David Hume
David Hume

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David Hume

4.2 Moral grounds for thinking we are immortal

The moral reason (as Hume calls it) for thinking that there is an afterlife has already been touched on. God, being just, would surely see to it that we are punished or rewarded for our aberrant or commendable actions; this punishment or reward doesn't take place in this life, so it must take place after our body's demise. Here is a simple statement of the reasoning:

The moral argument for supposing there is an afterlife: the universe as created by God is a just universe; in a just universe, actions are rewarded or punished adequately, but actions are not rewarded or punished adequately in this life; therefore, there must be some other life in which actions are rewarded or punished.

The final clause of this argument expresses the claim that Hume wishes to reject. So he must find a fault with the reasoning that leads to it.

Hume would have been happy to reject this reasoning by rejecting the assumption of God's existence that lies at his heart. But as already mentioned, he does not want to adopt this strategy in this essay. Instead he seeks to persuade those sympathetic to natural religion that even they should reject this argument for the immortality thesis.

Exercise 4

  • (a) Go to paragraph 7 and notice how little time Hume spends laying out the position he is about to criticise. This position would already have been familiar to his readership.

  • (b) How impressed are you by the moral reason for believing in an afterlife? Can you think of an objection to it that does not involve simply denying the existence of God?


The point of (b) is merely to help you appreciate the task that Hume has set himself. The reasoning is, at first sight, quite persuasive. If you came up with your own objections to it, compare them to Hume's own objections, to which we now turn.

Our task now is to interpret and assess Hume's objections to this attempt to justify a belief in an afterlife. He offers three distinct replies, though he does not number them as such.

His first objection is very short, and is set out in paragraph 8, just after he has given the truncated statement of the moral reason. It draws heavily on his empiricist assumption that one ought not to make judgements that go beyond what we can infer from experience. We should not make claims about God's attributes – such as that he is just – without evidence, and that evidence must come from experience. But what experience do we have of the justice of God?

Our experience of God's justice, confined as it is to our experiences in this life, is not particularly persuasive, Hume implies. Experience contains plenty of instances of what to us seem to be injustices. Though he does not give examples, he could have had in mind catastrophic events such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, ironically on All Soul's Day. On that day some 60,000 people died as a modern European capital was flattened, then swamped beneath a tidal wave, and finally engulfed in flames. 1755 was also the year Hume was writing his essay.

Exercise 5

Read paragraph 8. Which clause of my representation of the moral argument (above) is Hume calling into question, and how?


Hume is challenging the first clause by asking for evidence to support the assumption that God is just. God may well manifest his justice in an afterlife, but this is not something we have any experience of, and so not something we have a right to assume – and nothing we see in this life supports the assumption either.

Hume does not develop this first objection to the moral argument. Instead he moves quickly on to an independent and more developed response that does not call God's justice into question (paragraphs 9–11). In rough outline, this second objection is that almost everything about us seems to be directed towards this life and not a next life. In particular, the ‘structure of … [our] mind and passions’ make us ill-prepared for an afterlife in which we are punished or rewarded for our earlier actions. Hume infers, from these supposedly observable design flaws, that there is no afterlife.

To understand and evaluate this more developed response, we need to understand and evaluate his claim about our apparent design flaws, and his inference from this claim to the non-existence of an afterlife. We can begin with the claim, before looking at the inference.

In paragraph 9 Hume seeks to establish the truth of the claim that our minds and passions are ill-adapted to the existence of any afterlife. He asks us to notice how less persuaded we are by the ‘floating idea’ of a post-death existence than we are even by ‘common life’ facts (by which he could mean, perhaps, some trivial memory of what we did last week). So if there really is an afterlife, our minds are manifestly not equipped to recognise this fact. Moreover, our everyday concerns – our ‘passions’ – are not the concerns we ought to have if this life is but a preparation for eternity. We constantly let ‘worldly’ considerations govern our actions. Don Giovanni does not let the prospect of eternal damnation guide his actions. Instead he is guided by lust.

But, you may be thinking, some people are quite strongly persuaded of the existence of an afterlife, and seek to behave accordingly in this life. Perhaps you yourself are such a person. Hume acknowledges this fact and attempts to accommodate it. Such people, he says, have been effectively brainwashed (to use modern terminology) by the clergy. He even suggests, with some cheek, that the ‘zeal and industry’ of the clergy in seeking to gain ‘power and riches in this world’ by perpetrating their unsupported ideas prove that even they do not have much expectation of an afterlife.

Having established (he thinks) that our minds and passions could be counted as well designed only if there is no life beyond the present one, Hume goes on to infer from this that there cannot be an afterlife. He offers us two quite independent ways of making this inference, in paragraph 10 and paragraph 11 respectively.

In the moral argument, God's justice is used to show that there is an afterlife. In paragraph 10 Hume suggests that God's justice would really require the exact opposite: that there isn't an afterlife. A just god would only have designed our minds and passions to be the way they are if there is no afterlife. Doing otherwise would be cruel and deceptive. It would be unfair on Don Giovanni and the rest of us to be held so much to account for our God-given inclination to act as if there is no afterlife.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Johann Friedrich Bolt, after Vinzenz Kininger, title page from the printed music score of Don Giovanni, 1801, engraving, Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna

The second version of the inference (paragraph 11) starts with the same assumption – that we are ill-equipped for an eternal existence – and reaches the same conclusion – that there is no afterlife – but it does so via a different route. The bridging assumption this time is that a creature's abilities are matched (‘proportionate’) to the tasks facing that creature. This is an observably true generalisation, showing up once again Hume's empiricist leanings. Hume notices that, for example, the tasks facing ‘foxes and hares’ are well served by these animals’ abilities. Hares have no capacity to appreciate opera, but such appreciation would be superfluous to the requirements of a life as a hare. Since a match between tasks and abilities is true of all other creatures, it is reasonable to infer (‘from parity of reason’) that we humans, too, have abilities that are matched to the tasks facing us. The existence of an afterlife would be in violation of this observable truth, since the task of preparing for this afterlife would far outstrip our ability to carry it out effectively – something shown once again by the recklessness of Don Giovanni.

Softly spoken, intelligent, witty, kind and unpretentious, Hume was reportedly ‘the darling of all the pretty women’ of the Parisian salons in which much of the Enlightenment took place (Mme de Verdelin to Rousseau, quoted in Dufour and Plan, 1924–34, vol.11, p. 106). This did not stop him being – as we would put it today – sexist in his writing. You will find evidence of this in the second half of paragraph 11. He attempts to draw out still further the significance of the fact that abilities are generally suited to requirements. Women are less able than men, he asserts. This can only be because the demands placed on women are lower than those placed on men. An inequality of skills between the sexes is to be expected if the only life is this life, since women are well suited to the less onerous domestic sphere. But an inequality of skills makes no sense if both sexes have the same task to perform: to prepare for eternity. Once again, an ‘observable truth’ (inequality between the sexes in respect of capacities) is used to argue for the absence of an afterlife.

Exercise 6

Read paragraphs 9–11. Does the sexism of Hume's remark, noted above, undermine this second objection to the moral argument?


In my opinion it does not. Here are my two reasons. First, the expression of sexism may affect our assessment of Hume as a likeable fellow, but his likeability is entirely irrelevant to the quality of his arguments. Second, though Hume asserts that women are suited to the domestic sphere but otherwise less able than men, these assertions are not essential to his argument about capacities in nature matching the demands placed on them. They are merely part of a misguided effort to extend his argument. So the fact that these assertions are (I would argue) mistaken leaves his objection to the moral argument more or less intact.

In the remainder of section II (paragraphs 12–17), Hume presents the third and final objection to the moral argument. He proposes in paragraph 12 that we be guided by our conception of justice, not the imagined preferences of a deity, when we make judgements about what would count as appropriate punishment or reward. His point is simply that our conception is the only one we have. If God's conception of punishment is different from ours, then all bets are off since we would be ignorant of what that conception is. He makes the same point later (paragraph 17):

To suppose measures of approbation and blame different from the human confounds every thing. Whence do we learn that there is such a thing as moral distinctions, but from our own sentiments?

Again and again, Hume reminds us that we must assess God's justness by our own lights or, as he often puts it, by the lights of our own sentiments. To do otherwise – to say that God's ways are a mystery – is to abandon the perspective of natural religion and move to mysticism. Mysticism is, if anything, even worse than revealed religion in Hume's eyes.

In paragraphs 13–16 he presents four features of just punishment (i.e. punishment that our sentiments regard as just), each of which is incompatible with a traditional Christian conception of an afterlife: that is, an afterlife equipped with facilities for eternal damnation for those of us who have been wicked in our first life, and eternal bliss for the rest. In the next exercise you are asked to extract these four features.

Exercise 7

Read paragraphs 12–17. In paragraphs 13–16, what are four features of punishment and reward that, according to our sentiments, speak against the existence of an afterlife as conceived in the Christian tradition, according to Hume? (Warning: paragraph 13 is quite elliptical and possibly confused; you may wish to come to it last.)


According to Hume, our sentiments tell us that:

  1. Paragraph 13: the Christian virtue of unconditional love for one's God and neighbours is not the only virtue there is. There is also value in being a good poet or brave soldier. Yet it would be contrary to common sense to suppose that good poets or brave soldiers have their own special kinds of heaven.

  2. Paragraph 14: punishment should serve a purpose; no purpose is served by punishing people after they have left this life.

  3. Paragraph 15: punishment should be kept in proportion. Eternal damnation can never be in proportion to an offence committed in the present life. He makes the same point in paragraph 17: ‘The [eternal] damnation of one man is an infinitely greater evil in the universe, than the subversion of a thousand millions of kingdoms.’

  4. Paragraph 16: punishment in the Christian tradition divides everyone up into the good and the bad without distinguishing degrees of desert within each group.

Figure 4
Figure 4 William Blake, Capaneus the Blasphemer, illustration to Dante's Divine Comedy, Hell Canto 14, 1824–7, pen, ink and watercolour, 37.4 x 52.7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (Felton Bequest, 1920)

In Dante's Inferno (part of the Divine Comedy, c.1314), for which this image is an illustration, Dante (1265–1321) and Virgil (70–19 BC) travel through the different circles of hell and meet those who have committed a variety of sins. In the seventh circle they meet Capaneus, who boasted in his mortal life that even the great God Jove could not defeat him in war. For this he is now receiving his punishment: ‘Eternal fire descended in such profusion [that] sand kindled like tinder under flint, and made the pain redouble’ (Pinsky, 1994, p. 113). Hume claims (paragraph 15) that, according to our ordinary sentiments, an eternity of extreme pain is an overly harsh punishment for most human sins.

Classical allusions aside, paragraph 17 is mostly repetition, but in its closing sentence Hume notes a final aspect of our ordinary attitude towards punishment. We do not punish people if they are not responsible for their actions. Infants could not really be said to be responsible for their actions, and yet those that die – ‘half of mankind’ in those days – are supposedly assessed and either condemned or saved. The death of infants is, he thinks, an especially vivid illustration of why the moral argument fails.


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