The Historical Convergence of Happiness and Virtue: A Reading of Hume's Theory of Moral Motivation

  • Author / Creator
    Santos Castro, Juan S
  • That Hume offers an account of motivation and action is widely accepted. But whether he offers a distinct theory of moral motivation is less obvious. Contemporary scholarship has attempted to reconstruct this theory, but not always fruitfully, given its focus on examining the moral psychology of moral sentiments: do moral sentiments produce virtuous actions? I depart from this traditional approach. I set up Hume’s views as addressing two crucial concerns present in his contemporaries’ discussions of the problem of moral motivation: the nature of virtuous motives and the role that reflection plays in virtuous behaviour. To reveal Hume’s position, I propose to look at the historical evolution of the motives that, on his view, are objects of positive moral judgment. In my reading of Hume, the motivational impulse of virtue derives from the convergence between the gradual regulation and refinement in the satisfaction of the passions — i.e., happiness — and the sense of virtue. This convergence shows up only through the lens of conjectural history, a genre of historiography used by Hume to describe the nature and civilizing potential of the passions. My central argument is a reconstruction of the conjectural histories that Hume scatters throughout his texts, by means of which I show that behind the story of the ‘rise and progress’ of justice, commerce, government, the arts and sciences, and politeness lies the natural history of civilized individuals’ motivation towards virtue. This argument allows me to articulate Hume’s distinctive views in regards to the problem of moral motivation. For Hume, it is not true, against the common interpretations of Hobbes and Mandeville, that self-regarding motives are more natural, basic, or stronger than other-regarding ones. In fact, Hume conceives human motives, very much like Butler, as native affections directed at various objects, some of which affect the self, some of which affect other people. Their moral quality derives, as in Butler’s view, from how they are regulated. But whereas Butler takes it that the principles of self-love and of conscience regulate in each individual the direction and strength of the passions, Hume conceives the regulation and refinement of the passions as a process driven by experience, that unfolds historically as human beings interact with the world and with each other and which is finally realized in the practices and institutions of ‘polished’ and ‘luxurious’ societies. Further, the crucial effect of this historical progress of the passions is that members of such societies are able to adopt a reflective perspective from which they recognize the coincidence between satisfying their regulated and refined passions and acting virtuously. In a ‘polished’ and ‘luxurious’ society, individuals’ psychology is shaped in such a way that what people see as contributing to their happiness is what they see as virtuous ways of acting. In this sense, happiness and virtue finally converge.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
    • Department of Philosophy
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
    • Schmitter, Amy (Philosophy)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Jennifer Welchman (Philosophy)
    • Michael Gill (Philosophy - University of Arizona)
    • Katherine Binhammer (English and Film Studies)
    • Bruce Hunter (Philosophy)