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Ian Cruise (Dartmouth College), "Hume’s Justice and the Problem of the Missing Motive"
By Ian Cruise
What follows is a short précis for my paper “Hume’s Justice and the Problem of the Missing Motive,” which is forthcoming in Ergo. My aim here is to motivate a philosophical problem with which Hume was concerned and the interpretive question about Hume’s answer to that philosophical question that my paper tries to answer. I will preview my answer to the question, but I leave most of the details of my argument for it in the paper. The interest that I think the paper should have for a larger audience (that is, an audience beyond the narrow circle of Hume scholars) is in the question about the virtue of justice that Hume uses to frame his discussion of justice and injustice in 3.2 of the Treatise. I begin by setting up that question.
You have a friend who reliably respects the rights of others. He pays his debts. He keeps his promises. He doesn’t take what isn’t his. He acts exactly as we would expect a just person, a person with the virtue of justice, to act. Is he a just person?
Many philosophers (correctly, in my view) think that we can’t straightforwardly conclude from his mere behavior that he is a just person. There is a distinction between acting in accordance with the demands of justice and acting justly, as the just person would. This is an instance of the familiar distinction between acting in accordance with virtue and acting virtuously, versions of which (at least if you interpret “virtue” broadly) can be found in Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and many others.
So then what distinguishes the person who acts merely in accordance with virtue from the person who acts virtuously? The most common answer, at least in part, is the person’s motive.
But surely the motive of each of the respective virtues isn’t the same. What motivates the kind person is not what motivates the courageous person. What motivates the generous person is not what motivates the just person.
The question that Hume asks in 3.2.1 of the Treatise is this: What motivates the just person? What motive constitutes justice as a virtue, distinguishes it from the other virtues, and renders just actions virtuous? The burden of 3.2.1 is to reject four different possibilities: a regard to the virtue of the action, self-love, public benevolence, and private benevolence.
The regard to the virtue of the action is motivation by the moral quality of the action in question. In the case of justice, for instance, a regard to the virtue of the action might be a regard to the fact that the action is morally required, i.e., the motive of duty. The problem that Hume identifies for this motive comes out in what has come to be known as Hume’s circle argument.
We’re looking for the motive that makes just actions virtuous, that gives them the moral quality that they have. Now someone proposes that what makes just actions virtuous is a concern for (one of) the moral qualities that the action has, namely, that it is required. But, Hume argues, that’s circular. The motive that gives just actions the moral quality that they have can’t be a concern for one of the moral qualities that they have. This isn’t yet to say that the motive of duty isn’t a virtuous motive. Hume’s argument here, if it succeeds, shows only that the motive of duty can’t be the motive that originally renders actions of the relevant kind virtuous.
There is obviously a lot more to say about the circle argument, particularly concerning Hume’s implicit view that the deontic status of an action depends in some way on the availability of a virtuous motive to perform it. But the ultimate concern of my paper doesn’t depend on the success of this argument. The circle argument is only part of the set up. Suppose that the circle argument succeeds. What are some other possibilities for the motive of justice?
The next one that Hume considers is self-love. Perhaps what motivates acts of justice and renders them virtuous is a concern to promote one’s own interests. While Hume agrees that self-interest can motivate action in accordance with the demands of justice (whether to avoid condemnation or punishment or to maintain one’s reputation), this can’t always be the case. Unrestrained self-love is, in fact, the primary motive of injustice. So self-love can’t be the motive of justice.
Next consider public benevolence. The motive that Hume considers here is a concern to promote the interests of the public at large. Justice is, after all, a good thing for a society. It should, we would hope, benefit society. Perhaps the motive of justice is a concern to promote the interests of the public at large, a kind of generalized benevolence. Hume offers three reasons that this can’t be the motive, but for our purposes, we can merely note that the public interest is simply not at stake in most particular opportunities to act justly. Whether or not I repay a loan has almost no effect on the public interest. Thus, we could be acting justly even when generalized benevolence for the public isn’t what’s motivating us.
Finally, consider a concern for the interests of the other party towards whom we could be acting justly or unjustly. In repaying a loan, for example, I might be motivated by the interests of my lender. Call this private benevolence. Hume again offers a number of reasons to dismiss this motive as a contender. Here’s one. A “profligate debauchee” is made worse off by a large fortune because he has more opportunity to harm himself and others. So private benevolence would motivate dispossessing him. But dispossessing him would be unjust. So private benevolence can’t universally motivate acts of justice.
Hume thinks of the motives we’ve considered so far as natural motives. They are motives that are found, at least to some extent, in human nature even independently of the ways in which living in a society alters and shapes our motivational profiles. Moreover, Hume thinks that this list exhausts the (plausible) possible candidates among the natural motives for the motive of justice. His conclusion is that justice, if it is a virtue at all, must be what he calls an artificial virtue, in the sense that it must be constituted by an artificial motive. By “artificial,” Hume does not mean that the virtue is somehow fake or false. Rather, he means that it depends on social artifice. It is an outgrowth of our natural motivational profile, but it can’t be found simply in our natural motivational profile.
Having eliminated the plausible natural motives from contention, Hume sets himself a task, namely, to identify the artificial motive that constitutes justice as a virtue and thereby renders just actions virtuous. But here’s the problem, the problem to which my paper seeks to make a contribution. Hume never clearly tells us what this artificial motive is. This is the problem of the missing motive.
Many Hume scholars over the years have pitched ideas about what this motive could or should be for Hume (in light of the text and his other commitments). The motives that have been proposed include a redirected form of self-interest, the motive of duty, an unwavering commitment to abide by the rules of justice, a concern for one’s reputation, and a commitment to the value of reciprocal social relations.
My new proposal is that the missing motive is a concern for the public interest, redirected and focused by the social conventions that, on Hume’s view, establish the content of the demands of justice. These conventions, I claim, redirect a concern for the public interest in the sense that they, in virtue of their social function, take over the job of promoting the long-term public interest, leaving the individual who is concerned to promote the public interest with the job only of abiding by the rules of the conventions. This account has two main advantages. First, the motive is an artificial motive in that it depends for its existence on the operation of social conventions. Importantly, though it is related to the kind of natural public benevolence that Hume dismisses, it is not the same. Second (and this, I think, is my account’s main advantage over its competitors), it harmonizes the motive of justice with Hume’s account of the value of justice. Hume is clear that justice is morally valuable because of its role in promoting the public interest. The distinctive virtue of my account is that it makes the virtuous person’s motive align with Hume’s account of the value of justice, which is, I think, an attractive feature of an account of virtue.
The main burden of the paper is to defend this account as a plausible reading of Hume. But given the philosophical problem that Hume’s discussion centers around, I hope the paper is, at the same time, of interest to those seeking an answer to the question of which motive constitutes the virtue of justice. It is meant to be at once a contribution to Hume scholarship and to philosophical theorizing about the nature of virtue and the virtues.
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