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David Hume - Philosophy, Ethics and LearningDavid Hume - Philosophy, Ethics and Learning


David Hume (1711-76)


Scottish philosopher (pictured right) , historian, economist and close friend of Adam Smith.

He never became a professor because of his atheism, despite his popularity, good nature and genius.


His most famous book is...

A Treatise of Human Nature (published in two volumes in 1739 and 1740).


What did he say about ethics and learning?


1. Nothing is certainDavid Hume - Philosophy, Ethics and Learning

We expect something to happen because it occurs again and again (like the sun rising).

But we can’t be certain that it will happen again.

Nothing is certain (except in mathematics) which is why Hume is called a sceptic.

For example, in Hume’s time, everyone thought that all swans were white until black swans were found in Australia in 1790!


  • past and present experiences can’t always predict the future
  • if one thing follows another, you can’t say with certainty that one causes the other. For example, heating water isn’t necessarily the cause of its boiling.

This is a problem for science which often says that one thing will always lead to another.

 David Hume - Philosophy, Ethics and Learning

2. Question everything and find truth

  • challenge other people’s ideas
  • accept  good ideas with tolerance and an open mind.
  • never be dogmatic and think that whoever disagrees with you is wrong or evil.
  • support your beliefs and ideas with evidence.

So Hume strongly opposed superstition.

 “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”, he said.

 David Hume - Philosophy, Ethics and Learning

3. Avoid arrogance

  • don’t arrogantly believe that your ideas are better than anybody else’s.
  • have the humility to learn from others with an open mind.

“When men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken”, he said.


4. Perception is important

Your knowledge of something depends on how you and your imagination see it and feel it.

For example, you may think something or someone is beautiful but other people may not.

“Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them”, he said.


5. We are creatures of habit

We do things the way things have always been done.

Custom, he said, is “the guide of life”.

 David Hume - Philosophy, Ethics and Learning

6. Learn from failure and experience

Knowledge comes from:


a) clarity

Despite its significance the first edition of his Treatise of Human Nature was a commercial flop.

So he re-wrote it to make it easier to read.


b) experience

(so make your life as worthwhile, varied and creative as possible).

 David Hume - Philosophy, Ethics and Learning

7. Be happy and do good

Helping other people is particularly important, but you should also:

  • look after yourself
  • satisfy your needs and wants.

Our moral convictions are not determined by reason (which discovers truth or falsehood) but by our passions or feelings like love, humility, hope, fear and hatred.

This is what he meant when he said:

“Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”

What is right or good depends on the goodness of people’s motives and has nothing to do with religion (he was an atheist).


8. Hume’s Fork

This is the name given to the two questions he asked to test the truth of any idea:

  • Is it based on facts that can be proved by experience, experimentation and observation?
  • Is it concerned with analysis and connections between ideas (like mathematics)?

If the answer to both is no, the idea is rubbish.

This is why Hume didn’t believe in God.

 David Hume - Philosophy, Ethics and Learning

9. People matter most

People are more important than anything else and must be passionate and self-motivated to make the most of their ability.


Key quote on positive thinking

A propensity to hope and joy is real riches; one to fear and sorrow real poverty.


Key quote on decision making

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.


Key quotes on learning and wisdom

When men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken.


Key quote on ethics

Good and ill are entirely relative to human sentiment and affection.

Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.

Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them.


Key quote on creativity

Truth springs from argument amongst friends.


Key quote on money

Money...is none of the wheels of trade: it is the oil which renders the motion of the wheels more smooth and easy.


Key quote on God and religion

In all ages of the world, priests have been the enemies of liberty.

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