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David Hume on Human Nature, the Myth of Selfishness, and Why Vanity Is Proof of Virtue Rather Than Vice

“To love the fame of laudable actions approaches so near the love of laudable actions for their own sake [that] it is almost impossible to have the latter without some degree of the former.”

We live in a culture where cynicism has become fashionable, and one favorite myth perpetuated by cynics is that all acts of altruism are at heart acts of selfishness — that we only do good because it feels good to do good. But even Adam Smith, reviled — despite evidence to the contrary — for his bleak view of human nature, asserted in the very treatise that laid the foundation of consumer culture: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

A generation earlier, the Scottish philosopher, historian, and essayist David Hume (May 7, 1711–August 25, 1776) — one of the greatest humanists of all time — made a timeless and urgently timely case against this myth of human selfishness.

David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1754

In a superb essay titled “Of the Dignity or Meanness of Human Nature,” found in his Selected Essays (public library | free ebook), Hume considers the commonly held belief that selfishness is our basic condition:

All is self-love. Your children are loved only because they are yours: your friend for a like reason; and your country engages you only so far as it has a connection with yourself. Were the idea of self removed, nothing would affect you: you would be altogether unactive and insensible: or, if you ever give yourself any movement, it would only be from vanity, and a desire of fame and reputation to this same self.

But Hume then turns this master-myth around by making the counterintuitive and wonderfully ennobling point that vanity is proof of virtue rather than vice — a natural expression of how highly we value the qualities that make a person lovable, admirable, and a worthy member of society. He writes:

There are two things which have led astray those philosophers that have insisted so much on the selfishness of man. In the first place, they found that every act of virtue or friendship was attended with a secret pleasure; whence they concluded, that friendship and virtue could not be disinterested. But the fallacy of this is obvious. The virtuous sentiment or passion produces the pleasure, and does not arise from it. I feel a pleasure in doing good to my friend, because I love him; but do not love him for the sake of that pleasure.

In the second place, it has always been found, that the virtuous are far from being indifferent to praise; and therefore they have been represented as a set of vainglorious men, who had nothing in view but the applauses of others. But this also is a fallacy. It is very unjust in the world, when they find any tincture of vanity in a laudable action, to depreciate it upon that account, or ascribe it entirely to that motive. The case is not the same with vanity, as with other passions. Where avarice or revenge enters into any seemingly virtuous action, it is difficult for us to determine how far it enters, and it is natural to suppose it the sole actuating principle. But vanity is so closely allied to virtue, and to love the fame of laudable actions approaches so near the love of laudable actions for their own sake, that these passions are more capable of mixture, than any other kinds of affection; and it is almost impossible to have the latter without some degree of the former. Accordingly we find, that this passion for glory is always warped and varied according to the particular taste or disposition of the mind on which it falls. Nero had the same vanity in driving a chariot, that Trajan had in governing the empire with justice and ability. To love the glory of virtuous deeds is a sure proof of the love of virtue.

Hume’s Selected Essays is a trove of abiding wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular lens with some thoughts on cynicism and hope, then revisit Carl Jung on human nature.

Published October 27, 2015




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