In This Article David Hume: Moral and Political Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Primary Sources
  • Hume’s Philosophical System
  • Hume’s Moral Philosophy
  • Hume’s Meta-Ethics
  • Justice and Promise Keeping
  • Sympathy and Moral Judgment
  • The Natural Virtues and Humean Character
  • An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals
  • Hume As Normative Ethicist
  • The General Orientation of Hume’s Political Philosophy
  • Critique of Social Contract Theory
  • The Origins and Legitimacy of Government

Philosophy David Hume: Moral and Political Philosophy
James A. Harris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0057


David Hume made a number of significant contributions to moral philosophy, and his ideas and arguments remain central to the subject, both in the classroom and in academic research. For some time Hume was pigeonholed either as a proto-utilitarian or as a precursor to mid-20th-century ethical noncognitivism, but recently there has been developed a much richer and more historically sensitive approach to his moral writings. This entry indicates the main lines of enquiry that this approach has pursued. There has also been a surge of interest in Hume’s political philosophy. Hume is no longer dismissed as a “conservative” apologist for the status quo. This entry gives a survey of the range of interpretations that have been offered since the 1970s.

General Overviews

There are now a number of reliable introductory overviews of Hume’s main contributions to ethics and political philosophy. Baillie 2000 is the only reliable book-length treatment. Harris 2010 provides an overview of some of the principal interpretative issues. Cohon 2004 and Fieser 2006 are freely available online. Haakonssen 2009 is a much-improved version of the chapter with the same title in the first (1993) edition of The Cambridge Companion to Hume; Dees 2008 is an equally useful guide to the main themes of Hume’s political philosophy. Hume Studies is published twice yearly and contains scholarly articles on all aspects of Hume’s philosophy, book reviews, and a very useful comprehensive annual survey of all publications on Hume and his philosophy. All but the most recent issues of the journal are available to all online.

  • Baillie, James. Hume on Morality. London: Routledge, 2000.

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    Part of the useful Routledge Philosophy Guidebook series, aimed at undergraduates. Introduces the relevant elements of Hume’s epistemology and metaphysics and theory of the passions, followed by extensive discussions of Hume’s critique of moral rationalism, his account of the virtues, and his theory of moral judgment.

  • Cohon, Rachel. “Hume’s Moral Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2004.

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    A sophisticated and comprehensive overview, which also argues for a particular reading of Hume’s moral philosophy. Includes a useful bibliography.

  • Dees, Richard H. “‘One of the Finest and Most Subtile Inventions’: Hume on Government.” In A Companion to Hume. Edited by Elizabeth Schmidt Radcliffe, 388–405, Malden, MA: Blackwell. 2008.

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    An elegant and lucid synthesis of some of Hume’s main ideas in his political philosophy. Succeeds well in placing those ideas in their historical context.

  • Fieser, James. “David Hume (1711–1776): Moral Theory.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2006.

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    A clear if unambitious summary of Hume’s moral philosophy; has an interesting final section describing early responses to Hume.

  • Haakonssen, Knud. “The Structure of Hume’s Political Theory.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hume. 2d ed. Edited by David Fate Norton and Jacqueline Anne Taylor, 341–380. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521859868E-mail Citation »

    A rich and suggestive summary of Hume’s political theory that pays attention to historical context and to Hume’s relations with earlier figures in the history of political thought. Provides a helpful synopsis of major trends in interpretation.

  • Harris, James. “Hume.” In Routledge Companion to Ethics. Edited by John Skorupski. London: Routledge, 2010.

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    An overview intended to bring out some of the main interpretative cruxes in recent work on Hume’s moral philosophy.

  • Hume Studies.

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    Compiled by the Hume Society, this journal features both articles and book reviews. Volumes 1–27 are currently available to all users.

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