Hume Texts Online

An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751, 1777)

prepared by Peter Millican

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals—commonly known as Hume’s second Enquiry—was originally published in 1751, by Andrew Millar of the Strand, London. A companion work to the first Enquiry, it is a recasting of the moral theory of Treatise Book 3, which preserves most of the spirit of the original while differing significantly in detail. Some of Hume’s most influential and controversial arguments against (what we now call) moral realism and rationalism are removed: a change traditionally considered to be a symptom of shortening and simplifying rather than any change of mind (though this traditional assumption has more recently been questioned). Likewise the associationist psychology of the Treatise—such as the explanation of sympathy—fades into the background, and instead Hume focuses on the attempt to find systematic principles for ordering our everyday judgements of virtues and vices, as manifested in common language. This results in a view with strong elements of both utilitarianism and of virtue ethics, characterising the virtues as “mental qualities, useful or agreeable to the person himself, or to others” (M 9.1).

The second edition of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals was in the form of volume III of Hume’s four-volume Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects in 1753. Its third edition (though not explicitly labelled as such) was in the 1758 Essays and Treatises, which combined the constituent works into a single volume. In the four-volume 1760 and 1770 editions of the Essays and Treatises, the second Enquiry appeared in volume IV before The Natural History of Religion. In the two-volume editions of 1764, 1767, 1768, 1772, and 1777, it appeared within volume II, after An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and A Dissertation on the Passions, and before The Natural History of Religion.

Here a fair number of substantive changes been made to the original copytext, which gives the impression of having been checked far less carefully than that of the first Enquiry. (This text is still subject to editorial checking, and more detail will be added here once that process of checking has been fully completed. Feedback from readers who notice any issues with the text will be particularly welcome.)