Hume on Monkish Virtues

Hume Studies 25 (1):139-153 (1999)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Hume Studies Volume XXV, Numbers 1 and 2, April/November 1999, pp. 139-153 Hume on Monkish Virtues WILLIAM DAVIE In the second Enquiry1 Hume denounces the "monkish virtues," saying that men of sense will regard them as vices because they "cross all... desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper" (EPM 270). He includes under this heading, "Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude." No doubt Hume's stance regarding the "monkish virtues" does fit into a particular vision of the desirable life, but it may be questioned whether it fits his philosophy with full consistency. In this paper, I will argue that Hume's explicit formula for identifying virtues fails to justify his rejection of the monkish virtues if it is followed without prejudice. I. Identifying Virtues Our whole comprehension of virtue, and our competence to identify it in any community, ultimately derives from our perception of virtue in particular instances. The edifice of morality reaches into the thin air of abstractions and general rules, but it does not begin there and it is always grounded in the concrete experience of human individuals. In the most basic case, what we perceive is not (say) the trait of kindness as embodied in George.2 We rather perceive the whole phenomenon of George in his particular situation. We pick up information about the person and the surroundings, including bits about motivation, moods, temptations, complications of all sorts, plus the general William Davie is an associate professor at the Department of Philosophy, 1295 University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-1295, USA. e-mail: [email protected] 140 William Davie background understanding we have of human nature. We ascertain whether the man's character is useful or agreeable, for himself or others. All this is needed to "pave the way" for the activation of moral sentiment. Then we get an impression (not an idea) of the man's virtue; we feel the warm glow of George's kindness on this particular occasion. How does language figure in our experience of moral differences? We know that as any individual's time on earth mounts up, and as one gains a few years of experience, he or she will gradually acquire abstract ideas and the words which signify them. Here in brief is Hume's account of the formation process (T 17-25). The first order of business is to notice a resemblance among certain objects of experience; we apply the same word to all of them. Thus, we would gather indefinitely many instances in which the word 'kind' is applied to something, or where somebody speaks of 'kindness.' The word becomes associated with a certain custom, or habit of mind, which custom is evoked whenever we hear or speak that word, or at least whenever the word is used wrongly. In that event, the custom fires up some relevant counterexamples for our attention. If somebody asserts, "True kindness is always well-planned and fully reflective," our mind instantly lights upon cases of spontaneous or impulsive kindness. If we should overhear, "She is a very kind person, so people don't like her," we know that something is amiss. Our competence in handling abstract ideas clearly underwrites the catalog that Hume confidently envisions at the start of his second Enquiry. We can make two lists, one for virtues and one for vices. In this process, Hume thinks, "The very nature of language guides us almost infallibly" (EPM 174). We can easily appreciate why it should be so. Our moral epithets are mounted on items of direct perception. Our understanding of a particular word is really a custom of associating certain elements of our own experience. He offers some concrete guides, each of which can be used from one's armchair : 1. A philosopher can "enter into his own breast" for a moment, and consider whether or not he should desire to have this or that quality ascribed to him. 2. He can consider whether the attribution of a particular quality to him would come from a friend or an enemy. 3. He can consider whether a quality, if ascribed to any person, "implies...



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