In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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
  • Hume’s Theory of Political Obligation

Philosophy David Hume: Moral and Political Philosophy
James A. Harris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • 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 since the late 20th century there has been developed a much-richer and more historically sensitive approach to his moral writings. This article indicates the main lines of inquiry 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 article 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 at an introductory level. Harris 2010 provides an overview of some of the principal interpretative issues. Cohon 2010 and Fieser 2006 are freely available online. Baier 2013 is both an elegant survey of the principal themes of Hume’s moral philosophy and an indication of the extent of Hume’s influence on later writers. 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.

  • Baier, Annette. “Hume’s Place in the History of Ethics.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Ethics. Edited by Roger Crisp, 399–420. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    A brief yet comprehensive account of the main themes of Hume’s moral philosophy that is both sensitive to the nuances of the texts and alive to the significance of Hume’s ideas for the present day.

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

    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. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

    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 S. Radcliffe, 388–405. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy 40. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

    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.

    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/CCOL9780521859868

    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.

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

  • Hume Studies.

    Published by the Hume Society, this journal features both articles and book reviews. Volumes 1–36 are currently freely available online.

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