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46. ARTIFICIAL VIRTUE, SELF-INTEREST, AND ACQUIRED SOCIAL CONCERN I One of Hume's most celebrated contributions to moral philosophy is his distinction between natural and artificial virtue. This is obviously intended to be an important distinction but its significance is less than obvious. Many modern commentators view both as interest based, with the natural virtues related to our immediate interests while the artificial are linked to our enlightened long-term interests. Despite the fact that this standard reading does have some textual support (e.g. , T535, 2 537) , it is not without its difficulties. The major problem lies in the account of why artificial virtues are, in fact, virtues. Natural and artificial virtues frequently encourage conflicting actions. For example (T497498 ) , the repayment of a loan to a "seditious bigot" may be in accord with the artificial virtue attached to justice , but nevertheless may thwart public as well as individual interest and consequently clash with natural virtue. As a result, we are faced with two alternatives: We can either accept the standard interpretation and its attendant incoherencies or we can re-examine Hume's natural/artificial distinction in hopes of arriving at a reading capable of avoiding these complications. What follows is an attempt to exploit the second option. In essence, I shall urge that a sharper distinction is needed between the artificial and natural virtues. The present deficiency clearly emerges once we realize that the standard account totally overlooks a critical aspect of Hume's doctrine. Not only does Hume provide a speculative history of how societal conventions arose from the state of nature (an essentially diachronic account) , but he also offers an explanation of why we now attach moral approbatior to actions falling within these conventions (an essentially 47. synchronie account) . It is the latter that enables Hume to explain the connection between moral sentiment and the artificial virtues; yet this aspect is completely neglected on the popular interpretation. These two accounts must be distinguished and clarified in order to understand Hume's intent and position. II Hume's distinction between natural and artificial virtue is roughly this: Natural virtue is attributable to those sentiments and passions which, if acted upon, generally tend to yield pleasing results to ourselves or others. On the other hand, we ascribe artificial virtue to actions which constitute a certain practice, the observance of which tends towards the good of mankind. Thus, an action is naturally virtuous if it is motivated by a sentiment which, if regularly acted upon, would have pleasant results. Because of this, naturally virtuous actions usually have pleasing consequences. It is in our own self-interest to promote the natural virtues and the actions they engender. Meanwhile, we attach artificial virtue to actions falling under a practice or convention. In effect, we view the entire practice as well as its particular constituent actions as virtuous. This distinction seems fairly simple; nonetheless it has two significant consequences. First, in both cases, virtue is attributed to the motives behind rather than the specific actions themselves. For instance, Hume argues that benevolence is a natural virtue (E295-302) , therefore any action following from this motive will be virtuous. However, the same action fails to be virtuous if it does not stem from the sentiment of benevolence. It is the motive that bestows virtue upon the action. Similarly, an action is artificially virtuous if it arises from an artificially virtuous motive. For example, an action is 48. artificially virtuous if it springs from the desire to do what is just (an artificially virtuous motive) ; yet the same action is not virtuous if it is inspired by a nonvirtuous motive or mere caprice. Just as with their natural counterparts, artificially virtuous motives are responsible for the actions they induce. But it is here that the similarity ends, for natural virtue is assigned to motives to perform immediately agreeable actions while artificial virtue is connected with motives to act within institutions deemed to be in the interest of society. To return to the earlier examples, actions arising from benevolence will almost always have an immediately agreeable affect, although, as Hume admits (T497-498, 597; E286, 304), there are exceptions. Of course actions performed for the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 46-58
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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