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Ill HUME ON THE MORALITY OF PRINCES "There is a maxim very current in the world," says Hume (Treatise III, ii, sec. 11) "that there is a system of morals calculated for princes, much more free than that which ought to govern private persons. " He interprets the maxim to mean that "the morality of princes ... has not the same force as that of private persons, and may lawfully be transgress 'd from a more trivial motive." And he gives as an example: "we must necessarily give a greater indulgence to a prince or minister, who deceives another; than to a private gentleman, who breaks his word of honour" (T 569). This passage, cryptic though it is, makes Hume sound bad. He seems to be a cynic, or a skeptic, or an immoralist, with respect to the morality of nations. Does he think that princes have a special right to act immorally? Even worse is the reason he gives: international relations just don't matter very much, he says. And the chapter in question is not just a self-contained essay more or less tacked on to the Treatise. Hume tries to connect it integrally with his theory of justice. The point of the chapter is not to put forward a view about the morality of international relations (a view Hume himself admits may be found shocking), but to demonstrate the power of the theory of justice by showing how the "maxim current in the world" can be defended upon the theory's principles. The passage has not won approval from recent commentators. One, Marshall Cohen, labels Hume a "moderate skeptic" with regard to international morality and argues vehemently that Hume's position 2 should be condemned as immoral. Cohen, who thinks that there is only one system of morality and that it 112 applies "with equal force to princes and private persons," evidently thinks any system weakening ordinary standards is immoral by definition. He traces Hume's allegedly morally flawed views to what he regards as a deep flaw in Hume's moral theory, namely, his conventionalism. J. L. Mackie and Jonathan Harrison are both considerably more sympathetic to Hume's general position, but nevertheless are critical of the chapter in question. They agree with Hume's observation that international morality is weaker than private. (Harrison points out that people tend to regard breaches of private morality as more serious than breaches of international morality: "A minister may be dismissed for sexual misconduct, although he breaks solemn treaties with other nations with impunity." But, contrary to Hume, they find this weakness deplorable, Harrison arguing that, given the relative amount of harm princes do, the indulgence allowed them is irrational. Harrison in fact at first agrees with Hume: "He is right, too, in suggesting that the obligations of nations to be just in their dealings with one another is [sic] of less force than the obligations of private persons." But after ten pages he has evidently changed his mind: "[with respect to] what Hume says about the comparative force of the morality of princes and the morality of private persons, though it is clear that there is nothing in principle wrong with Hume's view that the former has less force than the latter ... it is doubtful whether he is right in saying that the former do in fact have less force than the latter." Like Cohen, who holds that "Injustice among nations should be regarded as being as reprehensible as injustice among individuals," Harrison concludes (more tentatively than Cohen) "my 113 own feeling ... is that though Hume is right in thinking that the morality of princes is commonly regarded as being of less force than private morality, he is wrong ... in thinking that ... they [sic] are of less force." So none of our commentators agree with Hume that international morality not only is, but is properly, weaker than domestic. How did Hume go wrong? Hume argues that international morality is weaker because the interests at stake are less. Where the interests at stake do not matter very much, Hume thinks, it is not so important what people do, and thus the moral obligations involved are weaker. (Hume thinks this idea...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 111-160
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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