chapter  2
17 Pages

Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature and “liberalism of freedom”: Daniel Diatkine


It is not easy to deal with Hume’s position with respect to the notions that constitute the “liberalism of freedom/liberalism of happiness” pair. It seems to me that this kind of approach raises at least three problems. First, we are dealing with an obvious anachronism. The term liberalism, whether associated with happiness or with freedom, did not exist in the eighteenth century. Second, in spite of this anachronism, it is tempting to see in Hume’s skepticism, in his critique of the notion of the social contract, just as in his use of the notion of utility, a kind of prefiguration of the very modern and very disenchanted view of politics. This view sees in suffrage a clumsy and often misleading form of revealing electors’ preferences, thereby suggesting that a “benevolent dictator” – correctly anticipating agents’ preferences through straightforward opinion polls – would be much more efficient, all in all, than the debates followed by a vote that are dear to democracies abounding in pernickety rules. This kind of attitude, which is indifferent with respect to the aforementioned constitutional forms, would thus not only anticipate the core of the liberalism of happiness rather well – as cautiously suggested by Catherine Audard (2009: 222) – but also that of the conservatism supported by neoliberals. Third, as Winch has emphasized (1996), this type of binary approach, just like those opposing Republicans to Liberals, Whigs to Tories, left to right and so on, does not do justice to the specificity of Hume’s approach (nor to most eighteenth-century texts, for that matter). In other words, it is doubtful that the opposition liberalism of happiness/liberalism of freedom covers the full extent of the domain of extremely rich political thought that was hostile to the monarchy of divine right, spreading throughout Europe between the English revolutions and the American and French revolutions. Furthermore, Hume’s attempts at annexation through contemporary neoliberalism (or neoconservatism) have long been criticized by authors such as Duncan Forbes (1975a, 1975b), or Knud Haakonssen (1981) who clearly showed that this author’s skepticism with respect to the Whig ideology dominant in Great Britain during his era by no means implies any form of disdain with respect to the British constitution on the part of an author who intended to found political science, as the title of the third essay from his Essays Moral and Political testifies: “That Politics May Be Reduced as a Science.”