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  • Print publication year: 1998
  • Online publication date: October 2009

The Knavish Humean


The title of this essay is not meant to impugn Humeans; it is only meant to recognize a kind of person that some Humeans might have thought impossible, namely, someone with a full complement of other-regarding sentiments who possesses those “useful” natural virtues (such as benevolence) of the sort described by Hume but who nonetheless behaves like a “knave” (to use Hume's own word) in situations where he can exploit another with impunity. In the Second Inquiry, Hume regards such knavishness as resulting from of a lack of concern for, and integrity with respect to the treatment of, one's fellow human beings. Hume represents the knave's point of view as follows:

And though it is allowed that, without a regard to property, no society could subsist; yet according to the imperfect way in which human affairs are conducted, a sensible knave, in particular incidents, may think that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union or confederacy. That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions; and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions. (Enq, ix, ii, pp. 282–3)

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Rational Commitment and Social Justice
  • Online ISBN: 9780511527364
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