A Puzzling Passage in "Why Utility Pleases"

Hume Studies 26 (1):179-181 (2000)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Hume Studies Volume XXVI, Number 1, April 2000, pp. 179-181 A Puzzling Passage in "Why Utility Pleases" PHILLIP D. CUMMINS It could hardly be controversial that in "Why utility pleases," Section V of his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume purports to tell his readers why utility pleases. It is not controversial that in that section he rejected the deduction of morals from self-love, that is, the thesis that utility pleases because actions and policies possessing it inevitably are in the actual or perceived selfinterest of the person who approves of them. This is not to deny there are interpretive issues. Nor is it to deny that there are passages which puzzle. Here is one: This deduction of morals from self-love, or a regard to private interest, is an obvious thought, and has not arisen wholly from the wanton sallies and sportive assaults of the sceptics. To mention no others, POLYBIUS, one of the gravest and most judicious, as well as most moral writers of antiquity, has assigned this selfish origin to all our sentiments of virtue. But though the solid, practical sense of that author, and his aversion to all vain subtilties, render his authority on the present subject very considerable, yet is not this an affair to be decided by authority, and the voice of nature and experience seems plainly to oppose the selfish theory. The quotation is from the new Oxford Philosophical Texts edition of the Enquiry edited by Tom L. Beauchamp, who is also responsible for the critical Phillip D. Cummins is at the Department of Philosophy, 269 English Philosophy Building, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242-1408, USA. e-mail: [email protected] 180 Phillip D. Cummins edition. It should be noted that the quoted version agrees with both Nidditch's revised Selby-Bigge edition and the older but still useful Hendel edition. In short, this seems to be the standard wording. Nonetheless, the passage seems both to need correction and to be easily corrected. Hume presents Polybius as a highly respected defender of the selflove theory,1 one whose "authority on the present subject" is considerable. This asserted, he adds, "yet is not this an affair to be decided by authority, and the voice of nature and experience seems plainly to oppose the selfish theory." If we contrast the actual wording of the first conjunct to "yet is this an affair to be decided by authority," which expresses a genuine question, it is obvious that the first conjunct is a rhetorical question which implies that authority should decide the issue. The prior reference to Polybius seems to imply that he is the authority in question. Since, according to Hume, Polybius endorsed the selfish theory, the first conjunct itself seems to endorse the selfish theory. However, the second conjunct explicitly and directly challenges that very theory by asserting that both nature and experience oppose it. Thus, in the same sentential unit an appeal to authority is first endorsed, though it is in opposition to Hume's subsequent position, then rejected, as one would expect it to be, given that position. At worst there is inconsistency; at best a muddle. The simple correction is to rearrange three words in the first conjunct, replacing "is not this" with "this is not." These two phrases are generally used in opposition to one another; consider, for example, "Is not this the time to celebrate?" and "This is not the time to celebrate." The former grammatically is a question but its rhetorical function is to imply that it is indeed the time to celebrate, which the latter flatly denies. Note that in the present case, "yet this is not an affair to be decided by authority, and the voice of nature and experience seems plainly to oppose the selfish theory" expresses a claim perfectly in keeping with the argument that follows. Hume will appeal to nature and experience to oppose even those important authorities who endorse the selfish theory. It might be objected that my proposed correction is not needed because sense can be made of the key sentential unit, "yet... theory," as it stands. It might be argued that in the first...

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