Hume on the Moral Obligation to Justice

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Abstract

There is a prominent place in recent work on Hume's moral philosophy for the idea that Hume is best placed in the tradition of virtue ethics. I argue in this paper that Hume's theory of justice cannot be given a virtue-theoretic construal. I argue that Hume should rather be placed in the tradition of theorizing about justice inaugurated by Grotius. In this tradition, the moral obligation to justice is spelled out in terms of the necessity of respect for property, for contracts, and for political authority in a stable and peaceful society. In this tradition, furthermore, justice is regarded as primarily as a matter of respecting perfect rights, and, relatedly, as primarily manifest in omissions rather than in actions. The search for an agent-state definitive of Hume's just person is fruitless, I suggest, because Hume himself gives reasons to believe that there is no such thing. I argue that for Hume the just person is, simply, someone who obeys the conventions that define the nature of justice, regardless of why she does so.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-50
JournalHume Studies
Volume36
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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