Upcoming Talk with Qu Hseuh Ming, "Hume's Definitions of Virtue"

Saturday, October 08
Event Time 03:00 p.m. - 04:30 p.m.
Cost Free
Location HUM 587
Contact Email landy@sfsu.edu



Hume is widely recognised to endorse a form of virtue ethics. Given this, understanding Hume’s account of virtue is crucial—fundamental, even—to understanding his ethical theory. This is easier said than done. Hume’s account of virtue is deceptively simple on the surface. However, a little probing reveals some deep and important complications. 

This paper aims to investigate and clarify Hume’s definition(s) of virtue. In particular, it examines two questions. First, Hume offers not one, but two definitions of virtue: a more famous one in terms of usefulness and agreeability to the self or to others, and another in terms of eliciting approbation or disapprobation from spectators. Which of the two, if any, should take priority? Second, Hume’s definition of virtue in terms of usefulness and agreeability, when applied to certain traits, delivers unclear or seemingly mistaken results; in particular, some qualities are agreeable but dangerous, while others are useful but disagreeable. How are we to resolve such conflicts?  

I will argue that the answer to these two questions are related. First, I argue (in opposition to a number of commentators) that we should not prioritise the usefulness and agreeability definition; I examine the passages which seem to support such a view and argue that this appearance is deceptive. Second, I argue that we can resolve the problematic cases faced by Hume’s more famous definition of virtue by viewing them in light of the less prominent definition. This gives us reason to think that the definition in terms of approbation and disapprobation is in fact the more fundamental one.

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