The Pathos of Politics (30) David Hume

David Hume

Nothing is more surprising than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few. ~ David Hume

Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) was a staunch subjectivist, his philosophy founded upon skepticism: not bothering to believe beyond what his senses informed (of which he was also skeptical). The only thing that saved him from solipsism was the simple-mindedness of his skepticism.

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. ~ David Hume

Hume’s primary political significance stems from being a predecessor of the utilitarianism developed by Jeremy Bentham a half century hence. Bentham gratefully acknowledged Hume as his inspirational source.

Public utility is the sole origin of justice. The rules of equity or justice depend entirely on the particular state and condition in which men are placed. By rendering justice totally useless, you thereby totally destroy its essence, and suspend its obligation upon mankind. ~ David Hume

Like Hobbes, Hume pointed out that justice is not natural, only the product of human contrivance. There is no law beyond the extent of human society, which invariably leads to certain rules, the first of which is the sanctity of private property (“the ideas of property become necessary in all civil society”).

Consent could not be the basis of a regular administration. ~ David Hume

Hume demolished the myth of social contract. Government is founded by coercion, not consent.

The love of dominion is so strong in the breast of man. When an artful and bold man is placed at the head of an army or faction, it is often easy for him, by employing, sometimes violence, sometimes false pretenses, to establish his dominion over a people a hundred times more numerous than his partisans. By such arts as these, many governments have been established; and this is all the original contract which they have to boast of. The original establishment (of government) was formed by violence, and submitted to from necessity.

The face of the Earth is continually changing, by the increase of small kingdoms into great empires, by the dissolution of great empires into smaller kingdoms, by the planting of colonies, by the migration of tribes. Is there anything discoverable in all these events, but force and violence? Where is the mutual agreement or voluntary association so much talked of? ~ David Hume

Once government is founded, people come to accept it: “habit soon consolidates what other principles of human nature had imperfectly founded.”

The long continuance of that state (being ruled over), an incident common among savage tribes, inured the people to submission. Obedience or subjection becomes so familiar, that most men never make any inquiry about its origin or cause, more than about the principle of gravity, resistance, or the most universal laws of nature. ~ David Hume

Though he favored representative government, Hume questioned the ability of men to govern themselves. Men were easily “seduced” from their greater interest “by the allurement of the present, often very frivolous temptations. This great weakness is incurable in human nature.”

All men are sensible of the necessity of justice to maintain peace and order; and all men are sensible of the necessity of peace and order for the maintenance of society. Yet, notwithstanding this strong and obvious necessity, such is the frailty or perverseness of our nature! It is impossible to keep men, faithfully and unerringly, in the paths of justice. ~ David Hume

Thus, the need for government, which, for Hume, has a sole purpose.

We are to look upon all the vast apparatus of our government as having ultimately no other object or purpose but the distribution of justice. ~ David Hume

As an extension of personal lust for power, Hume understood the temptation of governments toward totalitarianism.

Liberty is the perfection of civil society; but still authority must be acknowledged essential to its very existence. In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between authority and liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. ~ David Hume