The Fragility of Liberalism: David Hume and the Problem of Virtue

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The Fragility of Liberalism: David Hume and the Problem of Virtue

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Title: The Fragility of Liberalism: David Hume and the Problem of Virtue
Author: Cheng, Nong
Abstract: The Fragility of Liberalism: David Hume and the Problem of VirtueNong Cheng, Ph.D. Director: Claes G. Ryn, Ph.D. David Hume has often been seen as a representative of interest-based liberalism, as distinct from, for example, Lockean, rights-based liberalism or Kantian, autonomy-based liberalism. This dissertation considerably revises or qualifies this interpretation by demonstrating that in Hume's political theory virtues play a significant role in motivating compliance with rules.The dissertation shows the importance of a distinction between interest as justifying rationale and interest as direct motive. Hume's argument for liberal institutions is essentially based on considerations of self-interest. However, he has deep reservations about self-interest being the motive for action. Given Hume's theory of reason and passion, he cannot expect people to be always clearheaded and to be constantly calculating relative advantage. Only preexisting, unreflective dispositional tendencies can ensure and explain strict rule-following. These dispositions form the core of liberal virtues.What is special about Hume's account of liberal virtues is that he juxtaposes the self-interest motive and the virtuous motive and has to explain their relationship. The typical liberal idea of the self-interest motive, understood as involving autonomous rational agency and reflective calculation, conflicts with the dispositional view of the virtuous motive. But Hume's notion of the self-interest motive is context-dependent, and the interests in the concrete contexts are diverse and heterogeneous. This particularized sense of interest is more like an unreflective tendency than a reflective calculation. As such it plays a major role in the formation of the corresponding virtuous motive and gradually gives place to the latter. The dissertation brings out that a stable liberal order cannot rely on either voluntary commitment or rational calculation, but depends on virtuous tendencies widely possessed by a people. These virtuous tendencies are shaped primarily through habituation, and their formation involves a protracted historical development and a particular way of life.
Description: Degree awarded: Ph.D. Politics. The Catholic University of America
Date: 2011-06-24

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