An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (2003) Informative Summary


David Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals” is a seminal work in moral philosophy that challenges the prevailing notion that morality is solely derived from reason. Hume argues that while reason plays a role in understanding the consequences of actions, the foundation of moral judgments lies in sentiment, particularly in the feelings of utility and agreeableness.

Hume systematically examines various virtues, dividing them into categories based on their origins and effects. He argues that social virtues like benevolence and justice are esteemed primarily because of their usefulness to society. He emphasizes the role of social sympathy and humanity in our moral judgments, asserting that we naturally feel pleasure at the sight of happiness and displeasure at the sight of misery, influencing our evaluations of individuals and their actions. He further contends that personal virtues like discretion and industry are admired for their immediate benefits to the individual, while qualities like cheerfulness and courage are valued for their intrinsic agreeableness and the positive feelings they evoke in others.

Key Findings:

  • Morality is grounded in sentiment, not solely in reason.
  • Utility and agreeableness are key drivers of moral judgments.
  • Social virtues like benevolence and justice are valuable due to their usefulness to society.
  • Personal virtues are esteemed for their benefits to the individual or their agreeableness to others.
  • Humanity and social sympathy are essential to moral understanding.


  1. The social virtues of benevolence and justice are highly esteemed by society. This is because they are considered necessary for the well-being of mankind.
  2. Justice is not based on individual acts, but on the whole system of actions. The benefit of justice comes from the overall adherence to its rules, even if individual acts may be harmful.
  3. The rules of justice are general and apply to all members of society regardless of their individual character or circumstances. This is necessary for the stability of society.
  4. Public utility is the foundation of property and justice. Without the need for a separation of possessions, the concept of justice would not have emerged.
  5. Justice arises from human conventions, understood as a sense of common interest. Individuals realize that cooperation and adherence to shared rules are necessary for their own well-being.
  6. Courage is a virtue that is often valued above other qualities in uncultivated societies. This is because courage is seen as essential for survival and protection.
  7. The ancient Greeks and Romans placed a high value on physical strength and dexterity. This is due to the importance of physical prowess in warfare during those times.
  8. The merit of benevolence is not solely derived from its usefulness. Its inherent tenderness and the pleasurable feelings it evokes in spectators contribute to its high esteem.
  9. The rules of good manners are established to facilitate social interaction and ease social tensions. They are not based on reason alone, but on the need for social harmony.
  10. Wit and ingenuity are immediately agreeable qualities that are highly valued in societies where conversation and social gatherings are central. They contribute to the enjoyment and delight of company.
  11. Modesty is a quality that is often valued for its ability to flatter others and create a sense of respect. It is also associated with good sense and a willingness to learn.
  12. A desire for fame and reputation is not inherently blameable, but vanity is. Vanity arises from an excessive need for praise and admiration, and it betrays a lack of true dignity.
  13. Cleanliness is considered a virtue because it naturally renders individuals agreeable to others. This demonstrates how seemingly trivial qualities can influence moral judgments.
  14. The origin of some qualities, like grace and genteelness, remains mysterious and inexplicable. They appeal to taste and sentiment, highlighting the limitations of reason in moral understanding.
  15. The concept of moral approbation, or the act of approving of something, is itself a sentiment. It arises from our feelings of utility and agreeableness.
  16. The idea of a “perfect virtue” is based on a combination of useful, agreeable, and immediately gratifying qualities. Cleanthes, as described in the text, serves as an example of such a character.
  17. Monastic virtues like celibacy, fasting, and penance are often rejected by those who value reason and practicality. They are seen as useless and counterproductive to individual happiness and societal well-being.
  18. The debate concerning the relative strength of benevolence and self-love is ultimately irrelevant to the foundation of morals. The presence of even a small amount of benevolence is sufficient to create a distinction between virtue and vice.
  19. Self-love, while a powerful force, is not the sole source of all human motivation. There are other passions and affections, such as ambition, revenge, and vanity, that also drive human behavior.
  20. The love of fame is a significant force in promoting moral behavior. A desire for a good reputation encourages individuals to reflect on their actions and strive for virtue.


  1. No citizen wore mourning for Pericles, the Athenian statesman, after his death. This highlights the high regard he was held in for his humane and beneficent nature.
  2. Polybius, a Roman historian, believed that all sentiments of virtue were rooted in self-love. This is a key example of a theory that Hume seeks to challenge.
  3. The Spartans, in their republic, practiced a form of equality in possessions. This is an example of a society that attempted to implement a more equitable distribution of resources.
  4. The Athenian laws allowed for the marriage of half-sisters through the father, but not through the mother. This reflects the social norms and perceived dangers of intimacy between different family members.
  5. The Scythians valued bravery and conquest. This is illustrated by their practice of using the scalps of their enemies as trophies.
  6. The Suevi, a Germanic tribe, adorned themselves for war and to appear more intimidating to their enemies. This further demonstrates the importance of courage in ancient societies.
  7. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered courage to be the most important virtue, often referred to as “virtue” by itself. This indicates the societal value placed on martial strength and valor.
  8. Ovid was a favorite poet of a French writer when he was 20 years old, but at 40 he preferred Horace. This exemplifies how our tastes and preferences can change over time.
  9. The Roman emperors Nero and Tiberius were known for their cruelty. This highlights the pernicious consequences of unbridled power.
  10. The philosopher Epictetus had only an earthen lamp in his home. This demonstrates his rejection of material possessions and his pursuit of philosophical tranquility.
  11. The Athenian orator Demosthenes praised Philip of Macedon for his courage and unwavering commitment to his cause. This illustrates the admiration for bravery even in an enemy.
  12. The Athenians claimed to have invented both agriculture and laws. This shows their pride in their contributions to society.
  13. The “court of love” in Provence, France, adjudicated matters related to romantic relationships. This exemplifies the existence of specific social rules governing even amorous behavior.
  14. A hump-backed fellow in Paris was paid to allow stock-jobbers to use his hump as a desk. This unusual example demonstrates how the perception of beauty can be influenced by ideas of usefulness and practicality.
  15. The philosopher Aristotle believed that people tend to overvalue themselves, while Montaigne argued that we should be honest about our merits. This highlights contrasting perspectives on self-perception and modesty.


  1. Benevolence: A feeling of goodwill and concern for others.
  2. Justice: The fairness and impartiality of treatment, especially in the distribution of rights and resources.
  3. Utility: The usefulness or benefit that something provides.
  4. Agreeableness: The quality of being pleasing and enjoyable.
  5. Humanity: Compassion, empathy, and concern for the well-being of others.
  6. Social Sympathy: The capacity to share the feelings and experiences of others, particularly those within a community.
  7. Self-love: The natural desire to protect and promote one’s own well-being.
  8. Conventions: Shared agreements or customs within a society that guide behavior.
  9. Deference: Respectful behavior and consideration for others, particularly those of higher rank or status.
  10. Vanity: An excessive pride in oneself and one’s accomplishments, often leading to a desire for attention and admiration.


  1. The story of Pericles, who, on his deathbed, considered the absence of mourning among his citizens as his greatest praise. This illustrates the importance of benevolence and humane qualities in leadership.
  2. The example of the Athenian statesman who secretly gave money to a banished adversary. This highlights the possibility of finding virtue even in an enemy and demonstrates the power of moral sentiment to transcend personal interest.
  3. The allegory of the golden age, where there was no need for justice because of abundance and universal benevolence. This provides a fictional illustration of a society where the rules of justice are irrelevant.
  4. The story of the hump-backed fellow in Paris who made money by allowing stock-jobbers to use his hump as a desk. This showcases how even unusual qualities can be perceived as valuable based on their practicality.
  5. The story of the miser who praises industry and frugality in others but would not share his wealth. This exemplifies the difference between acknowledging the value of a quality and genuinely promoting it.
  6. The example of the ship whose prow is wider than its poop, which is considered more beautiful by an artist because it is practical for navigation. This shows how ideas of usefulness can influence judgments of beauty.
  7. The example of the Roman general Dicaearchus who erected altars to impiety and injustice. This illustrates a character who actively rejects traditional moral norms.
  8. The description of the Roman emperor Vitellius, who, after being overthrown, craved a continued life of ignominy. This contrasts with the noble resignation of Phocion, who embraced death with dignity.
  9. The contrast between the ethics of Homer, which celebrated courage and violence, and those of Fenelon, who valued benevolence and peace. This shows how ethical values have evolved across different cultures and eras.
  10. The story of Harry the IVth of France, whose romantic attachments negatively impacted his political cause. This illustrates how personal flaws and weaknesses can sometimes endear a character to others.

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