Saturday, June 21, 2008

Hume's Three Types of Goods

Since MacIntyre links the notion of a society structured for the satisfaction of consumers to Hume, it seems fitting to give an example of precisely the sort of thing he probably has in mind. The following is from Hume's discussion of property (Treatise 3.2.2.7):

There are three different species of goods, which we are possess'd of; the internal satisfaction of our minds, the external advantages of our body, and the enjoyment of such possessions as we have acquir'd by our industry and good fortune. We are perfectly secure in the enjoyment of the first. The second may be ravish'd from us, but can be of no advantage to him who deprives us of them. The last only are both expos'd to the violence of others, and may be transferr'd without suffering any loss or alteration; while at the same time, there is not a sufficient quantity of them to supply every one's desires and necessities. As the improvement, therefore, of these goods is the chief advantage of society, so the instability of their possession, along with their scarcity, is the chief impediment.


Hume lists three different kinds of goods that we possess:

(1) the internal satisfaction of our minds;
(2) the external advantages of our bodies;
(3) the enjoyment of our possessions.

It seems that this is supposed to be an exhaustive list; the argument is that, alone of all the goods that we may possess, the third presents a serious set of problems for society. Superficially it looks like the age-old list, going back to Plato and found in Aristotle, of the goods of soul, the goods of body, and the purely extrinsic goods (like money). But, first of all, Hume's types of good boil down to (1) mental satisfaction; (2) bodily 'advantages' like strength and beauty; (3) enjoyable use of your property. This is very different from the traditional list, where something like property is seen as itself good (albeit good as an instrument for obtaining other goods), and where the goods of the soul cannot be summarized as "internal satisfaction." But most notably, Hume's use of his list would end up turning the traditional list on its head. In Plato's Laws (743e), for instance, the discussion in which the traditional list comes up is on the subject of the purpose of the laws of a good state, and the argument is that the laws should observe a clear order among the goods, encouraging virtue (which brings about goods of the soul) first, then gymnastic (which brings about goods of the body), and only then money. The primary purpose of law, then, is to encourage virtue; and, secondary to this, health; and only in third place to handle matters of property. But Hume's argument requires us to regard law as existing primarily to protect property. Far from being something that can be cultivated by wise law and impeded by foolish law, internal satisfaction of mind is something law has no influence over -- regardless of the law, we are able to get the same internal satisfaction. Bodily goods are protected not primarily by law but by the fact that others can derive no advantage from taking them from me. And thus for Hume the primary value of society is that it helps us to protect our possessions, and the chief purpose of government is to protect the possessions of those who have them. Plato's government would succeed in its function primarily by doing what can be done to encourage a society based on mutual friendship; and Aristotle is not far different. Hume's government would succeed in its function, one could well argue, primarily by guaranteeing that property is "fenced against every mortal, in every possible case" (Treatise 3.2.1.16). At the very least, Hume takes for granted that property must be so fenced; and thus goods you can buy, sell, and own are treated as the lifeblood of the society.

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