Criminology | Section 2.5


Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.


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The Decline of Natural Law

If it can be said that the writings of Hobbes foreshadowed the decline of the Natural Law’s importance in great legal thought, then the works of Hume can be regarded as a harbinger of death for this long-standing principle of jurisprudence among mainstream academic thinkers.

Hume eloquently and systematically attacked the doctrine of Right Reason, and ultimately rejected the notion of natural law.  His doctrine was heretical and humanistic in the eyes of his detractors.  Not since Aristotle’s time had such a dramatic change occurred in methods of jurisprudential inquiry.  Where Aristotle introduced systematic inquiry, Hume introduced scientific inquiry.

Before this, the terms “science” and “scientific” were bantered about, but the arcane use of those terms bear little relation to the term as it is used today.  The modern reader must remember that science, as we know it today, grew from philosophy.

For a long period (relative to jurisprudential thinking), there was no real distinction between the terms.  Hume defined science and reason (apparently the same concept) as the comparing of ideas, and the discovery of their relationships.  Hume argues quite convincingly that concepts such as morality and virtue cannot be derived through reason.

Hume concludes that morality is more of a “feeling” that a product of reason. “To have the sense of virtue is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character.”  This feeling is a sense of pleasure, just as one might expect from a work of art.

He also argues against Natural Law because it is preposterous to assume that we have within us the basis for a complete and complex system of ethics from birth.

Hume takes it for granted that when we evaluate the virtue of an act, we care not for outcomes, but intentions.  The outcome of an action merely serves to give us a window into the intent of the actor.  He further develops the maxim “that no action can be virtuous, or morally good, unless there be in human nature some motive to produce it distinct from the sense of its morality.”

Ultimately our sense of justice is not derived from nature but emanates artificially from education and human conventions.  These conventions are an integral part of the societies that humans choose to live within.  We choose to live in such societies, for the most part, out of a sense of expediency.

Man alone is weak and ineffectual, but in the aggregate he is strong.  It is by the collective force, ability, and security that society becomes advantageous to the individual.  Much in agreement with Aristotle and other noted thinkers, Hume sees the family as the basic structural unit of society.  This is the first stage in the evolution of the state.

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File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/04/2018

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