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How David Hume became the First Modern Humanist

1. The Paradox of Modern Humanism

At the heart of modern humanism is a paradoxical combination of attitudes: scepticism about religion, but optimism about human nature. By optimism about human nature I mean the view that, not only is it possible for us to be nice to each other, but it is possible for us to do this because we genuinely care. For certain kinds of theist there is a natural explanation for our benevolent nature: we are made in the image of a benevolent God. For certain kinds of pessimist, meanwhile, the problem does not arise: we may be nice to each other, but only in order to get something for ourselves in return. How can the humanist reconcile her optimism with the lack of belief in a morally good creator?

This puzzling pair of attitudes first arose in the eighteenth century, in the mind of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume had been a sceptic about religion from early in his life, and was consequently a pessimist about human nature. Somewhere in the late 1730s, however, he was persuaded by a young English clergyman, Joseph Butler, that genuinely benevolent actions were possible. This change of mind is intriguing enough in itself, but what is particularly fascinating in the present case is that Hume was not thereby persuaded to believe in God. Humanist ideals have, in one way and another, been around as long as the written word. But in Hume we have, I believe, the first example of a recognisably modern humanist.

In what follows I will tell the story of this extremely significant moment in the history of ideas. I will then describe Hume’s own refreshingly modest solution to the humanist conundrum, of how to account for benevolence in the absence of a benevolent creator, before pointing the reader towards some more recent research that offers a potentially fruitful way to push the boundaries of human understanding further than Hume himself thought possible.

2. Some Late Philosophers in England

Following the recent successes of the scientific method in furthering our understanding of the natural world, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a number of thinkers attempting to apply this method to the study of the human mind. Hume viewed himself as a member of this exciting intellectual movement, seeking inclusion among the ranks of those “late philosophes in England,” as he referred to them, “who have begun to put the science of man on a new footing”: John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, Francis Hutcheson, and Joseph Butler. (Mandeville was in fact a Dutchman, though he lived his adult life in London. Hutcheson was actually a Scot, like Hume. But these were the early days of the Union, and Hume was eager to please his English readers.)

While these five writers agreed on the method, they disagreed on what this method revealed about human nature. One of the most important controversies concerned the status of “the selfish hypothesis”, the view that all human motivation is reducible to a self-love, the desire for personal pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Locke thought it obvious that pleasure and pain were the only motivators:

To excite us to these Actions of thinking and motion, that we are capable of, the Author of our being has been pleased to join to several Thoughts, and several Sensations, a perception of Delight. If this were wholly separated from all our outward Sensations, and inward Thoughts, we should have no reason to prefer one Thought or Action, to another; Negligence, to Attention; or Motion, to Rest.

A good Christian, he saw the prospects of divine reward and punishment in the afterlife as the only basis of moral motivation; “it being impossible to set any other motive or restraint to the actions of a free understanding agent but the consideration of good and evil; that is, pleasure or pain that will follow from it”.

Shaftesbury did not agree, and together with his intellectual heirs in the next generation, Hutcheson and Butler, he argued vehemently for a more optimistic view of human nature, according to which (as Hutcheson put it), “we have not only Self-Love, but benevolent Affections also toward others, in various Degrees, making us desire their Happiness as an ultimate End, without any view to private Happiness”. This, they thought, is only to be expected, since God is good, and he made us in His image.

3. The Cart Before the Horse

Mandeville did not share Locke’s belief in God, but he did share his pessimistic view of motivation. A keen observer of human nature, he thought Shaftesbury was painfully naïve: “His notions I confess are generous and refin’d: They are a high Compliment to Human-kind, and capable by the help of a little Enthusiasm of Inspiring us with the most Noble Sentiments concerning the Dignity of our exalted Nature: What Pity it is that they are not true.” Mandeville was a key influence on Adam Smith, one of the first modern economists, and the selfish view of human nature remains at the heart of mainstream economic models of human behaviour today.

The trouble with the selfish hypothesis is that it is seemingly irrefutable. Given any putative example of genuinely unselfish behaviour, the pessimist can always appeal to hidden selfish motives. And when the more obvious motives fail, they can always appeal as a last resort to the pleasures of altruism. When we help other people, it makes me feel good; and when we fail to help them, it makes us feel bad. If nothing else, then, perhaps it is this that really compels us: we act, not so that other people should be happy, but in order to feel the pleasure of having made them so.

It was Butler, in his sermons (preached at Rolls Chapel, and published in 1726), that pointed out the flaw in this argument: it gets things fundamentally back to front. We do indeed feel a pleasure when others are happy. But why? It is for no other reason than that we want them to be happy; the pleasure consists in the satisfaction of this benevolent desire. Consequently the desire cannot be self-interested, on pain of circularity. The pessimist wants the pleasure to explain the apparently benevolent desire. But in truth it is the desire that explains the pleasure:

The very idea of an interested Pursuit, necessarily pre-supposes particular Passions or Appetites; since the very Idea of Interest or Happiness consists in this, that an Appetite or Affection enjoys its Object… Take away these Affections, and you leave Self-love absolutely nothing at all to employ itself about; no End or Object for it to pursue, excepting only that of avoiding Pain.

In contrast with Locke, who maintained there could be no desire without pleasure, Butler pointed out that there could be no pleasure without desire.

4. David Hume’s Story

David Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711, and spent his childhood both there and at his family home of Ninewells, near the English border in Berwickshire. In his late teens he developed a passion for philosophy, and for philosophical and religious debates, especially about causation, free will, morality, and the nature and existence of God. At some point—we know very little about the details—he lost the faith in which he had been raised, being persuaded that the philosophical arguments in favour of religious scepticism were stronger. By the time he was twenty he had developed a passion for Mandeville, and was essentially a secular pessimist in the same mould.

His first work, A Treatise of Human Nature, was mostly written in France, between 1734 and 1737, and it owes much to the influence of Mandeville. When he returned to Britain in 1737, however, the plot begins to thicken. Butler was now a national success, having published his Analogy of Religion in 1736, one of the greatest presentations of the argument for intelligent design ever written. We know that Hume read this work (a copy of the original 1736 edition survives in his library), and we know that he was suitably impressed (he wrote as much in surviving letters of the period). I conjecture it was also around this time that Hume decided to read Butler’s Sermons of 1726, hoping to find in them further interesting philosophical arguments concerning the existence of God. What he found, however, was the argument described above against the selfish hypothesis of Locke and Mandeville, and which he too had assumed in his manuscript.

But the young Scotsman was impatient to publish, and to try the favour of the public with his new ideas. A contract was already being negotiated with a London printer. In 1739 the first two books of his Treatise appeared, with a third following in 1740. Hume had initially planned two more, but now he abandoned the project. He would later write, in a letter to a friend, that the book “so much displeases me, that I have not Patience to review it”. In a letter to another friend he revealed: “I was carry’d away by the Heat of Youth & Invention to publish too precipitately. So vast an Undertaking, plan’d before I was one and twenty, & compos’d before twenty five, must necessarily be very defective. I have repented my Haste a hundred, & a hundred times.”

Already in 1741 Hume was singing a very different tune. A set of Essays, Moral and Political that he published that year (his first publication following the regrettable Treatise) included one entitled Of the Dignity of Human Nature. The phrase was Mandeville’s, but where the Dutchman had used it to mock what he saw as Shaftesbury’s naïve optimism, Hume here argues against Mandeville and his own earlier self:

Those philosophers, that have insisted so much on the selfishness of man… found, that every act of virtue or friendship was attended with a secret pleasure; whence they concluded, that friendship and virtue could not be disinterested. But the fallacy of this is obvious. The virtuous sentiment or passion produces the pleasure, and does not arise from it. I feel a pleasure in doing good to my friend, because I love him; but do not love him for the sake of that pleasure.

This, of course, was precisely Butler’s argument.

5. Why Are We Good?

What is most interesting about Hume is not so much that he was persuaded by Butler to believe in genuinely unselfish motivation. Rather, it is that he was not thereby persuaded to believe in God. And so we are brought back to the humanist paradox. If a benevolent God didn’t make us in His image, then why is it that we are not purely selfish?

I fear Hume’s response to this difficulty will appear disappointing out of context, but to my mind it is nothing short of brilliant. When everyone took it for granted that there must be an explanation, and that a benevolent creator was clearly the most plausible, Hume had the modesty to acknowledge that there was something here he simply could not explain:

It is needless to push our researches so far as to ask, why we have humanity or a fellow-feeling with others. It is sufficient, that this is experienced to be a principle in human nature. We must stop somewhere in our examination of causes; and there are, in every science, some general principles, beyond which we cannot hope to find any principle more general. No man is absolutely indifferent to the happiness and misery of others. The first has a natural tendency to give pleasure; the second, pain. This every one may find in himself. It is not probable, that these principles can be resolved into principles more simple and universal, whatever attempts may have been made to that purpose.

This would perhaps be as good a place as any to end: with a sceptical reminder that modern humanism arose out of an appreciation of the limits of human understanding.

While the limits will always remain, however, with luck we may hope to push them back a little further. And optimistic humanists have been far from idle since Hume’s day. Thanks to Charles Darwin, himself heavily influenced by Hume, we now have a general framework for explaining certain aspects of human nature, without appeal to intelligent design. There is much debate concerning how altruism evolved, and I have space left only to point to what I take to be the most plausible avenue of research: the game theoretic approach. Those wishing to learn more about this should read Robert Axelrod’s excellent book, The Evolution of Cooperation. And those curious about the details of Hume’s story may like to keep an eye out for my own book, An Enquiry Concerning the Passions, which I hope—thanks to the generous support of the Conway Hall Ethical Society*—to publish soon.


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