David Hume’s Birthday

by Henry Farrell on May 7, 2011

David Hume was born 300 years ago today. His influence on philosophy is well recognized. His influence on the social sciences, rather less so. “Dan Sperber”:http://www.cognitionandculture.net/Dan-s-blog/david-hume-the-anthropologist.html proposes that readers of his blog celebrate this anniversary by selecting particularly relevant quotes. Sounds like a good idea – let me start the ball rolling by “stealing a particularly appropriate one from Cosma Shalizi”:http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/736.html.

NOTHING appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of EGYPT, or the emperor of ROME, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion.

Opinion is of two kinds, to wit, opinion of INTEREST, and opinion of RIGHT. By opinion of interest, I chiefly understand the sense of the general advantage which is reaped from government; together with the persuasion, that the particular government, which is established, is equally advantageous with any other that could easily be settled. When this opinion prevails among the generality of a state, or among those who have the force in their hands, it gives great security to any government.

Right is of two kinds, right to POWER and right to PROPERTY. What prevalence opinion of the first kind has over mankind, may easily be understood, by observing the attachment which all nations have to their ancient government, and even to those names, which have had the sanction of antiquity. Antiquity always begets the opinion of right; and whatever disadvantageous sentiments we may entertain of mankind, they are always found to be prodigal both of blood and treasure in the maintenance of public justice. There is, indeed, no particular, in which, at first sight, there may appear a greater contradiction in the frame of the human mind than the present. When men act in a faction, they are apt, without shame or remorse, to neglect all the ties of honour and morality, in order to serve their party; and yet, when a faction is formed upon a point of right or principle, there is no occasion, where men discover a greater obstinacy, and a more determined sense of justice and equity. The same social disposition of mankind is the cause of these contradictory appearances.

It is sufficiently understood, that the opinion of right to property is of moment in all matters of government. A noted author has made property the foundation of all government; and most of our political writers seem inclined to follow him in that particular. This is carrying the matter too far; but still it must be owned, that the opinion of right to property has a great influence in this subject.

Upon these three opinions, therefore, of public interest, of right to power, and of right to property, are all governments founded, and all authority of the few over the many. There are indeed other principles, which add force to these, and determine, limit, or alter their operation; such as self-interest, fear, and affection: But still we may assert, that these other principles can have no influence alone, but suppose the antecedent influence of those opinions above-mentioned. They are, therefore, to be esteemed the secondary, not the original principles of government.

For, first, as to self-interest, by which I mean the expectation of particular rewards, distinct from the general protection which we receive from government, it is evident that the magistrate’s authority must be antecedently established, at least be hoped for, in order to produce this expectation. The prospect of reward may augment his authority with regard to some particular persons; but can never give birth to it, with regard to the public. Men naturally look for the greatest favours from their friends and acquaintance; and therefore, the hopes of any considerable number of the state would never center in any particular set of men, if these men had no other title to magistracy, and had no separate influence over the opinions of mankind. The same observation may be extended to the other two principles of fear and affection. No man would have any reason to fear the fury of a tyrant, if he had no authority over any but from fear; since, as a single man, his bodily force can reach but a small way, and all the farther power he possesses must be founded either on our own opinion, or on the presumed opinion of others. And though affection to wisdom and virtue in a sovereign extends very far, and has great influence; yet he must antecedently be supposed invested with a public character, otherwise the public esteem will serve him in no stead, nor will his virtue have any influence beyond a narrow sphere.

A Government may endure for several ages, though the balance of power, and the balance of property do not coincide. This chiefly happens, where any rank or order of the state has acquired a large share in the property; but from the original constitution of the government, has no share in the power. Under what pretence would any individual of that order assume authority in public affairs? As men are commonly much attached to their ancient government, it is not to be expected, that the public would ever favour such usurpations. But where the original constitution allows any share of power, though small, to an order of men, who possess a large share of the property, it is easy for them gradually to stretch their authority, and bring the balance of power to coincide with that of property.



BGinCHI 05.07.11 at 7:38 pm

In all my years in graduate school, the biggest d-bag professor I ever encountered had written his dissertation in the Committee on Social Thought at Univ of Chicago on David Hume.

I’ve been angry at Hume for a long time about that. But seeing as it’s a milestone birthday, I’d like to let it go now.

So, to David Hume, apologies. To the guy mentioned in paragraph 1, GFY.

As Hume wrote, “Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. ‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”


geo 05.07.11 at 8:13 pm

Hume, Of Commerce:

“A too great disproportion among the citizens weakens any state. Every person, if possible, ought to enjoy the fruits of his labor, in a full possesion of all the necessaries, and many of the conveniences, of life. No one can doubt that such an equality is most suitable to human nature and diminishes much less from the happiness of the rich than it adds to that of the poor. It also augments the power of the state, and makes any extraordinary taxes or impositions be paid with more cheerfulness. Where the riches are engrossed by a few, these must contribute very largely to the supplying of the public necessities. But when the riches are dispersed among multitudes, the burden feels light on every shoulder, and the taxes make a not very sensible difference on any one’s way of living.

“Add to this that, where the riches are in few hands, these must enjoy all the power, and will readily conspire to lay the whole burden on the poor and oppress them still farther, to the discouragement of all industry.”


sean matthews 05.07.11 at 9:27 pm

A major mystery to me is how anyone could imagine that someone whose best buddy was Denis Diderot, and wrote the following (or, for that matter, what Cosima Shalizi quotes) could be called a conservative, or might even share any sort of an agenda with conservatives.

[also apropos, there is also a nice passage in Peter Gay’s book on the enlightenment, where he quotes Johnson and Boswell – a couple of true conservatives – discussing Hume and clearly finding him terrifying – I have always liked this passage – I think a good philosopher should be able to scare the bejeezus out of educated people simply by thinking]

Anyway, as you all no-doubt know, it goes:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.


Pretendous 05.07.11 at 10:26 pm

If we take into our hand any volume; of quotations or ancient personality, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.


ben w 05.07.11 at 11:03 pm

If we take into our hand any volume; of quotations or ancient personality, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Too bad; I’ve heard the History of England is good.


garymar 05.07.11 at 11:19 pm

Hume contra divorce:

We need not, therefore, be afraid of drawing the marriage-knot, which chiefly subsists by friendship, the closest possible. The amity between the persons, where it is solid and sincere, will rather gain by it: And where it is wavering and uncertain, this is the best expedient for fixing it. How many frivolous quarrels and disgusts are there, which people of common prudence endeavour to forget, when they lie under a necessity of passing their lives together; but which would soon be inflamed into the most deadly hatred, were they pursued to the utmost, under the prospect of an easy separation?


NJC 05.08.11 at 1:09 am

Hume, The Sceptic:

“I have long entertained a suspicion, with regard to the decisions of philosophers upon all subjects, and found in myself a greater inclination to dispute, than assent to their conclusions. There is one mistake, to which they seem liable, almost without exception; they confine too much their principles, and make no account of that vast variety, which nature has so much affected in all her operations. When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phænomenon, though by the most violent and absurd reasoning. Our own mind being narrow and contracted, we cannot extend our conception to the variety and extent of nature; but imagine, that she is as much bounded in her operations, as we are in our speculation.

“But if ever this infirmity of philosophers is to be suspected on any occasion, it is in their reasonings concerning human life, and the methods of attaining happiness. In that case, they are led astray, not only by the narrowness of their understandings, but by that also of their passions. Almost every one has a predominant inclination, to which his other desires and affections submit, and which governs him, though, perhaps, with some intervals, through the whole course of his life. It is difficult for him to apprehend, that any thing, which appears totally indifferent to him, can ever give enjoyment to any person, or can possess charms, which altogether escape his observation. His own pursuits are always, in his account, the most engaging: The objects of his passion, the most valuable: And the road, which he pursues, the only one that leads to happiness.”


bad Jim 05.08.11 at 1:50 am

Hume, of course, was a bachelor.


Jeremy 05.08.11 at 3:16 am

THERE is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more blameable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavour the refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretence of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality. When any opinion leads to absurdities, it is certainly false; but it is not certain that an opinion is false, because it is of dangerous consequence.


James Kroeger 05.08.11 at 5:02 am

If we take into our hand any volume; of quotations or ancient personality, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Ben, 5:

Too bad; I’ve heard the History of England is good.

For the sake of those who may not be fully informed, in the quoted passage Hume was challenging the epistemological assumptions of contemporary Empiricists, who liked to claim that knowledge comes (only or primarily) via sensory experience. Applying a great deal of skeptical doubt, Hume showed that many assumptions/conclusions that we commonly refer to as ‘knowledge’, e.g., the law of cause and effect, do not pass the test of absolute certainty. No matter how many times you watch one billiard ball imparting its motion to the ball it just struck, you/we don’t know with absolute certainty that we will see the same outcome the next time we set up the experiment.

Hume was right. But he just didn’t carry it out his reasoning to its ultimate implications. If he had persisted, he would have noticed that nearly all of that which we call ‘knowledge’ is nothing more than guesswork. There are, after all, very few things that we ‘know’ that pass the test of absolute certainty. I know that I currently exist. I am currently experiencing a number of sensations. I can remember existing previously. I do not know—with absolute certainty—if I will exist tomorrow, or even five minutes from now. But I do have some guesses that I’ve developed a lot of confidence in.

The more frequently we notice that a particular guess holds up after many repetitions, the more likely we are to label the guess a ‘fact’, but in truth—as Hume pointed out—it is still only a guess. When we humans share our knowledge with each other (our guesses with each other) we can assume that the guesses are true, but we might just as well choose not to.

There is the objective truth that is, and then there are our perceptions (= guesses) of the truth. It’s the allegory of the cave. We may only have our guesses to go on, but we have discovered that if we share them with each other, and continually seek to increase their accuracy, many wonderful accomplishments are possible.

This is where Hume made one of his mistakes: he assumed that in the absence of absolute certainty, we have nothing but a guess, so you might as well cast it into the flames. What he didn’t acknowledge is that our guesses can be quite valuable, as long as they continue to hold up with repeated experience.

Some of our guesses are filled with uncertainty, as so we call them hypotheses, with greater confidence, we call them theories, with even greater confidence we call them ‘facts’ or principles or laws. Nearly all of them guesses, but guesses that experience has taught us we can have a lot of confidence in.

One thing I have derived from this reasoning: because all knowledge is guesswork, all metaphysical/theological guesses in the absence of certainty are legitimate, so long as they do not contradict other guesses that we happen to value highly (for they have proven to be quite reliable) or create other, similar kinds of conflicts in logic.


Guido Nius 05.08.11 at 8:03 am


David Morrice 05.08.11 at 9:17 am

David Hume was born on 26 April 1711. His tercentenerary was celebrated in his home town last weekend: http://www.chirnside.org.uk/david_hume_300.htm


Gareth Rees 05.08.11 at 10:33 am

That’s 26 April (Old Style) = 7 May (New Style).


David Morrice 05.08.11 at 11:35 am

26 April 1711 may be Old Style to us now, but for Hume and his mum it was his birthday.


Hidari 05.08.11 at 11:50 am

‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered the symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.’

Sounds like a Conservative to me, and a remarkably contemporary one.


Sam Clark 05.08.11 at 11:57 am

James Kroeger:

This is where Hume made one of his mistakes: he assumed that in the absence of absolute certainty, we have nothing but a guess, so you might as well cast it into the flames. What he didn’t acknowledge is that our guesses can be quite valuable, as long as they continue to hold up with repeated experience.

I’m sorry, but no, this is utterly wrong. The move to accept a great deal of what we think, despite the fact that we can’t be certain about it, is a major part of Hume’s point. That’s what ‘experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence’ is; it’s also – although he doesn’t mention it in that quote – what his moral philosophy is. Hume wasn’t a sceptic in the Cartesian sense (if X isn’t self-evident or a deduction from a self-evident premises, reject X).


Alex 05.08.11 at 3:59 pm

Carneades got there first.


John Quiggin 05.09.11 at 12:36 am

In economics, Hume is generally credited for the quantity theory of money and the specie flow mechanism of exchange adjustment under a gold standard.


Sam Clark 05.09.11 at 8:41 am

Alex: I wasn’t making a claim about priority, but if we’re being picky, actually Pyrrho of Elis got there first.


Tim O'Keefe 05.09.11 at 3:07 pm

“Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings,
animated and organised, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious
variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living
existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive
to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How
contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but
the idea of a blind Nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and
pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her
maimed and abortive children.”

–Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XI


Martin Bento 05.09.11 at 8:30 pm

As for the initial Hume quote, is this still true? One of the standard arguments against gun control is that with light arms, the populace can overthrow the government by force should it become a tyranny. A standard liberal response to this, recently (last few months) articulated at length by Rachel Maddow and several of her guests is that it is absurd to hold that one could oppose a government possessing nukes and other advanced arms with guns and other light weapons anyway. Based on recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan involving light arms and improvised explosives, one could dispute this. But assuming for the argument it is correct, doesn’t it invalidate Hume’s argument as applied to the present era? We have seen, in the 20th century, tyrannies that may have had a lot of support initially, but probably remained in power longer than that support lasted. That applies to most, perhaps all, of the communist powers, and possibly also fascism, although that was too brief to be a good test of what happens when attitudes change over time. It probably also applies to the some of the less ideological dictatorships, like Burma and Guatemala under Montt. It doesn’t seem strictly to be constrained to modern technology. The Khmer Rouge could not have been popular for long, but their attack on intellectuals, on literacy, really, left them virtually the only literate people in the nation (they started as a student group at the Sorbonne, so themselves were quite educated). This greatly impaired the ability of any potential uprising to communicate, and made governance impossible without them in any case. I’m not sure Hume’s imagination captured all the possibilities.


Alex Leibowitz 05.10.11 at 7:06 am

I don’t think that Hume’s premise, that force is always on the side of the governed, is or need everywhere be true. What if someone has control of a nuclear weapon and she uses that to get people to do what she wants? If she is governing them (and why not?) force is not on their side. (Also, a bank robber with a gun…)

If Hume objects that they do obey out of the opinion that doing so will preserve them from harm, that seems to me a weak kind of obedience. (It isn’t willing obedience.)

I want to know what Hume means when he speaks of the government of some by others, in general.

And even if force is always on the side of the governed, why does it follow that opinion is the source of the government? Just because the governed could collectively wield a greater force than those that govern them does not mean they have any easy means of organizing themselves to do so effectively.

A few people, clever and in easy communication, especially if they be well armed, would seem to have the advantage over a loosely organized mob — or at least it would be difficult to predict how such a battle would decide itself. And if the battle were decided in their favor, they might govern the mob ever afterward by means of fear — but to call that fear “opinion” again seems to provide some sanction to what would have none.


praymont 05.11.11 at 7:57 am

“It is confessed, that the utmost effort of human reason is to reduce the principles, productive of natural phenomena, to a greater simplicity, and to resolve the many particular effects into a few general causes, by means of reasonings from analogy, experience, and observation. But as to the causes of these general causes, we should in vain attempt their discovery …. These ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. Elasticity, gravity, cohesion of parts, communication of motion by impulse; these are probably the ultimate causes and principles which we shall ever discover in nature; and we may esteem ourselves sufficiently happy, if … we can trace up the particular phenomena to, or near to, these general principles. The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer.” Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Sect. 4, Part 1

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. … He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no such principle in me.” — Treatise of Human Nature Sect. 6


Roger Albin 05.11.11 at 7:42 pm

The primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear of future events

Natural History of Religion


Dustin 05.12.11 at 3:01 am

It seems like Hume’s assertions regarding the governed could apply to any situation. Power is based on a relationship between two potential agents. If those clever few exercise their ability to annihilate the “mob”, they do not have an other to have power over.

The governed may have to risk destruction to do it, but they can at least negate the power of their government.


Andrew Brown 05.12.11 at 11:51 am

Shameless self-linking, but there are some lovely Hume quotes (from his history) in this iplayer link, up for another three days (“Hume, the Philosophical Historian”, on Radio 3


Martin Bento 05.12.11 at 6:07 pm

Dustin, what Hume said was: “as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion” If the people can resist the government, but will fail and die leaving the government without subjects, that still does not constitute force being on the side of the governed. For that matter, the governed could simply commit suicide to deny the government subjects, but that does not constitute possessing a preponderance of force. And if the governors can annihilate the people, it is false that they have nothing to support them but opinion.


Monster Zero 05.13.11 at 2:18 pm

“”””If we take into our hand any volume; of quotations or ancient personality, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”””

Just another scottish -WASP-yokel, tho’ with some skill in rhetorical puffery


Rex Luscat 05.13.11 at 4:46 pm

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.


willis 05.13.11 at 6:31 pm

“Sounds like a Conservative to me, and a remarkably contemporary one.”

Yes, if one counts Harry Reid among the conservatives.


SB 05.13.11 at 10:43 pm

Philosopher of Doubt—Father of Postmodern Nihilism
© 2006

Approximately three hundred-years ago, amid well-tended, aristocratic estates and neat little commoner gardens, an infant was born in the placid city of Edinburgh, England. That baby would eventually grow up to become the world’s leading empiricist philosopher. His sceptic philosophy would shake and eventually demolish men’s certainty in reason by capitalizing on the errors of the great philosopher of reason, Aristotle.

In so doing, this British empirical giant would undercut the rational direction of the Enlightenment by unleashing the anti-reason philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who ultimately sent Western Civilization tail spinning into the nihilism that now dominates Western intellectual thought. If there were only one event in the history of mankind that could be changed, that event would be preventing the birth of that baby, whom his mother, Katherine Falconer Home (pronounced “Hume”), lovingly named, David.

David Hume destroyed much during his lifetime assault on the Age of Reason. But his most infamous exploit was to divorce fact from value in his sceptic philosophy—to claim that facts were objective and were approached by rational methods but that values were approached subjectively, the result of men’s biases and prejudices, i.e., the result of men’s feelings, which Hume claimed were intrinsically a-rational. He identified these two approaches as, respectively, Intellectualism and Sentimentalism. This (false) opposition of Hume’s is known in philosophy as the is-ought dichotomy (which, in justice to Hume, is a derivative of Descartes’ (and, before him, Plato’s) mind-body dichotomy).

What Hume did, in essence, was to render unto reason the world of science but unto emotion (a-rationality), the world of ethics and morality. Thus, one could prove—using Hume’s argument—that increasing the yield of crops on a given acre of land was in fact possible. But not that it was moral. One could prove that freedom increased men’s prosperity but not that this was necessarily good. One could prove that anesthetics relieved men’s pain, but not that this was right.

Hume had, in essence, placed morality outside the realm of reason. No one, after Hume, could state with any certainty—unless they refuted his argument at its base—that murder was objectively wrong; that progress was objectively good; that increasing men’s life expectancy was objectively right.

There is much more that Hume did to help extinguish the fires of the Enlightenment. He laid, for instance, the foundation for questioning the validity of the senses (on which Kant capitalized by inventing a supernatural “Noumenal” realm whose eternal Truths were forever beyond the grasp of men’s reason).

Further, Hume attacked causality as uncertain (on which Kant again capitalized by further claiming that men cannot truly know not only causality, but also identity—that men, because they can not be certain of a thing’s actions, can not, therefore, be certain in their knowledge of the thing itself.) This and more did Hume “achieve.” But the most damaging of his nefarious deeds was to deny to men any claim to a rational morality, thereby laying the foundation for today’s postmodern moral relativism and multiculturalism (which has effectively degenerated into nihilism).

Hume’s (Jupiter sized) mistake lay in the morality that he himself implicitly accepted with certainty, never placing his ethics within the sphere of his sceptic philosopher’s eye. Hume never questioned whether Man’s life qua rational being ought to be the moral standard; never doubted the moral standard that he had accepted by default—that of placing the welfare of others above one’s own life; above one’s own values; above one’s own reason, honesty and integrity.

Hume therefore never saw, having not identified Man’s life as the moral standard, the fact that fact determines value:

· The fact that men can be cured by antibiotics makes their discovery a value because antibiotics save men’s lives
· The fact that interchangeable parts lead to mass production makes their invention a value because mass production saves men time, allowing them to be more productive with their time and, thus, to have more time to enjoy their lives.
· The fact that the political recognition of rights leads to freedom makes their formulation a value because individual rights protect the fruits of men’s labors, preserving men’s lives

Hume never discovered any of this and more because Hume never made philosophical inquiry into the nature of facts and their relationship to men’s lives. Because he never viewed Man’s life as a value. Fortunately for mankind, a modern philosopher did (“It is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible.”); and in so doing (finally) rebutted Hume’s philosophy of scepticism (and the mind destroying philosophy of Kant, whom he made possible) with a philosophy of Objectivism.

What terrible events, though, would have been avoided (Hitler’s gas chambers; Stalin’s Gulag; the carnage of Mao’s cultural revolution; etc.)—and what great achievements would have occurred—had someone, somehow, prevented the birth of that baby a little over 300-years ago, buying time until the birth of Hume’s antipode, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, who came to be known by the pen name of Ayn Rand.

Works Cited
Morris, William E., ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: David Hume. Stanford University. February, 2001.


Substance McGravitas 05.13.11 at 11:17 pm

No one, after Hume, could state with any certainty—unless they refuted his argument at its base—that murder was objectively wrong; that progress was objectively good; that increasing men’s life expectancy was objectively right.

Just as no one, after Rand, could suggest that giving a child a lollipop is nice.


ckc (not kc) 05.13.11 at 11:29 pm

Thus, one could prove—using Hume’s argument—that increasing the yield of crops on a given acre of land was in fact possible. But not that it was moral.

… a crop like, say, tobacco? opium poppies? brussels sprouts?


Bilwick 05.14.11 at 4:29 am

“Just as no one, after Rand, could suggest that giving a child a lollipop is nice.”

As Hume himself once said: “WTF???”

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