As is often the case regarding David Hume’s theories, his distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ virtues too has received widespread criticism and warrants fastidious analysis. While Hume does not provide a single account of the distinction between natural and artificial virtues, one can deduce that at his argument’s core natural virtues are instinctive dispositions that give rise to certain passions leading the agent to act whereas artificial virtues are non-instinctive dispositions in which intentions, passions, and actions are motivated by external factors that the agent would not assent to independent of such factors. On the surface, this appears to be a rather simple sentimentalist position: natural virtues stem from naturally-held feelings and artificial virtues stem from artificially-instilled feelings. However, there is a complexity to Hume’s distinction that transcends the traditional meanings of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’—namely in that Hume gives particular importance to the agent’s and the spectator’s sympathies that threatens his intention to “provide a more complete account of morality by fusing the egoism of Hobbes and Mandeville and the sentimentalism of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson” (O’Day 1994: 123-4). Ultimately, though, it will herein be argued that Hume’s distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ virtues, and his conception of sympathy that will be further developed, is a plausible account of human action. For although Hume’s account may not necessarily be perfect, his ability to convey that the distinction between natural and artificial virtues lies in the motives preceding action—more specifically that natural virtues stem from instinctive characters traits and immediately produce passions while the motivation behind artificial virtues stems from a redirection of natural motives by external factors leading to an intention based upon the supposition of “an artificially instilled prospect of pleasure or pain which then evokes a passion”—is sufficient (Fieser 1997: 374). Part I will consider some of the main objections to Hume, Part II will provide responses to the objections raised in Part I, and Part III will consider what the objections and responses raised in Parts I and II mean to Hume’s distinction between natural and artificial virtues and his ethics as a whole.


Part I

            Hume’s account has received several objections—notably from Thomas Reid and J.L. Mackie. Beginning with the former, Reid insists that Hume merely gives the name virtue to agreeable and useful traits “and, to distinguish them, calls the agreeable qualities natural virtues, and the useful artificial” (Reid 1788: 652). This objection, however, is unsound because it misinterprets Hume’s account. Reid’s agreeable/useful distinction involves the tendency of actions as they affect the spectator, but Hume’s natural/artificial distinction lies in the motivations behind the agent’s action (Fieser 1997: 378). Reid is clumsily guilty of assuming that natural and artificial traits cannot be simultaneously agreeable and useful, but more pivotally he implicates that Hume categorizes virtues based upon how they would be perceived by external agents—as agreeable or useful. Indeed, in accordance with Hume’s sentimentalist values, one could often characterize natural virtues as agreeable and artificial virtues as useful in hindsight, but such classification has nothing to do with Hume’s account of the origin of the distinction. Fundamentally, the distinction lies in the motivational process as that is when the agent weighs instinctive and acquired desires.

              On the other hand, Mackie’s objections pose a rather formidable threat to Hume. In sum, Mackie argues that Hume’s natural virtues are actually artificial virtues—entailing that only artificial virtues exist. And he uses Hume’s own ‘mechanism of sympathy’—a mechanism that Hume argues is the source of moral judgment—to illustrate this point. If sympathy is variable or inoperative as it undeniably is, there seems to be a problem for Hume: there is a relative uniformity to our moral judgments that he holds is caused by something that is variable or inoperative (O’Day 1994: 124). Thus, Mackie continues that only artificial virtues must exist: our sympathies are moulded and internally approved of as we acquire the realization that sympathizing with interpersonal issues is beneficial to us and to society. In Mackie’s words, “We have this system because it is, in more than one way, useful to have it…Though the psychology of sympathy may play some part, the natural virtues themselves and the fully developed form of the recognition of them as virtues will owe a good deal to conventions and reciprocal pressures” (Mackie 1980: 123). Mackie’s conception of sympathy nearly coincides with Hume’s conception of justice. Essentially the divide between Hume and Mackie lies in this: Hume holds that humans naturally can adopt an impartial perspective and sympathize accordingly maintaining that “we fix on some steady and general points of view; and always, in our thoughts, place ourselves in them, whatever may be our present situation” (Hume 2008: 412). Mackie is skeptical of this as he believes sympathies can be variable and/or inoperative; as a result, we adopt an impartial sympathy out of utility. Further analysis of these two positions will continue at the end of Part II.    


Part II

            Now that the primary objections have been presented, equally Hume’s rationale must be considered. Similar to what was expressed towards the end of Part I, Hume admits that our natural motive of avidity—the passion that works to appropriate objects—must be restrained (in order for society to function). According to Hume, this is done by the understanding: the ‘artificialis’ alters the pre-existing motive—in this case unrestrained avidity becomes restrained. Continuing with the theme of justice, Hume ascertains that nature aids us through sympathy to approve of justice, and that “it is naturally attended with a strong sentiment of morals; which can proceed from nothing but our sympathy with the interests of society” (Hume 2008: 411). Simply put, natural virtues differ from an artificial virtue such as justice only in that natural virtues are always good as the result of natural passion. In contrast, justice is learned: we do not naturally assent to it, but nature does not prohibit us from artificially learning to pursue justice; we do not naturally have the public interest in mind, but we do have the capability to recognize its importance, and such an artificial virtue alters natural unrestrained avidity rather seamlessly.

             Bearing in mind Hume’s stance that ‘natural virtues are always good as the result of natural passion’, it can be illustrated that he has an adequate response to Mackie’s insistence that Hume’s depiction of virtue is void of natural virtues. Recall, Mackie’s primary dilemma is that Hume’s inconsistent sympathy appears to yield relatively consistent moral action—and this is troublesome since relative universality cannot be a byproduct of relative variability. However, Mackie misinterprets Hume: Mackie seems to think that natural virtues begin in an evaluative stage that would precede the motivational stage, but for Hume our natural virtues are not evaluated as they are merely natural passions. Therefore, even if Mackie was correct in believing that artificial virtues alter our evaluative stage, which in turn allows our motives and actions to have relative uniformity, Hume’s natural virtues would still exist as they are not present in the evaluative stage and thus would not overlap with the ‘artificialis’. Unsurprisingly, writes O’Day, “Hume seems willing to entertain the idea that the system of evaluation is largely independent of motives for action” which coincides with Hume’s notion that sympathy is not strong enough to control our passions (O’Day 1994: 134). Mackie’s points are not necessarily invalid, as, although outside the scope of this paper, perhaps natural virtues are evaluated in an evaluative stage prior to motive. In this view, Hume may just have it wrong: either natural virtues are more than just animalistic agreeable passions and involve evaluation (and thus are altered in the evaluative stage rather than in the motivational stage) or the ‘artificialis’ does not alter pre-existing natural virtues but rather just creates new artificial virtues independent of pre-existing natural virtues. Nonetheless, as it appears, Hume’s account still remains plausible, albeit ambiguous regarding the relation between evaluation and motive, as said objection does not eliminate natural virtues. Hume’s natural virtues, plausibly, remain alive and well in the motivational stage.


Part III

            In conclusion, Hume’s general account of natural and artificial virtues does appear to exist in human nature—although the specifics regarding how, where, and when the virtues originate and whether they indeed interact with each other is disputable. Some of these issues have been raised by Mackie, and another viewpoint raised by Alfred Glathe also sounds promising. In his view, there are original and secondary Humean natural virtues that are causally connected: his example citing how the original virtue of generosity limited to friends and family causes widespread generosity as the result of limited generosity and reflective sympathy (Glathe 1950: 103-5). This type of perspective—appealing to causal chains—would save Hume from a crude account of natural virtues equating to solely sensations, and it would also allow artificial virtues to be existent. Thus, the only other glaring concern for Hume is at what stage the ‘artificialis’ enters the human mind: as aforementioned, Hume says that it enters and alters the natural in the motivational stage, but it would seem that artificial virtues would necessarily impact how we evaluate a given situation. Hume, of course, is hesitant to propose that artificial virtues affect evaluations because reasons "can never produce any action, or give rise to volition" (Hume 2008: 414-5). According to Hume, an independent desire creating intent must exist for an action to occur—and reason informs us about the desire. Incorporating the ‘artificialis’ does indeed seem to include some design and forethought, but Hume’s proposition that there needs to be intent and motive in order for an action to be prompted is not challenged by this. His distinction between natural and artificial virtues may have some disputable tenets, but Hume’s overall account is certainly defendable against several prominent objections.


Fieser, J., “Hume's Motivational Distinction Between Natural and Artificial Virtues”, British Journal of the History of Philosophy. 5. (1997). 373-388.

Glathe, A., Hume’s Theory of the Passions and of Morals. Los Angeles, USA: University of California Press. (1950).

Hume, D., A Treatise of Human Nature. Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications, LLC. (2008).

Mackie, J.L., Hume’s Moral Theory. London, England: Routledge. (1980).

O’Day, K., “Hume’s Distinction between the Natural and Artificial Virtues”, Hume Studies. 20. 1. (1994). 121-142.

Reid, T., Essays on the active powers of man. Edinburgh, Scotland: Maclachlan and Stewart. 2. (1877). 652.