A pillar of western thought, or flawed political thinker? An 18th-century engraving of David Hume. Image: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty images

The Hume paradox: how great philosophy leads to dismal politics

The Enlightenment genius showed how admirable scepticism in the world of ideas can translate into a miserable reactionary stance in the world of practical affairs
May 5, 2021

How did one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived get so much wrong? David Hume certainly deserves his place in the philosophers’ pantheon, but when it comes to politics, he erred time and again. The 18th-century giant of the Scottish Enlightenment was sceptical of democracy and—despite his reputation as “the great infidel”—in favour of an established church. He was iffy on the equality of women and notoriously racist. He took part in a pointless military raid on France without publicly questioning its legitimacy.

In unravelling the Hume paradox, what we find is that the very qualities that made Hume such a brilliant philosopher also made him a flawed political thinker. There are implications here for contemporary academic philosophy—whose much-vaunted “transferable critical skills” turn out not to transfer so well after all. Styles of thinking that work brilliantly in some domains fail miserably in others: indeed, some of our biggest mistakes arise when we transfer a way of thinking apt for one domain to another where it just doesn’t fit. There are consequences, too, for day-to-day and working life: Hume shows that the smartest person in the room isn’t necessarily the smartest choice for the job. And then there are general implications for the way in which a healthy intellectual scepticism, the essential precondition for rational enquiry in science and much else, can easily become a fatalistic cynicism about the prospects for building a better society.

Perhaps Hume also stands as a warning about the ease with which profound theoretical heterodoxy can be married with comfortable social conformity. So many who pride themselves on their rejection of received opinions sit contented on the established social and economic order. It seems that property, pensions, salaries and status all have the power to miraculously dissolve scepticism.

But before we can get clear on how Hume’s thought faltered in the world of practical politics, we need first to look at what made it so great within the philosophical domain.

Hume was a moderate who avoided all extremes, and an empiricist wary of the mind’s power to construct theoretical fancies, divorced from experience. He exemplified Aristotle’s injunction to demand only that degree of precision that the nature of each subject allows, no more and no less. So, for a Humean, while ethical problems are never going to be solved by algorithms, we should still strive for as much clarity and rigour as possible. With this balanced approach, Hume confronted the thorniest issues in philosophy without ducking the difficulties or explaining them away with implausible solutions.

Take free will. Since antiquity, philosophers who have accepted that the universe is an entirely natural phenomenon have struggled with the corollary that if human beings are subject to the same laws of cause and effect as other animals, plants and objects, our behaviour would seem no freer than that of the migrating swallow or rising sun. Two temptations arise: giving up, by ditching our belief in human freedom altogether, or somehow finding gaps in nature in which to insert a peculiar human power to originate causal chains free from the necessities of physics.

Hume’s middle way was to look more closely at human freedom in practice. No one would seriously believe that it consists in the ability to be the author of uncaused causes. Indeed, we could not make sense of anyone’s behaviour unless we understood it to arise from settled dispositions and reliable triggers. For instance, when you choose someone a present, you are expressing the belief that their liking it is a kind of inevitable necessity, rooted in who they are. “She’s going to love this,” we say, not “I hope she chooses to love it.” If preferences were free, unconstrained choices, we would never be able to know what anyone would like.

The original  cover of Hume’s  A Treatise of  Human Nature. Photo: via wikimedia commons The original cover of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature. Photo: via wikimedia commons

The original cover of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature. Photo: via Wikimedia commons

So Hume argued that free will was not only compatible with our being natural creatures in a law-governed universe, but actually requires it. The only meaningful sense of freedom that we have is the ability to act free from coercion, on the basis of choices that we have arrived at for ourselves. The fact that we are not the ultimate originators of those choices is beside the point. To this day, the “compatibilist” approach pioneered by Hume still remains the most popular way for philosophers to hack through the thicket of free will.

Hume tackled all philosophical issues with the same honesty and realism. He could see the temptations of a radical scepticism that leaves us believing we can believe nothing. But he could also see the impossibility of living as an absolute sceptic. So he argued there are some fundamental beliefs that we may lack decisive arguments for, but nonetheless have no choice but to uphold. Belief in causation is perhaps the most basic of these: without assuming cause and effect we could not get through the day, as we would have to suspend judgment on what food would do to us, how long anything would take, and how our fellow human beings would behave.

Overall, for Hume, philosophical reasoning was not a matter of going wherever logic takes us, no matter how absurd, but acceding to what experience demands. Reason divorced from experience defeats itself, leaving us convinced that nothing can be known. To be a person of true reason is to understand that reasoning is not just a matter of constructing arguments but attending to all the reasons we have to believe things or not, and some of those reasons are furnished by experience, not logic. In philosophy, this approach served Hume well. He remains the model for many philosophers today, keen to navigate between the prison of extreme scepticism and conceptual castles in the clouds. In politics, however, it introduces a reactionary bias.

The wisdom of conservatism, and it does contain wisdom, is decidedly Humean. Conservatives are above all else suspicious that abstract reason can debunk centuries of experience: a utopia on paper is doomed to turn out worse than an existing imperfect society. One of Hume’s most famous passages reads: “Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past.” Apply this “principle” to metaphysics and epistemology—the nature of the world and how we know it—and it works wonders. But apply it to politics and public morality and it leaves us too willing to accept flawed and maybe appalling norms and institutions, just because they’ve always been there.

This is precisely the mistake Hume made again and again. One of the most striking examples is his essay “Of Polygamy and Divorces.” The early pages are remarkably progressive, as Hume’s sceptical instincts pick apart the arbitrary assumptions that underpin contingent social conventions. He insists that “it is mere superstition to imagine, that marriage can be entirely uniform, and will admit only of one mode or form.” Even a cursory glance across “different times and places” reveals that “as circumstances vary, and the laws propose different advantages, we find, that… they impose different conditions on this important contract.” He even questions the “sovereignty of the male,” a “usurpation” that “destroys that nearness of rank, not to say equality, which nature has established between the sexes.” He edges close to endorsing divorce, since “nothing can be more cruel than to preserve, by violence, an union, which, at first, was made by mutual love, and is now, in effect, dissolved by mutual hatred.”

But Hume then goes on to override these arguments with another kind of scepticism—grave wariness about upending venerable traditions. Despite his own strong arguments pointing towards the legitimacy of divorce, he finds that marriage needs to be kept sacrosanct for the sake of children, to allow fickle passion to grow into calm friendship, and to avoid the conflicts of interest in money and possessions that the possibility of separation would invite. Having started out so challenging, he complacently concludes that: “The exclusion of polygamy and divorces sufficiently recommends our present European practice.”

Hume’s discussion of divorce and marriage provides the perfect example of how no intellectual virtue is indivisible nor fit for all purposes. Appropriate caution in philosophy can become timidity in politics. No politician who was similarly suspicious of unproven reforms would have legalised same-sex marriage, introduced the minimum wage or started the NHS.

“The world is not divided between sceptics and non-sceptics, but by what people are sceptical of”

So how much scepticism is enough? Start with Aristotle’s idea of virtue lying on a mean between an excess and a deficiency: a proper scepticism lies between the deficiency of gullibility and the excess of paralysing cynicism. However, in settling exactly where the mean lies, context is all. So, for example, one should be more sceptical when dealing with strangers than people you already trust. Similarly, outlandish ideas require a higher standard of proof than those that more easily fit with what we generally believe to be true.

The next question is: scepticism about what? In practice, the world is not divided between those who are sceptical and those who are not, but along the lines of what people are sceptical of. Radicals are sceptical of the status quo, traditionalists of the idea that we can do much better. Vaccine sceptics distrust medical science, medical scientists are sceptical about folk remedies. Ironically, when it comes to Brexit, many so-called “Eurosceptics” are actually the most unquestioning believers.

Hume’s scepticism was of the right kind for philosophy, perfectly calibrated on the mean. But in politics, the same degree of scepticism was too much. He also apportioned it incorrectly, being too doubtful of the benefits of change and not questioning enough how much the test of time really validated existing social norms.

article body image Hume’s folly: a protest sign hung from his statue in Edinburgh last year, following the death of George Floyd. Photo: © PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Hume’s folly: a protest sign hung from his statue in Edinburgh last year, following the death of George Floyd. Photo: © PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

These flaws co-existed with important political virtues. In a polarised world, Hume’s distaste for factionalism is refreshing. “When men act in a faction, they are apt, without shame or remorse, to neglect all the ties of honour and morality, in order to serve their party,” he wrote. For proof, look to the US Republicans toadying up to Donald Trump, or the Conservatives disregarding concerns about Boris Johnson being a scoundrel. Hume never got stuck in with what we now call the echo chamber: he chose to write A Treatise of Human Nature in the small town of La Flèche, where the only intellectual company was provided by Jesuit monks. He saw that a sceptical, open mind has nothing to fear and much to gain from seeking the company of those it seriously disagrees with.

A second virtue is a suspicion of utopias. He consistently argued against “that grave philosophic Endeavour after Perfection.” Whether it was the Stoic injunction to make ourselves invulnerable to loss or schemes to create heaven on earth, Hume believed that inhuman perfection is the enemy of humanity’s best. The horrific failures of revolutions to build a new society on ground zero, from Stalin’s Russia to Pol Pot’s Cambodia, have borne this out.

A third Humean lesson is that we should distrust rigid principles. “All general maxims in politics ought to be established with great caution,” he wrote, since “irregular and extraordinary appearances are frequently discovered.” The fiscally conservative governments injecting billions of dollars into their economies to get us through the pandemic seem to have taken this to heart.

In themselves, these lessons are all sound. Collectively, they might seem to add up to a familiar Burkean conservatism: cautious, pragmatic, suspicious of change, abstract principle and progressive projects. But they do not add up to a complete political philosophy: the scepticism they embody becomes paralysing unless matched by another scepticism—about the status quo. Whatever the uncertain dangers of reform, sometimes the certain harms of “business as usual” are worse.

In philosophy, the risks of theoretical folly and giving up the proven common sense that allows us to navigate the world are so great that we need to be more sceptical of scepticism than we do the testimony of experience. But in politics, the evidence that common sense and convention have served us well is thin: the status quo may not be so much optimised by experience, as forged and then entrenched by powerful interests. Unless we question the wisdom of our own age, we will perpetuate its errors.

A conservative will always believe that if reform sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A progressive believes that no matter how tempting it can be to leave things alone, we ought to make an effort to imagine alternative futures. The Aristotelian mean here is to employ both general principles and try to reach a balanced judgment in any given case. This checks tendencies that can lead both liberals and conservatives astray. Hume, sadly, failed to do this when applying his thinking to practical public affairs. As his essay on divorce shows, he was capable of balancing theoretical cases for and against reform, but ultimately erred on the side of suspicion against change.

“Hume’s objections to reform were not dogmatic, but based on what he assumed to be evidence”

Another striking example comes when he astutely articulates the harms caused by inequality: “Nature is so liberal to mankind, that, were all her presents equally divided among the species, and improved by art and industry, every individual would enjoy all the necessaries, and even most of the comforts of life… It must also be confessed, that, wherever we depart from this equality, we rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity, in one individual, frequently costs more than bread to many families, and even provinces.”

Yet, once again, conservative doubts prevented him from advocating anything to set this straight. Creating such equality would require too much force and violence, giving the authority behind it so much power that it “must soon degenerate into tyranny.” “Perfect equality of possessions” would destroy “all subordination, weakens extremely the authority of magistracy, and must reduce all power nearly to a level.” He didn’t seem to consider that this might be a good thing, nor notice the mismatch between his alarmism about the postulated might of an egalitarian order and his indulgence of the established inegalitarian magistracy.

Perfect equality may indeed be unattainable, but Hume failed to wonder whether more equality might still be wonderful. Sometimes more is better even if most is worst. He made similar conservative mistakes with myriad received wisdoms.

He too easily accepted all manner of well-established opinions rather than considering novel alternatives. Most notoriously, he wrote in a footnote that he was “apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.” Hume should have been much more sceptical of speculations about racial hierarchy, which were never theories distilled from experience, but schemas dreamt up to rationalise the prejudices that distorted experience. He was likewise too unquestioning of the patriarchal attitudes of his time, assuming them to be rooted in biology.

One reason why the conservative Hume can remain such a hero to philosophers today—despite the profession being overwhelmingly liberal—is that, in the long run, his empirical approach erodes prejudice and exposes the folly of outmoded conventions. Hume today would take the settled evidence against scientific racism to be overwhelming and recant his bigoted views at a stroke. Likewise, he would see the proven benefits of democracy, the equal abilities of women and the benefits of wealth redistribution. His objections to reform were never fundamentally dogmatic but based on what he often wrongly assumed to be established evidence.

One would also hope that Hume by now would have learned that the folly of too violent reform must not be countered with the equal and opposite folly of being too unwilling to rock the boat. Good political judgment requires bringing two different forms of scepticism into balance: scepticism of grand, idealistic schemes and scepticism about the merits of the established way of doing things.

Hume practised exactly the right kind of “mitigated scepticism” in most of his philosophy. But admirable caution in metaphysics became a lack of imagination when applied to politics. The follies of a “first do no harm” approach are redoubled today, when the failure to grapple with inequality, and especially climate change, threatens the stability of the global order. Lack of change brings the certainty of disaster, and so the mean must shift away from conservative caution and towards progressive ambition. Hume at his empiricist best would surely have grasped this, even if during his life such understanding was beyond the philosopher who thought “what was” would always remain “what had to be.”