David Hume's Philosophy of Morality, Politics, and Religion


David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, historian, and essayist whose writings continue to profoundly influence fields like ethics, political theory, and the philosophy of religion. Hume's staunch commitment to naturalism permeated his approach to these domains, shaping his critical stance towards traditional sources of authority in these areas.

The Limits of Reason and the "Is-Ought" Problem

A core aspect of Hume's naturalism involved a sharp distinction between descriptive statements of fact ("is") and prescriptive moral statements ("ought"). He argued that moral values cannot be logically derived from reason or observation of the natural world. This commitment to the "is-ought" problem posed a significant challenge to Enlightenment-era philosophies that attempted to derive moral principles from rational deductions.

Morality, Sentiment, and Self-Interest

Hume replaced reason with human sentiment as the source of morality. He believed that moral judgments arise from feelings of approval or disapproval. Importantly, Hume recognized that motives, rather than reason, were central to morality. Our tendency towards self-interest often conflicts with moral duties, highlighting the complex nature of moral psychology.

Justice, Government, and the Social Contract

Hume viewed justice not as a natural virtue but as a societal construct driven by the necessity of social order. He rejected the idea of governments founded on a social contract with universal moral justification. Instead, Hume believed governments arose from a recognition that they best serve people's long-term interests by providing stability and protection of property rights.

Hume's Critique of Religion

Hume was a forceful critic of both Christianity and Deism (a belief in a creator God based on reason rather than revelation). He argued that faith and religious belief stemmed from fear and ignorance, not rationally supportable grounds. Hume maintained that the natural world is best understood through careful observation and experiment, a view directly at odds with a theological worldview reliant on "fancy and hypothesis."

Influence and Legacy

Hume's views on morality, politics, and religion, rooted in his unwavering naturalism, were significantly controversial in his day. Nonetheless, his influence is undeniable. His rejection of rationalist ethics paved the way for emotivist and utilitarian theories. Further, his critiques of religion prefigured contemporary forms of skeptical atheism. Hume's ideas continue to shape ongoing debates within philosophy and related fields.