"the Party of Humankind": Sociality and Moral Revision in David Hume

Open Access
Pollock, Ryan C
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
November 17, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Emily Rolfe Grosholz, Dissertation Advisor
  • John Philip Christman, Committee Member
  • Chris Long, Committee Member
  • Jonathan Harold Marks, Special Member
  • David Hume
  • Moral Sentimentalism
  • Moral Revision
  • Moral Judgment
  • Justice
  • Conservatism
David Hume is one of the classic proponents of moral sentimentalism. According to this school of thought, our understanding of virtue and vice springs primarily from our capacity for feeling as opposed to reason. A standard worry about Hume’s account is that it produces an overly conservative theory of morality which blindly supports the status quo. This is because, for Hume, what makes some trait a virtue (or vice) is simply that it commonly garners sentiments of approval (or disapproval). If this is the case, then even traits that are only disapproved of due to prejudice, intolerance, and misunderstanding, must be counted as genuine vices. For example, if homosexuality produces widespread discomfort or distaste in society, then homosexuality must be seen as a vice. Thus, it seems that Hume’s moral theory, instead of providing a method for critiquing and revising prevailing discriminatory attitudes, would actually lend support to them. This dissertation argues, however, that Hume’s distinctive understanding of sentimentalism provides a more robust method for revising existing moral views than the above sketch would suggest. Specifically, I contend that Hume believes we have reason to revise our moral sentiments when they do not arise from the social aspects of human nature (or the humane sentiments which make us concerned for others). This account has significant effects upon how we should understand Hume's account of moral judgment, the nature of his sentimentalism, his theory of justice, and the extent to which it makes sense to consider Hume a conservative.