Chapter 21. "Egoism Is Mistaken" by David Hume

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from "Of Self-Love"
The Reading Selection from "Of Self-Love"
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

David Hume, Thoemmes

About the author…

David Hume (1711-1776) studied law at the University of Edinburgh but soon lost interest. He turned to the study of literature and philosophy; in his words, they were the "ruling passion of my life, and the great source of my enjoyments." His philosophical writings are noted for their empirically constructive skepticism of knowledge and religion. Hume's History of England in six volumes was quite successful at the time, and his analysis of causality continues to be influential.

About the work…

In his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,[1] Hume rewrites much of Book III of his Treatise of Human Nature which contained what he thought to be an overly technical account. His emphasis on utility anticipated the work of Bentham and Mill. Hume presents the first wholly secular modern theory emphasizing the role of social practices and emotion in the making of moral judgments. In fact, Hume is especially noted for his recognition that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."[2] Another point of special emphasis is Hume's argument that statements about what we "ought" to do can never be proved by statements about what we "can" do. In short, "what ought to be the case" cannot be derived from "what is the case"; we cannot derive a prescriptive statement from a descriptive one. In our reading, Hume provides clear counter-examples to egoism, anticipates the "hedonistic paradox," and proposes a criterion to distinguish selfish from nonselfish actions.

Ideas of Interest from "Of Self-Love"

  1. How does Hume characterize the principle of self-love?

  2. What is Hume's argument concerning prima facie counter-examples to the "selfish hypothesis"? What are some of the counter-examples he mentions?

  3. Explain how Hume uses the analogy of animal behavior to support his argument against egoism.

  4. What additional examples does Hume list supporting the existence of human benevolence? What is his argument proving that the clearest explanation of them is not of self-interest?

  5. Explain Hume's proposed distinction between selfishness and non-selfishness based on the "object of the desire." Do we ever seek pleasure directly? That is, explain this idea: If the object of my desire is the benefit of someone else, even if I can receive satisfaction from helping that person, the satisfaction is not the object of the want.



David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. 1777.


David Hume. A Treatise Concerning Human Understanding. 1748. Book II, Part III, Sect. 3.