Hume's Way of Reasonableness in Epistemology, in Politics, and in Political Economy

43 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2017 Last revised: 10 Dec 2017

Erik Matson

George Mason University - Department of Economics

Date Written: November 13, 2017

Abstract

Early in his Treatise of Human Nature, epistemology leads Hume to famously reconfigure reason. The reconfiguration of reason leads him towards skepticism in that he finds that what is generally considered to be reason is an operation on ideas that proceeds on the basis of custom. Despite his skepticism, Hume resolves to presuppose the soundness of reason and to use reason to study things which appear natural and agreeable from the perspective of common life. Hume continues on in the Treatise to study human things, among which politics looms large. Hume’s application of reason to politics arrives at a presumption of liberty, which cashes out in terms of policy debates. When choosing between two policy options, the presumption of liberty inclines him towards the option that least impinges upon individual liberty. Hume’s presumption of liberty stems both from his understanding of the usefulness and agreeableness of liberty, the usefulness understood by way of his theory of property and his conceptual developments in political economy. Hume’s reconfiguration of reason leads him to arrive at a second presumption in politics: the presumption of the status quo. The presumption of the status quo would require reform efforts to bear the burden of proof. The presumption of the status quo in Hume stems from his epistemology, which emphasizes the necessity of prudence in light of the problems of reason, and from his view of the usefulness of political authority more generally. Thus, Hume’s way of reasonableness leads him to presuppose the soundness of reason in human matters but to nonetheless tread with care and prudence in reason’s application. In politics, his way of reasonableness leads him to two presumptions, presumptions which in fact conflict in cases of reforms that would liberalize social arrangements.

Keywords: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, political economy, property rights, epistemology, liberty

JEL Classification: B12, B31

Suggested Citation

Matson, Erik, Hume's Way of Reasonableness in Epistemology, in Politics, and in Political Economy (November 13, 2017). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 17-50. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3070624 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3070624

Erik Matson (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

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