Philosopher David Hume on Justice Summary

SECTION III: on Justice

145. Public utility is the sole origin of justice.

What if nature had provided abundantly for all the needs and desires of humanity and no labour was required for anyone? In this situation justice would not even have been thought of for there would have been no need to divide and allocate property because one's supply would already have exceeded his needs. In such a situation ownership is superfluous, to call this mine and that yours is irrelevant, and justice is useless. One cannot commit injustice by taking too much air at the expense of others, for it is never at the expense of others. A fertile country with few inhabitants is in the same situation. The open seas make redundant the issue of justice in allocating space there.

146-47. Or consider a country with limited resources but with magnanimous minds making acts of friendship and generosity the norm. No one is more concerned for his needs than for those of others. Here, the use of justice would be suspended. Binding contracts would not be needed; nor would boundary lines between properties, for there would be no division in the interests and therefore no need for ownership. The human race would be one family without distinction between the welfare of others and the welfare of oneself. One can already find divisions of possessions abolished by law in marriage. And one can observe attempts at community ownership. But all of this suggests that the virtue of justice gains its existence only from it being needed for the use of society.

For more evidence of this truth consider the opposite extreme: consider a society of such total lack of necessities that the greatest industry with the utmost frugality cannot keep all from misery and most from death. In such a situation the need for self-preservation would suspend the laws of justice. In a shipwreck, what passenger would be considered a thief for taking any property to save his own life? In a besieged city famine waves the rules of equity and justice. The purpose of justice is to provide happiness, security and civil order; but in a perishing society, injustice is not a greater evil than death. So granaries are forced open without consent being needed.

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148-53. A virtuous man uses whatever means at his disposal to preserve his life when attacked by ruffians, and his regard for justice is replaced by his need for defence and security.

A man commits a crime and society punishes him by removing laws protecting his ownership of property [fine] or his freedom [imprisonment] for the benefit of society, himself suffering what otherwise would be considered wrong and unjust.

Countries at war suspend justice between each other because this virtue is no longer of use to them, offering no advantage.

Thus, justice depends upon its utility. Change the human situation, produce extreme abundance or poverty, or provide a perfect humanity, or a perfectly evil humanity, and justice becomes useless and its obligation is removed.

And were each human being totally self-sufficient and isolated from any possibility of social involvement and there were no need for him to depend upon or to love anyone but himself: such a solitary being would be incapable of being just for justice would serve no purpose. But suppose a family arose, but without further contact; there would be no larger circle of justice than that needed. Suppose contact was limited to several families in one community, equally limited would be the rules of justice. Enlarge the circle further, only then would the rules of justice have greater boundaries.

Part II

154-56. We examine the particular laws directing justice and determining property and we reach the same conclusion: the only objective is the good of society. Religious fanatics favouring possession for their kind, we learn from history, have had to be put into the same category as robbers by just magistrates. Perfect equality is seen as pernicious to human society because the differing degrees of art, care and industry break that equality. Whatever a person produces should be preserved for him to give encouragement to his useful habits and for the same reason it should be passed on to his children and relations: for the same useful purpose.

157-60. The safety of the people is the supreme law. Other particular laws must be appropriate to the government, climate, religion and commerce of each society.

Superstition is easy to expose: what is lawful food for one person to eat on a Friday in one house, is a sin for another living a hundred paces away. A building was profane yesterday; today, with the muttering of a few words, it has become sacred. But there is a difference between superstition and justice: the former is useless, the latter is useful. I may lawfully eat from this tree; but ten paces away is another that it is criminal to touch. Were this house placed on my neighbour's ground, it would be wrong for me to live in it. Rules regulating property are absolutely necessary for the well-being of mankind. But remove the interests of society, and ownership rights would be reduced to forms of superstition.

For the same reason of utility we delineate the boundaries that determine the jurisdiction of the authority of kings and senates and judges and juries. Political and legal institutions arise merely from the needs of human society.

161-63. All birds of like species in every age and place have built their nests alike: by instinct. All people in different times and places have built their houses differently: by reason and custom. All houses have a roof, walls and windows -- diverse in shape, figure and materials -- but still due to reason and reflection applied to usefulness.

Usefulness is the source of a considerable part of the merit ascribed to humanity, benevolence, friendship, public spirit and other social virtues. It is the sole source of the moral evaluation of fidelity, justice, truthfulness, integrity and other useful qualities and principles. And the force of any principle in one instance has the same force in all similar instances. This was Newton's chief rule of philosophising.

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