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Justice, Language and Hume: A Reply to Matthew Kramer James Allan How much reliance, in David Hume's convention-based picture ofthe origins ofjustice, needstobe placed on apre-existingcommon language amongst the various participants? Matthew Kramer has argued that Hume's story of the passage "from the hostilities of nature to the serenity of civilized Ufe"1 is, in effect, incoherent. It is incoherent, Kramer asserts, because "language must be in place already" (Kramer, 148) in order for family groups tojoin together into larger social units by means of Humean convention. In other words, Kramer takes the view that a commonlanguage is needed amongst all the players for thé gradual establishment ofjustice by human conventions to be possible. But it is just this very thing, a relatively sophisticated common language, that can only be achieved after the establishment of the larger societal unit. Kramer therefore sees Hume's account of the origins of justice as, at best, paradoxical because "the founding of a societal unit can take place only if such a unit has already been founded" (Kramer, 149). This article shall be concerned to defend, against the thrust of Kramer's attack, the broad outlines2 of Hume's story of the origins of justice in book 3 of the Treatise. At any rate, I will argue that Hume's explicitlyahistorical accountis coherent? Butinmakingthis argument I shall be careful to place Hume's account of justice in its proper perspective. It must be recalled that Hume was attempting to explain all ofhuman morals, aesthetics and virtues in a scientific way. In this scheme,justice—for him, the stability ofpossessions or the basic rules of property—was the pre-eminent "artificial" virtue. As we shall see, no interpretation ofHume's account ofthe escape tojustice can ignore his wider concern, to explain empirically human nature and conduct. Let us start, however, with a bare summary of Kramer's thesis. Firstly, Kramer sets out Hume's core position. Justice (basic rules of property) and thus society result from the re-directing ofself-love. The process does not rely on agreement and is thus immune from one ofthe main criticisms of social contract theories (that is, how to explain the bindingness of a first ever contract).4 Rather, Hume's account is of justice emerging ever so gradually from reciprocal conventions. Where small family living is "natural"—some original or inherent Volume XVII Number 2 81 JAMES ALLAN principle—life in society is created by convention. In this sensejustice is "artificial." Secondly, two critiques of Hume's position are considered and found, by Kramer, ultimately to be unsuccessful. The first is the weakness noted above and common toall social contract analyses: from where does the bindingness of a first contract come? But Hume explicitly rejected contractarian theories as Kramer allows. Hume's conventional theory "is not of the nature of a promise: ... it arises gradually, and acquires force by a slow progression, and by our repeated experience of the inconveniences of transgressing it."5 The second critique which Kramer finds abortive, and to which I shall return below, involves the role of reason in the creation of justice. Primitive reflection based on already experienced events, impressions or ideas would not be sufficient to overcome avid self-interest.6 But in response to this attack Kramer retorts that it is at most inconclusive whether the experiences of family life combined with reason could overcome self-interest on Hume's model. Thirdly, Krameroffers his own critique in the hope ofshowing that "Hume's story disrupts itself when it narrates certain events that cannot possiblymaterialize until theyhave already occurred" (Kramer, 143). Kramer's attack on the Humean conventional move tojustice, as indicated above, concentrates on language. But it is well to note carefully Kramer's interpretation of Hume's account of the building of stable, society-wide property rules. Kramer takes this to be that, "[a]s a result ofcrude reflection and the restraints offamily life, most people come to realize that a persistent demand for goods can be better filled within society than without it" (Kramer, 147; emphasis mine). Thus, says Kramer, the first step, temporally, is a rational deduction. After reason has alerted us to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 81-94
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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