Hume Studies 26 (1):109-127 (2000)

Authors
Alix Cohen
University of Edinburgh
Abstract
This paper aims to show that the notion of moral progress makes sense in Hume’s philosophy. And even though Hume suggests that this question is not central, in showing why it is not the case, I will conclude that, in concentrating on the question of the progress of civilisation, Hume was expressing a view on moral progress. To support this claim, I will begin by defending the claim that the notion of moral progress itself is consistent within Hume’s philosophical principles. In brief, I will suggest that according to Hume, there are at least four ways in which an agent's morality can be modified: by a change of belief, by a will to change his own moral characteristics, by the government setting up rewards and punishment and by the progress of civilisation. The key to the problem will be to distinguish between the natural principles which direct human nature and the social nature of human beings, the first one being immutable, and the second being malleable. Drawing this distinction will allow us to reconcile the highly problematic notions of uniformity and diversity within human nature. Then, in correlation with the distinction between moral maxims and moral behaviour, I will suggest that both are subjects to improvement, even though the room left for the latter is greater. After having argued that the notion of moral progress makes sense, I will try to understand the role it plays in the Humean conception of the progress of civilisation. This will lead me to conclude that its conditions and its different states of development are for Hume intrinsically related to the progress of the civilisation in general. Furthermore, moral progress is secondary and relative to the general improvement of society. The morals of the people has no active role in its progress, contrary to politics, economics, sciences and arts which are the main causes of the gradual progress of improvement. Therefore, against Montesquieu, Hume considers the progress of “manners” and “customs” (i.e. moral behaviour or the moral worth of behaviour) as a consequence of the progress of civilisation, and not as its cause. Hume’s principal aim is to underline the process of civilisation, and to show the means by which it spreads though all the spheres of society.
Keywords History of Philosophy  Major Philosophers
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ISBN(s) 0319-7336
DOI hume20002616
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