Volume 11, 1998
Marcia L. Homiak
Does Hume Have an Ethics of Virtue?
Some Observations on Character and Reasoning in Hume and Aristotle
I argue that Hume's ethics can be characterized as a virtue ethics, by which I mean a view according to which character has priority over action and the principles governing action: virtuous character guides and constrains practical deliberation. In a traditional utilitarian or Kantian ethics, character is subordinate to practical deliberation: virtue is needed only to motivate virtuous action. I begin by outlining this approach in Aristotle's ethics, then draw relevant parallels to Hume. I argue that virtuous character in Aristotle is understood in terms of "self-love." A true self-lover enjoys most the exercise of the characteristic human powers of judging, choosing, deciding and deliberating. A virtuous agent's self-love enables sizing up practical situations properly and exhibiting the virtue called for by the situation. But if an agent's character is defective, the practical situation will be misapprehended and responded to improperly. I argue that though Hume claims moral judgments are the product of sympathy, they are actually the result of a complex process of practical reflection and deliberation. Although Hume writes as though anyone can be a judicious spectator, there is reason to think that persons of calm temperament, who enjoy deliberation and have a facility for it, are more likely to perform the corrections in sentiments that may be necessary. If this is so, an agent's character has priority over his or her practical deliberations.