Become a Fan

« the road to me; the royal road to me; the road to a shared future (or how Soames is a Hegelian, and Michael Kremer a Skinnerian) | Main | PhD and post-doc positions in Groningen »

26 September 2011


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference David Hume on Divine injustice, with a surprising twist:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Mark Eli Kalderon

WRT #4, justice for Hume is rather anemic---it is just rules governing property. God's justice is presumably more robust than this. This is also relevant to #3. Of course there are two normative frameworks at work here, justice is an artificial virtue established by convention, whereas compassion is a natural virtue, innate to human nature to some variable degree. My bet (I would have to check) is that Hume views such creatures as incapable of entering into the conventions governing property and so these conventions are not applicable to them.

Michael Kremer

Eric: I think you mean "Kate Abramson."

Eric Schliesser

Corrected, thank you!

Eric Schliesser

WRT #4. This is true (I have noted this in one of my papers), but depending one one's society's conventions, property can have a very wide scope.
WRT #3. Yes, I believe that Hume is saying that if one cannot make one's resentment felt (but that is a very minimal requirement--all adult Humans (except the comatose, but their property rights may be secured in all kinds of prudential ways), are part of it) then conventions of justice are not applicable to that rational creature.

Katy Abramson

giggle-- what did you say before you corrected it to "Kate Abramson", Eric? :)
(more on substance later; must go teach Aristotle now...)

Eric Schliesser

Don't ask me why, Katy, but I called you "Kate Abrahamson."

Mark Eli Kalderon

Well property is meant to have certain features. For example, it must be easily transferrable. This is what rules out the air from being owned. These features set a limit to what can count as property. I suspect that they rule out Lockean claims about self-ownership (though I suspect that Locke himself thought that my body was less my property, strictly speaking, than proper to me). So I wonder just how far Hume's conception of property can be expanded.

Eric Schliesser

Fair question, Mark. Given that Hume likens property to superstition (in more than one place), I suspect that as long as folk think some 'property' can be transferred (and is scarce, etc) it can figure in a convention of justice.

Katy Abramson

no ham, it's kosher Eric. :)
-- more soon, must go get food before I engage philosophically.


“Make us feel the effects of their resentment” is ambiguous in a way that impinges on your fourth point concerning God. On one reading it means “cause us pain for having harmed them”; on another, “bring about some change or other in us as a result of resenting us”. Hume clearly wants justice to concern power alone, so that the hold another has on me by way of compassion is of no importance to questions of justice. The second reading is in fact excluded. What is the significance of that choice?

Concerning God: omnipotence entails that no human act can ever be performed in opposition to the divine will. But this concerns only the absolute power of God. One might attempt to recuperate a notion of justice in the relation of God to creatures (not just us: the angels too!) by appealing to the potentia ordinata of God. Post creation, God has bound himself to act in accordance with the laws of nature, which for this discussion include those of justice. In particular, it would be reasonable within a Christian theology to hold that after Christ God has bound himself to be moved by our suffering; and so will have obligations he did not have before. Justice itself would have been altered by the coming of Christ.

Setting aside what is peculiar to a Christian standpoint, one might well ask why Hume found it advisable to distinguish the laws of justice from those of humanity. Or again: does justice have a place only where power has not already decided the outcome? But then it seems that Hume is worse off even than you make him out to be. For example, in a perfect system of slavery, in which revolt was impossible physically or psychologically, there would be no question of its being unjust: the very perfection of the system would have removed it from the scope of justice.

Eric Schliesser

I agree that the second reading is excluded.
On the fourth point: acting from compassion is (on the Humean model) not acting according to justice, but from humanity. So, the disagreement is partly about words (and how to define justice).
In a perfect system of slavery there would still be the fact of the matter that the laws of humanity are violated; there is no question in Hume about the immorality of a perfect system of slavery.


But in the situation that I described wouldn’t enslavement still be unjust as well as inhumane? I don’t mean according to Hume’s definition, but according to us; I’m intending this to take issue with the way Hume pulls justice apart from compassion, and to show (if you agree that enslavement would still be unjust in that situation) that Hume is mistaken in doing so. This is not a disagreement about words.

Eric Schliesser

Well, your criticism of Hume echoes Adam Smith's criticism; and I am not unsympathatic to it (more about this below).
However, I kind of like Hume's minimalism about justice (not his story about either the origin of the feeling of justice nor the moral psychology in its justification). Too much gets packed into justice, and I disagree with you that compassion is a part of it. (I say this, in part, to give compassion its proper due.) doesn't follow that your perfect slavery example gives you what you want from it. Smith thinks it is unjust because us spectators can resent with the harm done to the victims. But that still allows us to distinguish this feeling from the compassion we (or even the perfect despots) might feel for the slaves.


I read Hume as descriptive here, not prescriptive. This is how groups of peoples, formerly excluded from certain protections or benefits of the laws, acquire those protections or benefits for themselves -- being able to organize and make the effects of their resentment felt. Hume mentions women and indigenous Americans as cases in point. I think you could extend Hume's view to cover rights to animals, etc., by having human proxies who agitate for their cause.

Eric Schliesser

Jackie, I agree Hume's point is descriptive; but isn't it descriptive of how justice works? I also agree with your point about how formerly exclusive groups can be included in the sphere of Humean justice.
I also agree that there is scope for proxies in Hume's account. (This might be the kind of progress he does advocate, but he might also see it is a species of inevitable superstition--which is how he also talks of justice.)

Dan Kervick

Eric, you are singling out a fascinating passage! Thanks.

Scalinger raises a very interesting question about what Hume means by "make us feel the effects of their resentment", as a necessary condition for our intercourse with some creatures constituting a society with them, and involving restraints of justice on us toward them. I'm inclined to agree that Hume doesn't think it is sufficient here that the creatures in question might be able to make us merely feel or perceive that they are in pain or resentful, or even make us empathize with them, because Hume believes that dogs can do these things, but not enter into society with us. What Hume seems to require is that the creatures be able to offer some form of capable resistance.

But it's a subtle concept, because in the next paragraph he seems to argue that although the males in all countries, when united, have the power to subordinate the women of their country, women nevertheless commonly succeed in "breaking the confederacy" of men and entering with men into the sphere of justice, right and society. He attributes the cause of their success to their "insinuation, address and charms". So it appears the "resistance" in question need not be violent.

Perhaps he has something in mind like the sexual politics of Lysistrata, in which sexual resistance succeeds in breaking the confederacy of men?

He later describes a process by which these insinuations, addresses and charms succeed in bringing about the conjunction of sexes, generation, families, familial love, and the recognition of the utility of rules for the subsistence of families.

I suppose the reason Hume thought it was advisable to distinguish the virtue of justice from the virtue of humanity is just because he thought it was in fact true that there is a distinction between these kinds of virtue, and that he was giving an accurate description of what the virtue of justice actually consists in. Justice for Hume is a "cautious, jealous" social virtue that consists of habits of restraint, adherence to rules distinguishing what is mine from what is thine, that are universally perceived as agreeable on account of their social utility. These habits only possess utility, and are only perceived as possessing utility, in familiar contexts of human intercourse fraught with the potential for conflict and disorder; and when we vary those contexts in significant ways, these habits lose either their utility or intelligibility.

I would read Hume as some kind of moral positivist. The rules of justice are an artificial system. They are the work of human beings, and exist to provide solutions to certain problems. Where those problems don't exist their can be no system of justice.

I'm not sure how far a view popular in the Christian tradition has to go to become heretical. But isn't it one reading of the Book of Job, and one strand in much subsequent divine command thinking, that as God is the author of the world, its beings and its laws, human beings can have no claims of any kind against God? They are entitled to no hearings and no answers, and whatever satisfactions they receive from God, including answers to prayers, petitions, and desires for explanation, they receive as a matter of grace and not justice?

Eric Schliesser

It is my sense (again I am no theologian) that the reason why Christians like Job is his perseverance in suffering (the Epistle of James 5:11) and his utterances are treated as prefiguring the coming of Christ []. But I agree that the moral that you draw from it is also very Christian.
Anyway, the crucial point is that if I am right in thinking that the analogy between God and humans (even angels) is not far from Hume's thought here (and that is not so crazy because in EPM 3.2, Hume explicitly draws attention to the connection between his argument on justice and reasons for worshiping gods), then Hume would have accepted that the problem of evil (if understood as a species of justice) is (despite the discussion in the Dialogues) not really a big deal to Theists. A skeptic can find much to like in the book of Job, after all.:)

Dan Kervick

Yes, I think I agree with you on Hume on the problem of evil, Eric. Although maybe Hume means to stretch traditional Christian theists between the horns of a dilemma: A God who is properly subject to the terms of human moral appraisal would have to be (i) much more like us than theologians are disposed to accept, and (ii) morally dubious to boot. To save Christian doctrine from these inconveniences (I love that Humean word!), the theologian has to accept the distance between God and human moral appraisal. But then all of the usual, popular doctrines about divine governance and the future state are thrown on the rubbish heap. Either way, there can be no God such as standardly conceived in the Christian doctrine of Hume's time.

Eric Schliesser

I like how you state this, Dan!:) Thank you.

D.P. O'Connell

The passage is odd, in context, as Jackie has commented already: it starts off like a thought-experiment which might be used to underscore his point about 'UTILITY as the origin of Justice'. But then he goes on to point to specific cases where this has happened and is happening, mentioning the Indians and women. What struck me most is that this paragraph sounds descriptive of an historical case which would have been very much ready-to-hand for Hume: The way in which the English regarded / treated the Irish in the 18th century. I'm surprised no one has mentioned it, and most of all surprised that Hume did not mention it. But perhaps he had not been made to 'feel their resentment'…?—Daniel

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.