- The Cautious Jealous Virtue: Hume on Justice
Working with the acumen of a lifelong Hume scholar, combined with an unrelenting passion for Hume scholarship more generally, Annette Baier in this volume explores Hume's conception of justice and the artificial virtues from almost every angle. The collection contains five new essays in addition to five reprinted essays. I will focus here primarily on the new essays, which comprise Part I of the book.
The most distinctive aspect of the essays in Part I lies in Baier's use of Hume's Historyof England. Baier invokes the History in the service of two aims. The first is to demonstrate the "enlargement" of Hume's theory of justice that occurs between the Treatise and the History. On Baier's interpretation, in the Treatise, Hume held a narrow view of justice, limited primarily to concerns regarding property rights and fidelity to promises and contracts. But Baier believes that by the time Hume wrote the History, his view had broadened to the point where it includes "much of what we take it to include" (86) and specifically a more robust understanding of equity than can be found in the Treatise.
The second aim is to show how reading the arguments of the Treatise through the lens of the History can illuminate them. Baier is particularly impressed by Hume's recognition in the History of the ways that the virtues combine in any one particular person and are impacted by various social conditions and the roles that person assumes within a society (4). Taking this feature to heart, Baier believes much can be learned from acknowledging the specific social conditions in which some of the arguments of the Treatise are embedded. One such argument is the infamous "circle argument," in which Hume questions what natural motive a person could have to repay a loan that could explain why we morally approve of doing so and seemingly argues that there is no such motive. Most Hume scholars take this argument to be questioning what motive makes justice itself a virtue, and so as an argument that delivers insight into the kind of virtue that justice is, as well as into the nature of the just individual. But Baier thinks this approach is mistaken; she argues that interpreters err insofar as they abstract the argument from its example (22). Once we keep in mind that the specific example Hume employs is a case of loan repayment, Baier believes we will see that the circle argument is not about determining the original, morally approved motive to justice, but is about the motive to loan repayment, a practice that can arise only after several conventions are in place (22). Moreover, by considering the social context surrounding the issue of loan repayment, as well as what Hume says about loan repayment in the History, we can see that Hume's goal in this section was to demonstrate the need to understand conventions and their "intricate intermingling" (26). [End Page 461]
Baier's aspiration to bring Hume's writings in the History to the forefront of philosophical discussion is an admirable one, and makes this collection distinct from other treatments of Hume's theory of justice. However, Baier leaves unanswered many questions regarding her own methodological assumptions. At face value, the Treatise is a work of philosophy while the History is a work of history. While this is no doubt an oversimplification, the assumption that one can look to the History for a fully developed understanding of Hume's philosophical understanding of justice is one that needs development and defense. Absent this kind of analysis, ought we really to believe, as Baier contends, that in the History Hume acknowledges the mistakes of his Treatise account (86) and puts himself behind the broader view of justice he invokes in the History? Or could it just be the case that, in the History, Hume the historian was applying what he took to be existing standards of justice? Many explanations of the relationship between these...