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Hume’s conservative utilitarianism: an interpretation of David Hume’s political and moral philosophy

Chen, Chien-Kang (2012) Hume’s conservative utilitarianism: an interpretation of David Hume’s political and moral philosophy. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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The thesis aims to recover Hume’s connection with utilitarianism. It is argued that Hume is best interpreted as a conservative utilitarian, and this is intended to be a corrective to recent approaches in Hume scholarship. Nowadays the view that Hume is one of the founders of modern utilitarianism is undermined by two views: one sees Hume as a conventionalist contractarian who is the follower of Hobbes, another situates Hume in the Scottish Enlightenment and emphasises his resemblance to Hutcheson. The thesis does not deny that Hume’s political philosophy is influenced by these philosophers. Instead, it is because these views are regarded as providing an exhaustive account of Hume that the thesis aims to challenge them. What is crucial to contemporary Hume studies is a more balanced interpretation of Hume, and this is to be found in the traditional approach which sees Hume as a utilitarian. The thesis is original because, although it recovers a traditional approach, it relates it to contemporary debate by showing that the late 20th century concern to avoid seeing everything through the eyes of utilitarianism has obscured the genuine utilitarian elements of Hume’s political philosophy. The resurgence of interest in the problems of utilitarianism is part of the legacy of post-Rawlsian political theory. Philosophers the thesis criticises such as Gauthier and Barry both follow Rawls in marginalising the contribution of utilitarianism to liberalism. For scholars, the traditional interpretation of Hume should be rejected if Hume’s political philosophy is to be secured, thus they found it on the basis of social contract. The thesis challenges them on two grounds. First, it illustrates that more similarities are to be identified between Hume and Locke. Second, it argues that Hume is best interpreted as founding the school succeeded by Burke and Sidgwick, which has impact on contemporary utilitarianism and philosophical debates.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2012 Chien-Kang Chen
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JC Political theory
Sets: Departments > Government
Supervisor: Kelly, Paul

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