The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 11, 1998

Modern Philosophy

James Fieser
Pages 39-45

Hume’s Wide Construal of the Virtues

The term "virtue" has traditionally been used to designate morally good character traits such as benevolence, charity, honesty, wisdom, and honor. Although ethicists do not commonly offer a definitive list of virtues, the number of virtues discussed is often short and their moral significance is clear. Hume's analysis of the virtues departs from this tradition both in terms of the quantity of virtues discussed and their obvious moral significance. A conservative estimate of the various virtues Hume refers to in his moral writings would put the number at around seventy, with the more untraditional ones including wit, good manners, and dialog. Unsurprisingly, Hume's critics have attacked him for making nonsense of the concept of virtue by construing it so widely. Hume was aware that his broad understanding of virtue was controversial and he offered several defenses for it. After presenting the neglected attacks of his contemporaries along with Hume's response, I argue that a problem remains: by failing to distinguish between degrees of virtue, Hume also fails to distinguish between degrees of vice. But, some vices (e.g., malevolence) clearly deserve punishment whereas other alleged vices (e.g., uncleanliness) clearly do not. Thus, for adequate retribution, a distinction is needed between important and less important virtues and vices. I conclude that Hume could have used his own account of instinctive vengeance as a natural indicator for distinguishing between important and unimportant vices.