Hume's Anatomy of Virtue

In Daniel C. Russell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 92-123 (2013)
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In his Treatise of Human Nature Hume makes clear that it is his aim to make moral philosophy more scientific and properly grounded on experience and observation. The “experimental” approach to philosophy, Hume warns his readers, is “abstruse,” “abstract” and “speculative” in nature. It depends on careful and exact reasoning that foregoes the path of an “easy” philosophy, which relies on a more direct appeal to our passions and sentiments . Hume justifies this approach by way of an analogy concerning the relevance of anatomy to painting. “The anatomist,” he says, “ought never to emulate the painter.” At the same time, the painter cannot afford to ignore the anatomist: An anatomist [...] is admirably fitted to give advice to a painter ... We must have an exact knowledge of the parts, their situation and connexion, before we can design with any elegance or correctness. And thus the most abstruse speculations concerning human nature, however cold and uninteresting, become subservient to practical morality; and may render this latter science more correct in its precepts, and more persuasive in its exhortations. As these remarks suggest, Hume’s anatomy of virtue is not without its own practical aims and objectives. It is advanced with a view to identifying and carefully delineating the true foundations of morality in human nature and correcting our practices in light of this. With this improvement in our understanding of the nature and basis of virtue, we can better appreciate the way in which virtue secures happiness for ourselves and others and may also avoid the distortions and corruptions of morality by religious superstition.



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Paul Russell
Lund University

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