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David Hume and The Boundaries of Justice

(Original essay by Amartya Sen at TNR.com...)

"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..."

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