The Boundaries of Justice: David Hume and our world.

December 30, 2011

The New Republic:

David Hume was born three hundred years ago, in 1711. The world has changed radically since his time, and yet many of his ideas and admonitions remain deeply relevant, though rather neglected, in the contemporary world. These Humean insights include the central role of information and knowledge for adequate ethical scrutiny, and the importance of reasoning without disowning the pertinence of powerful sentiments. They also include such practical concerns as our responsibilities to those who are located far away from us elsewhere on the globe, or in the future.

Hume’s influence on the nature and reach of modern thinking has been monumental. From epistemology to practical reason, from aesthetics to religion, from political economy to philosophy, from social and cultural studies to history and historiography, the intellectual world was transformed by the enlightening power of his mind. In his own time, Hume’s ideas encountered considerable resistance from more orthodox thinkers. One result of this was his being rejected for philosophy chairs first at Edinburgh University and then at the University of Glasgow. Yet the influence of Hume’s ideas has grown steadily and powerfully over time. Indeed, as Nicholas Phillipson remarks in his insightful biography David Hume: The Philosopher as Historian: “David Hume’s reputation has never been higher.”

And yet some of Hume’s central but more iconoclastic ideas have not been brought adequately into contemporary discussion. This neglect continues despite the veneration of Hume as the quintessential “grand philosopher” of the Enlightenment. Many of Hume’s widely cited statements, which are often seen as “David Hume in summary,” fail to capture the largeness of the “understanding”—to use one of his favorite words—that Hume presented to us. The job is not made any easier by Hume’s tendency to make occasional remarks that suggest that he is “forgetting, or mis-stating, his [own] normative beliefs,” as Derek Parfit has recently pointed out in his farreaching philosophical work On What Matters. The issue is of importance, since some of the points that Hume seems to overlook in his occasional remarks had received decisive argumentative support in his own writings.

I BEGIN WITH a perspicacious remark that Hume made in 1751, in an essay called “Of Justice,” to be published later in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. In the early days of the increasing globalization in which Hume lived, with new trade routes and expanding economic relations across the world, Hume talked about the growing need to think afresh about the nature of justice, as we come to know more about people living elsewhere, with whom we have come to develop new relations:

Again suppose, that several distinct societies maintain a kind of intercourse for mutual convenience and advantage, the boundaries of justice still grow larger, in proportion to the largeness of men’s views, and the force of their mutual connexions. History, experience, reason sufficiently instruct us in this natural progress of human sentiments, and in the gradual enlargement of our regards to justice, in proportion as we become acquainted with the extensive utility of that virtue.The remark is of interest in itself, and also helps us to understand the general idea of justice, and its particular application to global justice, that can be seen to be part of the Humean line of analysis. But it can also be used to illustrate Hume’s general arguments for the need to interrelate ethics and epistemology, and moral reasoning and human sentiments.

The underlying approach to justice here contrasts with the influential view of Hobbes, according to which there has to be a sovereign state for us to entertain any coherent idea of justice. Hobbes was moved by the idea that institutional demands of justice can be met only within the limits of a functioning sovereign state, which is needed to establish and support the required institutions. While Hume was deeply concerned about the importance of institutions, on which he made many penetrating observations, he was reluctant to allow the idea of justice to be narrowed by the boundaries of sovereignty, as if there were no issues of global justice that could take us beyond our national borders.

The overarching concern in the idea of justice is the need to have just relations with others—and even to have appropriate sentiments about others; and what motivates the search is the diagnosis of injustice in ongoing arrangements. In some cases, this might demand the need to change an existing boundary of sovereignty—a concern that motivated Hume’s staunchly anti-colonial position. (He once remarked, “Oh! How I long to see America and the East Indies revolted totally & finally.”) Or it might relate to the Humean recognition that as we expand trade and other relations with foreign countries, our sentiments as well as our reasoning have to take note of the recognition that “the boundaries of justice still grow larger,” without the necessity to place all the people involved in our conception of justice within the confines of one sovereign state.

As it happens, contemporary theories of justice have largely followed the Hobbesian route rather than the Humean one. They have tended to limit their considerations of justice within the boundaries of a particular state. In an important essay in 2005 called “The Problem of Global Justice,” Thomas Nagel explained that “if Hobbes is right, the idea of global justice without a world government is a chimera.” The most influential modern theory of justice, namely John Rawls’s theory of “justice as fairness,” presented in his epoch-making book A Theory of Justice, concentrates on the identification of appropriate “principles of justice” that fix the “basic institutional structure” of a society, in the form of a cluster of ideal institutions for a sovereign state. This confines the principles of justice to the members of a particular sovereign state. It is worth noting that in a later work, The Law of Peoples, Rawls invokes a kind of “supplement” to this one-country pursuit of the demands of justice—but in dealing with people elsewhere, Rawls’s focus is not on justice, but on the basic demands of civilized and humane behavior across the borders.

Nagel, too, confines his analysis of global propriety not to the demands of justice, but to a “minimal humanitarian morality,” since he, too, takes the view that it is “very difficult to resist Hobbes’s claim about the relation between justice and sovereignty.” Hume’s exploration of how “the boundaries of justice” must “grow larger” in a more globalized world contrasts quite sharply with the Hobbesian way of thinking, and thus differs from the approach chosen by most of the contemporary theorists of justice. His approach has many implications for the way we should explore the idea of justice…

Read it all.

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