Friday, October 1, 2010

David Hume and Benjamin Franklin

Continuing my journal on the Philosophy of Ethics, I make a turn into the world of David Hume, a Scottish Philosopher from the 18th century, who died the same year that the American Colonies declared independence, 1776. In many ways, Mr. Hume expands the thoughts of John Locke, the famous political theorist to whom much of America’s founders attested. These small but all too significant connections to American history are somewhat the point of this short reflection. Please, enjoy

Having made an artful reflection on Mr. Mill’s Utilitarianism, I wish to take a different approach with Mr. Hume. For, I have happened upon a most interesting connection, which I wish to investigate thoroughly.

Through the first few sections of the Enquiry, Mr. Hume outlines two “social virtues”: benevolence and justice, which seem to derive their purpose from utility or “beneficial tendencies.” Mr. Hume uses the first to demonstrate that utility does play “a part of their merit.” And in the second, Mr. Hume reveals how certain states of society have no use for justice, and so justice is, therefore, “suspended, in such a pressing emergence[s].” It is apparent then that these virtues are void of any objective reality. Indeed, Mr. Hume has subjected them to something he sees as far greater, the free market. Mr. Hume’s love of property is no secret, yet the idea becomes apparent in his discussion on “Luxury” in which he claims that luxury does not corrupt man as thought of in the past, but rather “regulate[s] anew our morals as well as political sentiments.” In other words, it could be said that Mr. Hume finds the basis for these “social virtues” in the market and, in fact, are promulgated and regulated by it. This is Mr. Hume’s so called: “moralizing market.”[1]

Moving back to the connection I hinted at in the beginning, Benjamin Franklin is another such thinker that sees virtues as subject to and finding purpose in industry and utility, even including industry and frugality in his list as virtues in and of themselves. “Nothing so likely to make a Man’s Fortune as Virtue.”[2] Though this may seem apparent already, the connection is cemented through a letter exchanged after a visit by Mr. Franklin to England.[3] Although the exchange is merely a cordial one, its confirmation makes one see Mr. Franklin’s ethics, a very American ethics, as Humian—all too Humian.[4]


[1] The major point to gather here, since it is somewhat of a sweeping summary, is that Mr. Hume believes that a free market, laissez faire, will actual moralize, that is, enforce morals upon the people. Although there is some truth here, for markets only function if the participants do act morally, yet Mr. Hume has inverted the relationship. The market is a tool by which moral people can regulate and distribute goods. In other words, moral people make the market work, not the market makes moral people. Pope Leo XIII speaks of this and its relation to a rising economical theory known as Marxism (Communism) in his encyclical Rerum Novarum. The Pope will speak in this document how both systems are improper materialistic reductions of the human person. A very good read.

[2] Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, inc., 1986. Cited in footnote on page 74.

[3] Ibid 231; appears in the “Criticism” section of the edition.

[4] This is a play on words Nietzsche’s words, “human…all too human.” The important thing to note here is how this materialistic reduction of human morality has entered the American mindset. We must realize in this instance our own origins and ask ourselves if the way of thinking we have inherited is correct. We exalt men such Benjamin Franklin, yet do we know their mentors and idols? And do we agree with them?

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