David Hume’s Protestant Ethic

david hume ethics commerce work ethics history of economic thought commercial spirit

Erik W. Matson for AdamSmithWorks

David Hume believed Puritan attitudes contributed to the commercial spirit of England. Hume anticipated Max Weber’s focus on the Protestant ethic but also differed from him.
"Protestant convictions gelled with concurrent developments... The combination gave rise to both the spirit of the age and its material consequences."

Wednesday, March 27, 2024
David Hume is commonly viewed as a great adversary of traditional religious faith. His personal theological views notwithstanding, he appreciated the role of religious convictions in forming the British into “a polite and commercial people,” as William Blackstone described them. Hume, like Max Weber, perceived a distinctly Protestant ethic underlying the spirit of British commercialism, or so I’ve argued in an article in the Journal for the History of Economic Thought.
Hume is sometimes interpreted as having held that beliefs and moral sentiments flow simply from material conditions. Did Hume not say that reason is a slave of the passions, and aren’t passions ultimately rooted in pains and pleasures flowing from material conditions? It might seem to follow that religious convictions may, from a Humean perspective, be reduced to the set of material causes.
But Hume’s understanding is more capacious than commonly assumed. He viewed ideas and material realities as existing in dialectical, multi-directional relations. Individuals and even whole societies are inhabited by movements of ideas, and we should not try to reduce these movements to material phenomena. Systemic movements of ideas through a historical population are said by Hume to constitute “the spirit of the age” (e.g. Hume 1994, 271). Humean spirit is what Hume might call a “moral cause.” It is an animating set of beliefs, the ethos of a set of people, inferred from discernable effects on specific patterns of human action. Spirits may haunt and depress society, or they may invigorate society.
The causal link between beliefs and actions is a function of the interface between natural human sociability and the universal human desire for betterment. Each constantly pursues betterment or his sense of his own interest. Our sense of betterment, however, transcends the strictly material. We desire not to maximize material pleasures but to earn the approval of our fellows by conforming to, and, if we can, exceeding their expectations. We are irreducibly social and political animals. Our choices, whether commercial or religious, always take place within a social frame of reference, real or imagined (Finlay 2007, 88). It follows, then, that our constant pursuit of gain hinges on our belief of what others approve of, or what we believe based on our experience that they ought to approve of. The ‘others’ that matter to any one individual are specific to that individual, but naturally there is overlap between one person’s set of significant ‘others’ and another person’s.
This broadened understanding of the notion of betterment has implications for Hume’s economic history. Economic history can be studied by considering changes in incentives. Binding price controls under Edward II and Henry VII predictably exacerbated the scarcity of commodities (Hume 1983, 2:177, 3:78), and the overlapping interests of free burghers and the crown contributed to English jural integration and the decline of feudalism. But economic history must also consider individuals’ changing interpretations of their conditions, which changes the ‘incentives’ that the individual faces. Along these lines one might argue that Hume in fact saw a central component of political economy to be the polity’s system of manners (Sakamoto 2003), and in this he is not dissimilar from Edmund Burke (cf. Collins 2020, 487).
Hume alluded to the importance of manners in shaping incentives. He argued that commerce would not thrive in absolute governments, not because conventions of ownership and rights of contract will not be enforced under monarchical regimes, but because commercial pursuits will be insufficiently honored. Where commerce is not honored, individual efforts will be channeled out of commerce and into other domains, especially court politics (Hume 1994, 93). A robust commercial scene requires a robust commercial spirit—a widespread belief in the dignity of private, commercial pursuits and the wholesomeness of honest income (cf. McCloskey 2016). It is precisely such a spirit that Hume claimed had ascended in England by the middle of the seventeenth century. Commerce, during the peaceful years of the reign of Charles I, became “more honourable in England than in any other European kingdom” (Hume 1983, 6:148).
A contributory element was Protestant religious conviction. Kenneth Boulding once described religious conviction as giving “identity…to practitioners” and inspiring “behavior which arises out of this perceived identity.” In the economic realm, religious conviction “gives rise to a great deal of quiet heroism…in the humdrum tasks of daily life, without which a good deal of the economy might well fall apart” (Boulding 1969, 10). Hume saw something along the lines of Boulding’s interpretation at work in seventeenth-century England. He perceived an ascendant species of Protestant religious belief that valorized commerce and political freedom alike by way of a kind of missionary spirit. The spread of such beliefs “consecrated…every individual…in his own eyes” (Hume 1983, 5:260). Even technical debates in Parliament concerning “tonnage and poundage” were inseparable from deep “theological or metaphysical controversies” (Hume 1983, 5:215).
Hume did not see Protestant convictions as the sole factor that gave rise to commercialism. Neither, for that matter, did Max Weber. Responding to his critics, Weber denied that he ever claimed Protestantism gave rise to capitalism in a linear fashion (Weber 2001, 95). Weber saw the Protestant ethic as placing a spiritual premium on diligent, systematic commercial efforts. That spiritual premium united with other factors, giving rise in a prediction-defying way to the modern commercial order of northwestern Europe (Kollár 2021). Likewise, for Hume, Protestant convictions gelled with concurrent developments, including an increase in foreign commerce, transatlantic trade, immigration, the spread of money, print culture, developments in agricultural technology, and the partial curtailing of entails. The combination gave rise to both the spirit of the age and its material consequences. Hume viewed the Protestant ethic as contributory, not uniquely determinative.
The specific subset of Protestantism at work in Hume’s narrative is Puritanism. Puritanism is a loose category, and to this day there is disagreement as to who, precisely, the Puritans were. Weber used the term to describe “ascetically inclined religious movements in Holland and England, without distinction of Church organization or dogma, thus including Independents, Congregationalists, Baptists, Mennonites, and Quakers” (Weber 1930, 217). Hume’s definition of “Puritan” is never made explicit, but his usage aligns with a working definition by Margo Todd, who distinguished the Puritans by their commitment to “purging the Church of England…of its remaining Romish ‘superstitions,’ ceremonies, vestements and liturgy” and “intensity of evangelical concern” (M. Todd 1987, 14).
In consonance with the teachings of Martin Luther and especially John Calvin, the Puritans emphasized that the believer’s salvation comes from God’s grace through faith in the work of Jesus Christ. This emphasis on the primacy of faith combined with a dislike of high liturgy and a deemphasis on ecclesiastical institutions of mediation. The result was at once a consecration of ordinary walks of life and a skepticism of political and ecclesiastical authority—this is the core of Hume’s notion of the Protestant ethic, and in the course of his History of England he traced its effects on political and commercial spirit.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the spark of liberty in England had, according to Hume, been all but extinguished. The spark was preserved and the flame kindled in the most unlikely of places: “the noble principles of liberty took root…under the shelter of puritanical absurdities” (Hume 1983, 4:368). The spark was preserved because of the Puritans’ radical commitment to “the principles of natural equity” (6:83). Their conception of God’s nearness and direct accessibility to all through faith changed the way they interacted with political authority. All men are created equal in the image of God, they reasoned. Sovereigns themselves are but men, and they stand in judgment before God for how they rule. Our obligations to them are dependent on services they render to the public. In Scotland after the union of the crowns, Hume reported that James I experienced such attitudes first-hand. He found his subjects attended him with “the same lofty pretensions, which attended them in their familiar addresses to their Maker” (5:11). If a man can approach the throne of God Himself in confidence on account of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, why should he fear to approach the throne of any earthly sovereign?
These sentiments concerning the natural political equality of man contributed to a broader cultural ascendancy of what Hume called “democratical principles.” One of the earliest uses of “democratic” catalogued by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from John Ley’s 1641 A Discourse Concerning Puritans in a description of Puritanical political attitudes: “fiery spirited Ministers” championed “a democratick forme of policy” (quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary, entry on “democratic, adj. and n.”). In English literature of the 17th century, the word “democratic” or “democratick” had associations with Puritanism. Hume later used “democratic” and its cognates in a similar way. This is significant because in Volume 5 of his History he cited “democratical principles” as one of several causes of the flourishing of commerce (Hume 1983, 6:148). He perceived, in other words, something in the egalitarianism of Puritan political psychology that translated into certain attitudes about work and trade.
In short, the effects of Puritanism on economic activity for Hume came from, to use Boulding’s phrase, its encouragement of “quiet heroism.” Individuals were encouraged by Puritan teachings not to seek the approval of men—especially those vested with traditional political and ecclesiastical power—but the approval of God, for God alone, as the Westminster Confession of 1646 asserted, is Lord of the conscience. Hume explored the psychology of such beliefs by recounting a discussion from a man called Rouse: “lower natures, being backed by higher, encrease in courage and strength, and certainly man, being backed with Omnipotency, is a kind of omnipotent creature. All things are possible to him that believes” (Hume 1983, 5:214). In shifting the locus of authority and judgment upwards to conceptions of God Himself, the individual may sustain her convictions against the crowd. These sensibilities led to what Hume diagnosed as pathological levels of individualism that threatened to undo the English polity during the throes of the English civil war. But so too did they contribute to changing estimations of commercial life, Hume argued, in disrupting established hierarchies of propriety and submissiveness:
The fanaticism of the independents…confounded all ranks and orders. The soldier, the merchant, the mechanic, indulging in fervors of zeal, and guided by the illapses of the spirit, resigned himself to an inward and superior direction, and was consecrated in a manner, by an immediate intercourse with heaven. (Hume 1983, 5:215)
The consecration of individual callings went hand-in-hand with shifting political attitudes. The Puritans under Elizabeth I introduced a bill to eliminate monopolies granted by royal prerogative (Hume 1983, 4:344). Under Charles I, those merchants who would submit to pay duties of tonnage and poundage were considered to be “betrayers of English liberty and public enemies” (5:215). The “democratical principles” of the sixteenth century that made commerce “more honourable in England than in any other European kingdom” also led men to pay “no regard” to the legal monopolies granted to exclusive companies by the crown, which led to the increase of commerce (6:148). Puritanical “democratick” attitudes spawned “Don’t tread on me” attitudes about economic freedom.
It should be emphasized here again that Hume by no means saw Puritan convictions as the only or even the key factor in forming English commercialism. His account features a wide array of interacting variables. But he believed religious convictions mattered a great deal for their interrelated, transformative effects on political and economic psychology, and in this he can be considered as a kind of “proto-Weberian” (Schabas 2020; cf. Demeter 2022).
Their similarities notwithstanding, however, there are some differences between Hume and Weber. Weber’s psychologizing is somewhat unclear and equivocal, but, overall, for him, hard work and a rationalization of work within one’s life plan come across as an attempt by believers to secure confidence in their salvation. Uncertain of whether or not he was truly part of God’s elect, the believer set out in pursuit of material prosperity by way of virtuous conduct to prove to himself and to others that he did in fact enjoy God’s favor. Thus the Protestant ethic in Weber is an expression of uncertainty. For Hume, on the other hand, believers’ rapturous confidence in their salvation and in the daily presence of God in their activities inspirited them to self-application and diligence in their worldly affairs. They understood themselves as called to good deeds and success within their worldly callings by virtue of their saving faith. For Hume, then, the Protestant ethic is an expression of uncertainty overcome. Whereas Weber psychologized, Hume seems to have taken the convictions of the Puritans at close to face value, although he of course rejected those convictions himself.

Erik W. Matson is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, deputy director of the Adam Smith Program at George Mason University, and a lecturer in political economy at The Catholic University of America.
 This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

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Author bio: Erik W. Matson is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, deputy director of the Adam Smith Program at George Mason University, and a lecturer in political economy at The Catholic University of America.