University of Pittsburgh, Summer Term 1997
Philosophy 0330: Political Philosophy
Ben Eggleston, Instructor

Hume, “Of the Origin of Government” and “Of the Original Contract”

I. Background Information

David Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1711. By his thirtieth birthday, he had already published his A Treatise of Human Nature, which today is his most closely studied work. But his contemporaries paid more attention to his essays, on which he worked throughout his life. “Of the Original Contract” first appeared in 1748, and though Hume was denied a position in the philosophy department of the University of Edinburgh (apparently for his religious skepticism), he obtained a job as the university’s law librarian in 1753. His essays brought him fame and wealth in both Britain and France, and he retired comfortably. “Of the Origin of Government” was first published in 1777, a year after Hume’s death.

These two essays are best understood with some recollection of the political philosophies which had currency in Hume’s time. As one might surmise from the inconvenience Hume suffered for his religious skepticism, religious views of political obligation were still widely held, and the divine-right-of-kings theory was prominent. But in 1690 Locke had published his social-contract theory, according to which government was made legitimate by the consent of the governed. The clash between these theories was the context in which Hume wrote.

II. Reading Assignment

III. Study Questions

  1. According to Hume, for what purpose do human beings endeavor to establish political society?
  2. What duty does Hume cite as a support to the duty of justice?
  3. Why does Hume think that humans are more likely to be obedient to rulers commanding justice than to be just when obedience is not at stake?
  4. What scenario does Hume describe as the probable origin of the first government?
  5. On what does Hume say the authority of the civil magistrate is founded?
  6. According to Hume, is the authority of a free government more or less than the authority of a monarch?
  7. With the claim “A constable, therefore, no less than a king, acts by divine commission, and possesses an indefeasible right,” Hume concludes a passage discussing the divine-right-of-kings theory of political authority. Is this passage essentially sympathetic or unsympathetic to this theory, and what is the main idea of Hume’s defense or criticism of it?
  8. According to Hume, do most subjects think of themselves (as Locke said they should) as obligated to obey their rulers only insofar as their rulers provide justice and protection?
  9. What does Hume say was the original basis for, and has been the source of changes in, most existing governments?
  10. Does Hume reject Locke’s view that consent is a valid source of political authority?
  11. In Hume’s view, do people think that someone who has ruled for a long time thereby acquires the right to rule?
  12. What is Hume’s reply to the claim that people who remain in a country show that they consent to the way it is being ruled?
  13. According to Hume, why is it problematic to derive the duty of allegiance (i.e., obeying) from the duty of fidelity (i.e., keeping one’s promises)?
  14. According to Hume, what is the source of the duty of allegiance?
  15. What does Hume say should determine the object of a people’s allegiance?

IV. Outline of Topics to be Covered in Class

  1. Who was Hume?
  2. “Of the Origin of Government”
  3. “Of the Original Contract”
    1. divine-right-of-kings theory
    2. social-contract theory
      1. historical fact
      2. general opinion
      3. bases of legitimacy
      4. promising as extraneous
      5. object of obedience

V. Suggestions for Further Reading

  1. A. J. Ayer, Hume (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) (Hillman circulating B1498 A95 1980b).
  2. Stephen Priest, The British Empiricists: Hobbes to Ayer (London: Penguin Books, 1990) (Hillman circulating B816 P7 1990), particularly “Hume: Politics: The Social Contract,” pp. 171-72.
  3. Anthony Kenny, Oxford History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) (Hillman reference B72 O8 1994b), pp. 326-27.