For Hume The Bell Tolls
The American spirit is often described as an unquenchable desire for liberty, but it is far more complex. What motivates the entrepreneur and the innovator is not the desire for freedom but the desire to overcome, which is a combination of liberty and utility. These twin values, when combined, maximize the potential of the individual to contribute to society in a manner inaccessible to someone who pursues one and neglects the other.
David Hume, in his An Enquiry Concerning the Principal of Morals, explains how “utility pleases” to describe a natural, and ultimate, end to action that makes things truly useful. Utility, in his definition, is the hybrid of how we commonly use utility and liberty, and his version embodies a truly humanitarian purpose.
He begins by discussing the idea that virtues are deemed “good” because they are useful: “It seems so natural a thought to ascribe to their utility the praise, which we bestow on the social virtues, that one would expect to meet with this principle everywhere in moral writers, as the chief foundation of their reasoning and enquiry. In common life, we may observe, that the circumstance of utility is always appealed to; nor is it supposed, that a greater eulogy can be given to any man, than to display his usefulness to the public, and enumerate the services, which he has performed to mankind and society.”
The contrary is also true, and Hume points out how we naturally disdain those who cause harm to others: “What wonder then, that a man, whose habits and conduct are hurtful to society, and dangerous or pernicious to every one who has an intercourse with him, should, on that account, be an object of disapprobation, and communicate to every spectator the strongest sentiment of disgust and hatred. “
The question, then, is how we deem such actions “useful” and what causes us to act this way. Hume responds by describing how some philosophers attribute virtues, and value, to education, and believe that all values are mere social constructs:
“From the apparent usefulness of the social virtues, it has readily been inferred by sceptics, both ancient and modern, that all moral distinctions arise from education, and were, at first, invented, and afterwards encouraged, by the art of politicians, in order to render men tractable, and subdue their natural ferocity and selfishness, which incapacitated them for society. This principle, indeed, of precept and education, must so far be owned to have a powerful influence, that it may frequently increase or diminish, beyond their natural standard... But that ALL moral affection or dislike arises from this origin, will never surely be allowed by any judicious enquirer. ”
Education is incapable of creating virtues. Instead, society can only teach how to maximize the ability to obtain these virtues: “Had nature made no such distinction, founded on the original constitution of the mind, the words, HONOURABLE and SHAMEFUL, LOVELY and ODIOUS, NOBLE and DESPICABLE, had never had place in any language; nor could politicians, had they invented these terms, ever have been able to render them intelligible, or make them convey any idea to the audience.”
If virtues are natural, then it is possible that individuals only desire to act virtuously because the virtuous actions can benefit the self: “It has often been asserted, that, as every man has a strong connexion with society, and perceives the impossibility of his solitary subsistence, he becomes, on that account, favourable to all those habits or principles, which promote order in society, and insure to him the quiet possession of so inestimable a blessing, As much as we value our own happiness and welfare, as much must we applaud the practice of justice and humanity, by which alone the social confederacy can be maintained, and every man reap the fruits of mutual protection and assistance.”
However, self-benefit is not the only motivation for virtue, and we often praise the success of those who either provide no benefit to us or who have a rival interest to our own. Self-interest cannot explain most of our natural, core beliefs.
Instead, as Hume argues, we have a natural tendency to see the best for our society as a whole: “We must adopt a more public affection, and allow, that the interests of society are not, even on their own account, entirely indifferent to us. Usefulness is only a tendency to a certain end; and it is a contradiction in terms, that anything pleases as means to an end, where the end itself no wise affects us. If usefulness, therefore, be a source of moral sentiment, and if this usefulness be not always considered with a reference to self; it follows, that everything, which contributes to the happiness of society, recommends itself directly to our approbation and good-will.”
We are social animals, and we exist to form societies. Ultimately, what drives the human spirit is to bring about happiness for the self and for others: “All mankind so far resemble the good principle, that, where interest or revenge or envy perverts not our disposition, we are always inclined, from our natural philanthropy, to give the preference to the happiness of society, and consequently to virtue above its opposite. Absolute, unprovoked, disinterested malice has never perhaps place in any human breast; or if it had, must there pervert all the sentiments of morals, as well as the feelings of humanity.”
At the same time, we value in others attributes that allow them to most benefit themselves. We respect and praise those who are competent, and we honor success and skill just as we disfavor the opposite: “It seems evident, that where a quality or habit is subjected to our examination, if it appear in any respect prejudicial to the person possessed of it, or such as incapacitates him for business and action, it is instantly blamed, and ranked among his faults and imperfections. Indolence, negligence, want of order and method, obstinacy, fickleness, rashness, credulity; these qualities were never esteemed by any one indifferent to a character; much less, extolled as accomplishments or virtues.”
However, skill, without purpose, is squandered and empty. We desire to see success, not just raw talent, and talent put to purpose benefits the self and the society: “A due medium, says the Peripatetics, is the characteristic of virtue. But this medium is chiefly determined by utility. A proper celerity, for instance, and dispatch in business, is commendable. When defective, no progress is ever made in the execution of any purpose: When excessive, it engages us in precipitate and ill-concerted measures and enterprises: By such reasonings, we fix the proper and commendable mediocrity in all moral and prudential disquisitions; and never lose view of the advantages, which result from any character or habit.”
Turning to industry, Hume asks, “What need is there to display the praises of industry, and to extol its advantages, in the acquisition of power and riches, or in raising what we call a FORTUNE in the world? The tortoise, according to the fable, by his perseverance, gained the race of the hare, though possessed of much superior swiftness. A man's time, when well husbanded, is like a cultivated field, of which a few acres produce more of what is useful to life, than extensive provinces, even of the richest soil, when over-run with weeds and brambles.”
Merely obtaining riches and then spending them in a haphazard manner cannot lead to happiness or praise because it is ultimately a waste. Deep down, we recognize this problem, as Hume warns, “But all prospect of success in life, or even of tolerable subsistence, must fail, where a reasonable frugality is wanting. The heap, instead of increasing, diminishes daily, and leaves its possessor so much more unhappy, as, not having been able to confine his expences to a large revenue, he will still less be able to live contentedly on a small one.”
That is not to say we should hoard wealth, because even that has is its own form of wasting potential. Ultimately, the greatest advantage that can be obtained from success is having an impact on life, not temporary pleasures, and those who are weak focus more on frivolity than great works: “One considerable cause is the want of strength of mind, which might enable them to resist the temptation of present ease or pleasure, and carry them forward in the search of more distant profit and enjoyment.”
We must value utility to provide purpose to our actions, but we must also value liberty to provide the freedom to act. We are not cogs in a machine, merely serving some greater force. Instead, we are individuals who understand that our greatest success comes when we truly change this world. The American spirit calls us to great deeds, and we are disposed to celebrate them wherever they appear.
The innovator and the entrepreneur are the great embodiment of the American spirit. They specialize in navigating society, and they seek to have an impact on all people. If their success or invention existed only for them, then they wasted their potential for greatness. Instead, their actions and goals must serve to guide society forward to a better future to have a true impact - which, in turn, handily compensates them.
However, the innovator and the entrepreneur also require the freedom to operate and pursue their path, and interfering with them is to interfere with society as a whole. The petty jealousies of others, as Hume explains, should be disdained and rejected. We must reject such vicious behavior before it foments social or legal policies that seek to harm those who are successful. The success of society is a success for us all, and we should not interfere with those who allow society to succeed.
Jeffrey Peters is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and political consultant.