Voluntarism and virtue in Hume's moral philosophy

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


The nature of morality and its foundations are prominent subjects of debate in the history of early modern ethics. A standard characterisation of the early eighteenth-century dispute opposes moral rationalism to moral sentimentalism. On the one hand, rationalists take morality to be mind-independent and founded on reason. On the other, sentimentalists argue that moral properties are ultimately constituted by human sentiments. Voluntarism is a third significant option that takes morality to be founded on God’s will. While today we have lost sight of voluntarism as a prominent metaethical position in the history of philosophy, this was a popular doctrine in early modern Europe. In this dissertation, I explore David Hume’s sentimentalist moral philosophy in its conceptual connections with voluntarism. I argue that, despite noticeable differences, voluntarism and sentimentalism share several commitments and presuppositions. Examining Hume’s ethics against the voluntarist background helps us to shed new light on his much-studied account of virtue.

In chapter 1, I introduce Hume’s views on moral virtue and five interpretations of its foundation. In chapter 2, I revive a marginalised interpretation by showcasing the substantial similarities between voluntarist accounts of the foundation of morality and Hume’s thought. In chapters 3 and 4, I delve into affinities of sentimentalism and voluntarism by comparing Hume’s moral philosophy to William King’s and Francis Hutcheson’s. In chapter 5, I show that because of its anti-rationalist and secular features, in Hume’s view, conflict cannot be ironed out by appealing to anything but human nature. I exemplify this with an analysis of envy’s troubling effects and find a solution in the virtue of decency. In chapter 6, I delve deeper into this virtue detailing how it presents a powerful challenge to existing interpretations of Hume’s ethics as a form of motive-based virtue ethics.
Date of Award10 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorJames Anthony Harris (Supervisor)


  • David Hume
  • Virtue
  • Voluntarism
  • Metaethics
  • Envy
  • Decency
  • Virtue ethics
  • Normativity
  • William King
  • Francis Hutcheson

Access Status

  • Full text open

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