Dr Catherine Dromelet: "Useful superstition in Hume's theory of government"

Event date: 
Wednesday 31 August
A picture of Dr Catherine Dromelet

An IASH Work-in-Progress seminar, delivered by Dr Catherine Dromelet (Nominated Fellow 2022; FWO, Research Foundation Flanders)

Useful superstition in Hume's theory of government

Sympathy lies at the root of Hume's sentimentalist account of morality, but its role doesn't entail any normative consequences, which is why sympathy is an insufficient, unreliable regulator of social behavior. After rejecting religion for its unscientific image of the world in the first enquiry, Hume tries to identify the secular origin of moral principles in the second enquiry, highlighting the authority of social institutions. Justice and morality originate in human nature and become enforced as laws as soon as a government is established. However, institutions like the stability and transfer of property, the obligation of promise, etc. cannot be observed in nature: they are mind-dependent, social realities in the same way as religious fictions, which Hume dismisses as superstitious. For him, the main difference is that secular institutions are useful, while religious fictions are not. At the same time, utility depends on interest and opinion, which can be greatly influenced by political acts.

Against the traditional portrayal of Hume as the enemy of superstition, I argue in this talk that the moral authority of secular institutions depends on people's superstitious mindset, which Hume reckons as a normal trait of human nature. While morality stems from social sentiments and sympathy, carrying the mind beyond itself, the stability of moral conventions and, thereby, of social order, is guaranteed by secular superstition, exerting a constraining effect on the mind.


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