Philosopher David Hume on Why Utility Pleases Summary

SECTION V: why Utility pleases


172-77. As a building with a square door does not suit the human figure, so social virtues are praised for their utility. A man whose conduct brings hurt to society cannot expect to receive approval. It is only the difficulty of evaluating the usefulness of effects that has kept philosophers from including social virtues into their ethical systems. But this does not justify their rejection. Even nature and experience oppose selfishness. We praise the virtuous acts of even ancient and distant people and the noble deeds of an enemy even if their consequences violate our own personal interests. &What is that to me?& This question brings ridicule to every conversation concerning virtue. For it is not merely our own need that determines usefulness.

Part II

178-81. The utility of private interest may at times be even contrary to public interest, but self-love cannot be the principle of every moral sentiment. Even the interests of society for its happiness recommend itself to our good-will. A person in total solitude loses much enjoyment. And if we are affected with compassion for the suffering of others, then we cannot be indifferent to its causes. We enjoy visiting a pleasing home and receiving the humane treatment of its occupier. He relates the countenance of his family and we listen with joy. He tells me about his oppressive neighbour and I am immediately indignant and struck with horror.

Wherever we find it, the happiness and misery of others bring us pleasure and dis-ease. In the theatre we sense common amusement. Actors bring pleasure in public that they do not command in private. The spectators weep, tremble and rejoice with him. Poetry brings to us the same reactions. Our enjoyment of reading history likewise depends upon our reactions. And who is untouched when learning about a tyrant?

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182-86. We experience public attachments as being superior to self-love. Can we evaluate character and action other than by the happiness or misery they bring to society? Anyone who is unaffected by feelings of happiness will be indifferent to the image of virtue. But is there one who would as soon tramp on a friend's gouty toes as on the pavement? We may give higher regard to a good statesman of our country than to one of another, but that is only because the impression on our senses is greater and less obscure. [So we move to a closer distance to better experience the beauty of a rose that is far away.] Our sympathy for others is more faint than our concern for ourselves. Small benefit brought to us may bring greater sentiment to us than a larger benefit done to another. We can correct this inequality by reflection by the standard of usefulness. In our calm judgments the difference is learned and our sentiments are more social. Standards of approval provide discourse for companionships, pulpits and theatres.

At a distance virtue is, like a fixed star, without light or heat. But bring it near and, as with our relationship with people, our senses are enlivened.

187-90. Through our daily experience and observation we must conclude à priori that we cannot be totally indifferent to the well-being of others and not also of ourselves. And if we look at the consequences we conclude à posteriori that utility is the sole source of the high regard paid to justice, fidelity, honour, allegiance, and chastity and other social virtues such as humanity, generosity, charity, and mercy. Everything, which promotes the interests of society, brings pleasure.

Philosopher David Hume on Why Utility Pleases Summary

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