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Hume Studies Volume 33, Number 2, November 2007, pp. 257-288 The First Motive to Justice: Hume's Circle Argument Squared DON GARRETT "Justice" is Hume's most common term for respect for property. On Locke's view, the obligation to respect property is an original moral obligation imposed through a divinely instituted natural law that exists prior to and independent of human conventions. Hume expresses his disagreement with views like Locke's by calling justice an "artificial virtue"—meaning by this that it is only "by means of an artifice or contrivance" that it produces the moral approbation that constitutes it as a virtue (T 3.2.1.1; SBN 477).1 In his discussion of justice in A Treatise of Human Nature3.2.1-4, he begins by arguing that justice (which he also calls "equity" and "honesty") is "artificial" before going on to explain the origin of the convention on which it depends and why adherence to that convention is regarded as virtuous.2 Central to his defense of his claim that justice is an artificial virtue is a line of argument that is known (at least in some circles) as his "Circle Argument." Hume applies this line of argument in Treatise 3.2.1 ("Justice, whether a natural or artificial virtue?"). The argument depends on a core thesis of his virtue-based approach to ethics: that the moral merit of an action is derived entirely from the moral merit of the virtuous "motive" of which it is a sign. (It should be emphasized that the scope of the term "motive" is very broad in Hume's usage, encompassing character traits, abilities, dispositions, and recurring passions as well as occurrent desires.) The virtue of the motive is, in turn, discerned by the moral sense, by means of sentiments of moral approbation that are typically elicited, in part or in whole, through sympathy Don Garrett is Professor in the Department of Philosophy, New York University, 5 Washington Place, New York, NY 10003, U.S.A. E-mail: Don.Garrett@nyu.edu. 258 Don Garrett with those who possess or are otherwise affected by the motive [T 3.1.2; SBN 470-6; T 3.3.1; SBN 574-91].) From this "Core Virtue Ethics Thesis," as we may call it, he derives a general principle that we may call the "First Virtuous Motive Principle": namely, that for any virtuous action, there must be a "first virtuous motive" that is other than a sense of moral duty to the action itself. This principle follows from the Core Virtue Ethics Thesis, he argues, because the only alternative would be a vicious "circle," in which the moral merit of the action would have to be derived from the antecedent virtue of the motive that produced it, while the virtue of that motive could only be derived, in turn, from the antecedent moral merit of the action expressing it. Duty (i.e., a "regard to the moral merit of the act") can function as a motive to act, and even (in its way) a morally praiseworthy and so virtuous one, on Hume's account; but it can do so only when the moral merit of the kind of action in question has alreadybeen established by its relation to another virtuous motive. In acting from duty, he holds, we seek either to hide from ourselves our lack of that prior virtuous motive or to inculcate it in ourselves through habit (T 3.2.1.8; SBN 479). Once he has established the First Virtuous Motive Principle, Hume completes the Circle Argument by applying the principle to observations about the motives to acts of justice in order to argue that it must—on pain of circularity—be an artificial virtue. Hume's use of this line of argument has seemed notoriously problematic, however, for three main reasons. First, it appears that, despite the requirements of his own First Virtuous Motive Principle, Hume does not allow that there is any virtuous motive that can explain the full range of acts of justice other than the sense of duty to perform them. On the contrary, it appears that in at least two passages he explicitly denies...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 257-288
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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