moral judgement.

Hume says it is this sympathy that increases the moral judgement to extend to that of all mankind. Decisions based on a person’s sympathy for the other person. Consequently, by making a decision based on sympathy, a person sees outside himself:

“to give us the same pleasure or uneasiness in the characters of others, as if they had a tendency to our own advantage or loss.”

“Hume, [2], Book III, Part III, Section I, Paragraph 12.”

A judgement being moral if other people are being taken into account. An altruistic perspective of deciding for knowing that another person has the potential to experience pleasure from the outcome.  

Stepping away from Hume’s thought for a moment, we should here examine other alternative ethical theories of conduct in comparison to Hume.

According to egoism, the line of thinking adopted by the Epicureans, we should live a life of contemplation, and not interfere with the world, and not make close relationships with people, because in the long run they will make us unhappy.

“According to ancient Epicureans…we should…not interfere with the affairs of the world…or even form close relationships…because in the long run we will be rendered unhappy.”

“Hospers, [3], p. 257.”

Is this a moral judgement? Are the Epicureans talking from a self point of view, are they only interested in keeping myself, the individual; happy, or the collective happiness of everybody? For everyone to live by the Epicurean code of conduct, we would all have to be detached from each other.

Hume says we use sympathy when dealing with a judgement that involves others. Is egoism an extreme extension of Hume’s sympathy? In that we should not cause pain to the other person, and so hence we should just have no dealings with them?

The Epicurean approach seems unique in that it ignores any short term pleasure in favour for a long term outlook of no unhappiness.

In the scripture of Jesus, we are told to “love thy neighbour as thyself.”

[4], Leviticus 19:18.”

And thus, make moral judgements not only to satisfy oneself, but for your neighbour as well. By neighbour, we can interpret as meaning every other human that exists. We should therefore parallel the decisions we make for ourselves in a similar fashion to that of a decision that involves another person. This is because, according to the Bible, we love ourselves and so should put this love equally on other people.

Hume would attest to this, if a person chooses the right judgement to himself, he should equally know how to choose the right judgement to better society. Jesus’ dictum seems to be self-sacrificing, do to them the same you do to you. It feels to be going against the natural tendency of putting oneself above others. Whereas it seems Hume’s stance is more of “find yourself and your virtues, and use them to help benefit society.”

Overall, it seems Hume’s line of thinking on moral judgements seems highly effective. It recognises that reason instructs us to do things, and when people are put into the picture, we have to take note and act accordingly. Hume’s thinking is not an egoist, purely self-abiding movement; it recognises the importance of other people.

Hume seems to fail at however, the level and extent of such moral decisions. Judging the right decision based on abstract levels of pain and pleasure may be a hard thing to fully and accurately apply in life. Such an example may be working in a small group, giving a high level of pleasure and attention to the group, thus highly benefiting only a small number of people. Or working in a larger group, not placing so much attention to each individual: benefiting more people but not to a greater depth. Hume does not discuss issues of numbers, specifics of pain and pleasure in accordance with a moral decision, but rather a general term of just “Sympathy interests us in the good of mankind.”

“Hume, [2], Book III, Part III, Section I, Paragraph 18.


[1] David Hume                      An Enquiry into principles of morals, eBooks@Adelaide, University of Adelaide, 2006.

[2] David Hume                      A Treatise of Human Nature, free publication,

[3] John Hospers                     An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, Routledge, 1997

[4] -                                         The Bible