What is Hume’s distinction between natural and artificial virtue, and how defensible is it?

1920This essay is divided into two parts, the first of which is for the explication of Hume’s distinction between natural and artificial virtue, whereas the second is for the assessment of Hume’s distinction. I will elucidate, in the first part, Hume’s definition of ‘natural virtues’. I will then show that the argument he makes on the distinction between ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ virtues, following which I will explicate Hume’s view on ‘natural virtue’ (which is psychological inclination) and contrast it with ‘artificial virtue’ (which is essentially socialogical), before turning to the second part, which is devoted to the assessment the aforesaid distinctions. I shall argue that the distinction that Hume made and his prove of ‘justice’ being an artificial virtue is not defensible, some artificial virtues are hugely asymmetric between men and women in terms of both benefits and compliance.


The distinction between ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ springs from the discussion of the three senses of ‘natural’ which Hume mentions in the Treatise, viz., that which opposed to (1) ‘miracles’ (‘miracles on which our religion is founded…in [this] sense of the word…both vice and virtue are equally natural’[1]); (2) to ‘the rare and unusual’ (in this sense, virtue will be found to be the most unusual, i.e., ‘heroic virtue’); and, (3) to the artifice, in which sense both vice and virtue are equally artificial, for actions are ‘perform’d with a certain design and intention’[2] and ‘the boundaries of vice and virtue’, hence, can never be marked by the ‘character of natural and unnatural’[3]. This essay concerns the third sense of ‘natural’.

I shall, before furthering the discussion on artificial virtue, elucidate Hume’s idea of natural virtue, through the operation of which the antecedent gains approval and conformity. Hume gathers that natural virtues are ‘instincts originally implanted in our natures’; they are, just to name a few, ‘benevolence and resentment, the love of life, and kindness to children’[4]. Having the quality of triggering sentiments of pain and pleasure, natural virtues serve as the basis of judging something to be ‘virtuous’ or ‘vicious’, for, as Rawls noted, ‘their performance gives rise to good in each case: a single act of kindness to children, in itself, always produce good,’[5] in the sense that it ‘gives pleasure’ and ‘causes love’[6]:—

‘In every case, therefore, we must judge of the one by the other; and may pronounce any quality of the mind virtuous, which causes love or pride; and any one vicious, which causes hatred or humility.’[7]

Natural virtues, hence, constitute ‘the natural and partial morality of [men’s] affection’[8] insofar as they serve as a motive in human nature to produce virtuous actions[9]. Artificial virtues (which will be expounded later), therefore, would not have been able to take root and consolidate in men’s moral sense had natural virtues not existed in the first place, for natural virtues—Hume explicates and generalises the concept in terms of sympathy, which connects one’s self-interest to artificial virtues—is the source of ‘moral approbation’ and motivation for men’s conformity to artificial conventions of justice:—

‘[S]elf-interest is the original motive to the establishment of justice: but a sympathy with public interest is the source of the moral approbation, which attends that virtue.’[10]

I shall now move on to the discussion of artificial virtues, which will be examined alongside and in terms of the concept of ‘justice’.   One will perhaps see a clearer picture of how the concept of ‘artificial virtues’ comes about and that why ‘justice’ constitutes an artificial virtue, with reference to Hume’s account of practical reason—whence it follows, by the method of deduction, that ‘the sense of justice and injustice’ is a product of education and habit-formation.

Hume’s account of practical reason explicates the ‘impotence’[11] of reason in terms of initiating human actions. By analysing the ontology of reason, Hume gathers that reason is but a faculty of discerning ‘truth and falsehood’, i.e., ‘what is’, instead of that which is capable of ‘motivating any action of the will’, i.e., capable of deriving ‘what ought/ought not to’. Passion, instead, he gathers, is the driving force that motivates the action of the will. Whereas behind every action of a man there is passion at work, ‘reason’, according to Hume, ‘ is and ought only be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’[12].

This claim gives a strong case for asserting ‘passion’ as the only possible initiator of actions, which rules out logically the possibility of virtues having a priori origin (in the sense that they stem from ‘traits’, not anything that is independent of perceptions) and that they are derived from the establishment of moral laws, which is attributed to practical reason (A position that Kant takes), for, as it is not capable of motivation, it cannot be a motive in human nature to produce virtuous actions. If it is the case that only passion is capable of driving an individual into action and that one can only decide to act based on what he experienced (or ‘perceived’), the origin of virtues can only be the motivation of naturally-endowed ‘crude passions’, which Hume regards as natural virtue—Hutcheson, who attributes virtues to ‘moral sense’ [qua emotional faculty], regards this as men’s natural tendency to benevolence[13].

After ruling out the possibility that virtues are a priori and derived from the exercise of practical reason (Kantian morality) with his account of reason, Hume immediately faces an eminent challenge as to reconcile the conflicts between the natural inclinations of men and virtues whilst ascribing it to ‘perceptions in the mind’[14]:—

‘[It is] certain, that self-love, when it acts at its liberty, instead of engaging us to honest actions, is the source of all injustice and violence; nor can a man ever correct those vices, without correcting and restraining the natural movements of that appetite…In general, it may be affirm’d, that there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities.’[15]

Hume gathers that in ‘natural condition’ men are driven overwhelmingly by their self-interested passion, which is in conflict with the notion of justice. Despite the fact that, as shown in paragraphs 3 and 4, men are naturally endowed with natural virtues, he could not have performed any virtuous acts (for instance, paying back a loan) based on such a crude moral sense, given that they are not connected with his private interest:—

‘I ask [having lent a sum of money], What reason or motive have I to restore the money? It will, perhaps, be said, that my regard to justice, and abhorrence of villainy and knavery, are sufficient reasons for me…And this answer, no doubt, is just and satisfactory to man in his civiliz’d state…But in his rude and more natural condition, if you are pleas’d to call such a condition natural, this answer wou’d be rejected as perfectly unintelligible and sophostical’[16]

He shows, from the above exemplification, that a debtor in his ‘natural condition’ would not be motivated to repay his debts, for his self-interest does not rest on the repayment of his debts to his creditor; a debtor will only do so if he is in a ‘civilised state’ in which the ‘abhorrence of villainy and knavery’ is regarded; one’s motive for performing virtuous acts cannot be public interest either, for it is too ‘remote and sublime’[17] a motive for any individual to consider when making the decision as to what he ought to do. Hume therefore thinks that natural virtues cannot give rise to ‘conventions of justice’, for instance, honesty. He concludes, that ‘if public benevolence…or a regard to the interests of mankind, cannot be the original motive to justice, much less can private benevolence, or a regard to the interests of the party concern’d, be this motive.’[18]—whence he deduces, that unless ‘nature has establish’d a sophistry, or render’d it necessary and unavoidable,’ ‘the sense of justice and injustice’ must ‘arise artificially, tho’ necessarily from education, and human conventions.’[19]

Artificial virtues arise, as a necessity, when men realise that, whilst there is a necessity in forming a society, given the advantages it brings about, viz., division of labour and mutual protection, and that those advantages are necessary for the satisfaction of their naturally endowed desires, their very natural instincts and crude passions, nevertheless, are not compatible with the establishment of a society[20], for their ‘selfishness and confined generosity’ would inevitably lead to the dissolution of society, given the scarcities of nature:—

‘Men have found by experience, that, acting at their liberty, totally incapacitate for society; and at the same time have observ’d, that society is necessary to the satisfaction of those very passions, they are naturally induc’d to lay themselves under the restraint of such rules, as may render their commerce more safe and commodious.’[21]

So far I have expounded Hume’s theory of natural and artificial virtues, and from the above we may see the distinction of the two kinds of virtue: ‘artificial virtue’ is the product of contrivance whereby men remedy what is lacking in their natural, uncultivated instincts in order to benefit from the establishment of a society and, though some might suffer from individual acts of justice, every person ‘must find himself a gainer on balance the account’ after the adaptation of artificial virtues in the sense that the formation of society is ‘infinitely advantages to the whole.’ Meanwhile, ‘natural virtue’, being a natural endowment, provides men with an uncultivated sentimental tendency to benevolence and sympathy and serves as a foundation of morality: through the operation of which, ‘artificial virtues’ are ‘approved of’[22] and conformed.

It should be pointed out, however, that the distinction between artificial and natural virtues does not seem convincing insofar as the conflicts between artificial virtues and crude passions are concerned. For instance, men are scientifically proven to be naturally more keen on sexual intercourse than women, on the grounds that they have ‘significantly higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of platelet monoamine oxidase’[23]. Meanwhile, according to Hume, chastity, being an artificial virtue, is a ‘contrivance’ with the recourse to which individuals, male and female alike, are secured with a more stable social arrangement (monogamy) to breed their offspring. Whilst men may not be cuckolded under such arrangement (the undesirability of being a cuckold rests on the unfulfillment of man’s purpose for reproduction), women are ensured of the supply of necessary recourses from a male to make the care and nurture of her offspring possible. Monogamous pair bonding, nonetheless, is actually much more to the mother’s advantage then to the father’s, in the sense that human infants require seven to ten years of care and nurture in order to be bearly ‘self-sustained’, whereas it is actually of the males’ best interest, biologically, to mate with as much women as possible to ensure successful reproductions (given that, biologically, ‘male contributes little to offspring development beyond his sperm’[24]). That being granted, it would be hard to apply Hume’s distinction between artificial and natural virtues to explain the phenomenon of monogamous practices, given the asymmetry of the contrivance, for it would be hard to explain why it would be possible for men to internalise and comply with the artificial virtues of chastity and monogamy, given its huge conflicts with men’s natural instincts (‘men have more premarital sexual intercourse and with a greater variety of partners than do women’[25]) and men’s relatively insignificant benefits from it. Whereas Hume suggests that ‘Morality is more properly felt than judg’d of,’[26] He would need a better explication as to explain why ‘artificial virtues’ can be approved of and internalised given that some of them are in huge conflicts with human instincts.

[1] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 473-475.

[2] Loc cit.

[3] Loc cit.

[4] Op. cit., 417.

[5] John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 54.

[6] Hume, Treatise, 574-575.

[7] Loc. cit.

[8] Rawls, ibid.

[9] Hume, Treatise, 479.

[10] Op. cit., 500.

[11] Op. cit., 457.

[12] Op. cit., 415.

[13] L. A. Selby-Bigge, British Moralists, Vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), 75.

[14] Hume, Treatise, 469.

[15] Op. cit., 480-1.

[16] Op. cit. 480.

[17] Op. cit. 481.

[18] Op. cit., 482.

[19] Op. cit., 483.

[20] Op. cit., 579.

[21] Op. cit., 498-499.

[22] J. L. Mackie, Hume’s Moral Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), 5.

[23] James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1993), 166.

[24] Op. cit., 167.

[25] Loc. cit., See: Donald Symons, The Evolution of Human Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 213-215.

[26] Hume, Treatise, 470.



Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Mackie, J. L. Hume’s Moral Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

Rawls, John. Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000

Selby-Bigge, L. A. British Moralists, Vol. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897.

Symons, Donald. The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1993.

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