David Hume's racist views should remind us all we are vulnerable to the ethical limitations of our time – Professor Paul Russell

Philosopher David Hume would encourage people today to expose his flaws and weaknesses, writes Professor Paul Russell.
A tourist rubs the toe of the statue to David Hume on the Royal Mile (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)A tourist rubs the toe of the statue to David Hume on the Royal Mile (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
A tourist rubs the toe of the statue to David Hume on the Royal Mile (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

When David Hume died in Edinburgh in 1776, his close friend Adam Smith wrote that Hume had approached “as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit”.

For many of their own contemporaries, however, Smith’s praise of his friend was regarded as outrageous, since Hume was widely viewed and condemned as a hideous example of atheism and its various corruptions.

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Indeed, his reputation as a “sceptic and atheist” was well enough established in 1745 that Edinburgh University denied him a Chair in Moral Philosophy largely on these grounds. In the two and half centuries that have followed Hume’s life and death, his reputation has continued to oscillate between that of saint and sinner, depending on the climate of the times and predominant orthodoxies.

In 1963, Edinburgh University named its brand new tower building after Hume, in a belated effort to make amends for the earlier bigotry and prejudice – as well as to bask in the lustre and glory of Hume’s huge and well-established reputation as one of the world’s greatest thinkers and philosophers.

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More than 50 years on, however, the situation has changed again. Hume has been returned to the rank of sinner, this time because he has been unmasked as holding racist views – an unfortunate fact that has been well known to most Hume scholars for a long time. In response, Edinburgh University, ever sensitive to the changing climate of the present times, has now declared that the name of “David Hume” should be removed from the tower at 40 George Square.

The practical predicament that Edinburgh University currently faces in this regard is hardly unique. Just to cite a few obvious examples, situated at the heart of the capital city of the United States are two huge monuments to a couple of slave-owners (Presidents Washington and Jefferson), both of whom also happen to be founding figures of one the world’s great democracies.

Similarly, outside Westminster there is an impressive statue of Winston Churchill, notorious defender of colonialism and opponent of social equality and workers’ rights, who, nevertheless, led the fight to save humanity from the calamity and barbarism of Nazism. Much like David Hume, the reputations of these figures oscillate between that of saints and sinners.

So was Hume a saint or a sinner? When any distinguished figure is found to have serious ethical or ideological flaws of some sort we need to decide how serious they are and then ask to what extent they are compensated or overridden by achievements or contributions.

Obviously there may be flaws and failings of such a nature that recognition should not be given or should be withdrawn, no matter how significant the achievement or contribution.

This applies to our own contemporaries, as well as figures in the past, and it applies to figures in all areas and fields – not just philosophers or thinkers.

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In the case of figures such as Hume who belong to the past – but not to the ancient past – we have the further difficulty of judging how much we should allow for failings and flaws that reflect the period and society of the time and are not just peculiar to the specific figure.

When trying to find the right balance in weighing these various considerations, there is plainly no sharp line or principle – because both moral life and history are inherently messy. We might, perhaps, find a few clear cases at either extreme – saints and sinners.

Saints have no significant flaws to taint their achievements – they are ethically pure. Sinners have no achievements that could compensate for their significant flaws and failings – their dark deeds cloud and obscure whatever else they may have done.

Clearly, the vast majority of real human beings – be they great or humble – must live in actual and imperfect historical societies and fall between these extremes. Few if any figures – be they philosophers, politicians, artists, inventors, philanthropists, and so on – would pass the sainthood test.

Sadly Hume would not – despite whatever virtues friends like Adam Smith may have seen in him. Having said this, his achievements on behalf of humanity – defending ideals of liberty, tolerance, humanity, justice, learning and culture – were still considerable. That he failed to live up to these ideals and values is evident – few if any of us, however great and good, meet that standard.

It is a particular irony that Hume’s name is now being held up as an example of a moral scoundrel as judged by the very principles and policies that he spent so much time and effort trying to articulate and defend. There is, I suggest, a lesson for us all in this: namely that we are all vulnerable to the prejudices and ethical limitations of the established customs and conventions of our own society.

It is not just hard to challenge them, it is often hard to recognise them and the extent to which they distort and corrupt our own moral vision and practices.

Hume, I submit, would be the first to encourage those of us removed from him by three centuries to uncover and expose his flaws and weaknesses. No one should suppose that recognising Hume’s achievements and considerable merits of conduct and character implies that he was a saint.

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Denying him – or stripping him – of any such recognition falsely suggests that he was some sort of sinner or moral pariah, wholly unworthy of any appreciation or public respect. It is exactly this sort of simple-minded, fanatical moral dualism that Hume invited his own contemporaries to throw out and repudiate.

Paul Russell is professor of philosophy at Lund University, director of the Lund|Gothenburg Responsibility Project, and a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia

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