David Hume: On Conservatism

Riddled throughout both US and international politics are the terms of conservatism and liberalism. Generally speaking, these terms are thrown about with little understanding of their origination or of their meaning, but, when elicited, feelings of emotion, sentiment, and passion are often triggered as epithets of self-identification. David Hume is often described as “the father of Conservatism,” but what is conservatism? Conversely, some have called David Hume a liberal (or, a classical liberal), but what is liberalism? In finding whether David Hume was a conservative or liberal political philosopher, we can define the foundational basis for both liberalism and conservatism.

Hume’s Political Theory

Much of Hume’s writing dealt with political history – most specifically, the History of England – to find the most appropriate and suitable lessons for good government.  Much of the social and political thought of Hume’s day pivoted around deriving political recommendations out of the Bible, but Hume rejected the divine notions of government and of natural rights, and he argued that the best government was built on the grounds of utility (i.e. that which was typically beneficial for the majority). In a rather Aristotelian manner, Hume also argued for the natural association of people to gather into society (i.e. that “man is by nature a political animal’ (Politics 1253a2)). Hume rejected the radical individualism that Locke had asserted through natural rights, but had argued that society was primarily built on the foundations of the family institutions.

Instead of basing government on abstract and metaphysical principles such as the Lockean concept of natural rights and natural law, Hume asserted a case for legal positivism. However, Hume does take notice to various qualities in man that are given by nature – such as the Aristotelian concept of man’s political nature and of his natural inclination towards family organizations and affections. Hume believed that building a government on abstract natural ideas would destabilize a government’s ability to establish utility and social allegiance. Society, he maintained, first came into existence as man had an inclination to form society, but soon the inclination became habit in order to more perfectly administer justice. Only through the processes of government could conventional justice be enforced and peace be established within society.

Conservatism: Livingston on Hume

In David Hume and the Conservative Tradition, Donald W. Livingston tackles what he thinks are misrepresentations of Hume’s supposed liberal political philosophy. Philosophers have pointed to Hume’s skepticism (J.S. Mill), utilitarianism (Jeremy Benthem), and logicial positivism (A.J. Ayer) as proof of Hume’s liberalism. Additionally, Livingstone notes that “these skeptical and positivistic strains, along with [Hume’s] supposed hostility to religion, seem to place Hume outside of the conservative tradition.” However, Livingston is not persuaded, for when all things are settled “Hume emerges not only as part of, but as a foundational figure in, the conservative movement.”

Livingston then uses Russell Kirk to define the “conservative tradition.” To Kirk, conservatism was essentially a “critique of ideology in politics” and a “normal or healthy political society [that] reposes in the enjoyment of inherited traditions and practices.” As such the purpose, or rather the “art,” of politics is to “preserve these general arrangements and, when necessary, to correct them by recourse to principles already intimated in them.” In other words, conservatism is not a movement to correct traditions and practices, but to critique the ideology that would change those customs and habits.

An “ideological style of politics” (i.e. a liberal view on political philosophy), argues Livingston, seeks to find an alternative order of politics through reason – “entirely independent of tradition.” The problem here, as Hume brings up, is how we can know that our philosophical critique and alternative order of politics is built on a correct philosophy itself. For, if our own philosophy is bad, then we are no better than those who we are arguing against. Hume, therefore, seeks to create a method for critiquing those ideologies that would change habit and custom, and, in this we find Hume’s conservative foundation.

Liberalism: Stewart on Hume

In Opinion and Reform in Hume’s Political Philosophy, John B. Stewart argues that Hume is a political liberal. Conservatives, argued Stewart, seek to shrink opinion and belief to mere manifestations of custom, habit, and prejudice – but this, says Stewart, is not what typifies Hume’s political philosophy. Instead, Stewart asserts, Hume’s perception is that opinion is the expression of belief – the same belief that is the basis of Hume’s philosophy concerning moral and political incentives and obligations.

Furthermore, argues Stewart, Hume did not seek to merely maintain custom, habit, or prejudice, but he revolutionized concepts regarding skepticism, dogmatism, and enthusiasm. Additionally, Hume’s influence on economic theory was anything but customary and habitual in his day. In short, Stewart sees Hume as a philosophical revolutionary – as someone who has changed the foundational thought of all political philosophy and economics. To Stewart, liberalism was simply change – whether philosophically or ideologically – from the status quo of custom, habit, and prejudice, and, in Stewart’s eyes, Hume fit that mold of liberalism.

Conclusion: In Response to Livingston and Stewart

My own response to Livingston and Stewart is that Hume’s conservatism was quite revolutionary in its day. In the Treatise and the Enquiry, Hume argues that society (i.e. government) is established when the individual seeks to protect his property (i.e. that which man has acquired in a state of scarcity by his own work and genius) and recognizes that society, through means of utility, can best secure his property to himself. This recognition leads to the social establishment of justice (an arbitrary virtue of pure utility). Society establishes justice, and, over time, also establishes custom and habit. Peace in society (i.e. good order) is maintained through this custom and habit, because men have become use to their conventional systems.

Hume was a spoken advocate of American independence, for he perceived that the American colonialists were not of the same custom and habit as where the British. Hume’s empirical philosophy, during the time of the Enlightenment, has earned him the title of a “classical liberal” philosopher, but his philosophy itself is quite “conservative.” His thought was revolutionary and changed the way people looked at philosophy and at the world, but his conclusion was that justice, peace, and security are better found in abiding by conventional rules, customs, and habits than in revolutionary acts and movements. As such, Hume’s view on the American “Revolutionary” War was that it was not, in fact, “revolutionary.” It was merely an assertion of their own convention that had grown apart from the British common customs.

In the end, I believe both Livingston and Stewart had many things right, but that Livingston had a more accurate general view of Hume than did Stewart. Yes, Mill, Bentham, and Ayer were correct that Hume’s new perspective on skepticism, dogmatism, rejection of divine morals, causality, etc., changed how we look at philosophy and the world. However, conservatism, as Livingston points out, is concerned with addressing revolutionary ideologies that change the status quo (i.e. change the habitual customs that society has become dependent), not with changing the customs and habits themselves. For Hume, his “conservatism” may have been quite “liberal” (hence, earning the title of a classical liberal), but, by today’s standard, Hume was very much a “conservative.”

Comments Off on David Hume: On Conservatism