The ideal of liberty in the political philosophy of David Hume

Gete, Daniel (2008) The ideal of liberty in the political philosophy of David Hume. MPhil(R) thesis, University of Glasgow.

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There have been two major themes in recent studies of Hume’s political philosophy: on the one hand, the implications, the nature, and the extent of Hume’s anti-rationalistic scepticism; and on the other hand, his continuation of and contribution to the natural law tradition, as it had been generally developed in the late seventeenth century most notably by Grotius and Pufendorff, and in the direction it took within the Scottish Enlightenment in particular. Though these two aspects cover a substantial part of Hume’s work, it has been particularly difficult to place Hume in the context of another major way of thinking about politics, what has been called the Civic Humanist or Republican tradition, which runs parallel to the jurisprudential tradition though often clashing with it in a way that it still debatable and problematic to determine. Though Hume’s entirely secular moral theory is rightly regarded as revolutionary (in philosophical terms) his politics are considered rather conservative and entirely devoted to the principles of peace and stability as central to commercial modernity. From this it would follow that the question of political freedom and free government, especially in regard to its republican understanding, should be a marginal interest in Hume.

In fact, what we find is that Hume actively engages in a crucial question that preoccupied the minds of previous generations of Scottish thinkers, most notably Andrew Fletcher, no less than the post-Union one, in which he belongs: that is the question of whether virtue, as the requirement of personality in the civic humanists’ sense, has any place, and if so which one, in a modern commercial world; or, in its more immediately political sense, whether political freedom, understood as the status of a free individual not as a civil right, has any realistic or desirable role to play. Though Hume’s answer to both questions is a resounding ‘no’ (civic virtue and full exercise of citizenship is possible only in warlike and slavery-based societies) the fundamental insight of republicanism, namely government by law, is not only incorporated into his theory but occupies a central place. First, Hume’s utilitarian-evolutionary account of ethics can, in part, be understood in this context as an assault on the civic humanist or classical republican conception of virtue. Secondly, Hume’s realization—central to his political thought—that modern ‘civilized monarchies’ represent an entirely new political phenomenon, that they mark the new paradigm of government by ‘general and inflexible’ laws, can be understood as a criticism of the classical republican understanding of politics associated with citizenship, political liberty (as opposed to civil) and the ‘active life’.

However, despite Hume’s thorough criticism of classical- and other forms of republicanism, namely Whig contractualism, I argue that Hume’s concept of liberty remains essentially republican: liberty is for Hume the absence of arbitrariness guaranteed by the rule of law, not absence of interference, as in Hobbes. Having argued that modern politics, including the politics of a republic, consists in a perpetual balance between liberty and authority, Hume does not need to radically reform the traditional concept of liberty, because it is no longer the single most important principle. The republican understanding of liberty holds that we might be rendered unfree not only by the actual exercise of interference, but by our being subject to the arbitrary power of someone else, by our being under his domination, by our freedom being dependent on someone else’s will. It is as important to ascertain the target of Hume’s criticisms as their extent. Hume’s revision of contemporary forms of republicanism does not entail a renunciation of the basic republican understanding of freedom but an adaptation of it to the conditions of modern commercial civilization.

Item Type: Thesis (MPhil(R))
Qualification Level: Masters
Keywords: Hume, concepts of liberty, constitutionalism, republicanism, civic humanism, commerce, origin of civil society, naturalistic ethics.
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics
J Political Science > JC Political theory
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > Philosophy
Supervisor's Name: Knowles, Prof. Dudley
Date of Award: 2008
Depositing User: Mr Daniel Gete
Unique ID: glathesis:2008-382
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 10 Oct 2008
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:18

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