Scroll Top


The term justice has been derived from the Latin term ‘jus’ which means “to bind to contract.” As all political, legal and moral thought is believed to started with the Greeks, it is essential to


The term justice has been derived from the Latin term jus which means “to bind to contract.” As all political, legal and moral thought is believed to have started with the Greeks, it is essential to understand their notion of justice. According to Plato, justice resides in humans as a virtue and acts as a bond bringing men together in society.[1] He used the Greek term ‘dikaisyne’ for justice, which is synonymous with the words ‘morality’ and ‘righteousness.’[2] Thus, indicating that to him, justice was a virtue inherent in man. Aristotle and several other Greek scholars of the time further developed upon the same idea.

Several philosophers have given different notions of justice. The various notions of justice given by these philosophers can be broadly categorized into – utilitarian, contractual, egalitarian and libertarian. Many more types of theories of justice have emerged over the decades such as the Gandhian theory of justice and Amartya Sen’s social choice theory. Therefore, the concept of justice has assumed different meanings for different scholars, and one such scholar happens to be David Hume.

David Hume (1711-1776) is recognized as one of the most important philosophers to have written in the English language. He was a well-known historian and essayist who published many works such as – A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and The Principles of Morals (1751). He is, today, recognized as an exponent of philosophical naturalism, a contributor to the development of cognitive sciences, and an inspiration in contemporary moral philosophy.[3]

Hume’s theory of justice is mainly enclosed within the pages of the third volume of “A Treatise of Human Nature,”[4] and “The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.[5] It is in the Treatise, where he distinguishes between the natural virtues and artificial virtues and presents the notion of justice as an artificial concept. He presented the free rider problem of his theory in the Enquiry.


Hume lays out his theory of justice in the Treatise and the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. His theory of justice is teleological, i.e., it focuses on the consequences rather than the events which led to the occurrence of the phenomena.


According to him, “mankind is an inventive species,”[6] and ‘justice’ is one of its numerous inventions. To explain his notion of justice, he first differentiates between natural virtues and artificial virtues. ‘Natural virtues’ are those traits and resulting behaviours which are inherent in humans and will continue being even in the absence of social control and social order like being kind, generous and civil. On the other hand, ‘artificial virtues’ are those which are based on common practices and social institutions such as – respecting others’ property rights, being honest in keeping promises and maintaining contracts, and pleading allegiance to the government.[7]


Hume believes that nature has supplied man with many motives which help mankind in living harmoniously with each other based on kinship. But, for existing together peacefully in larger societies, nature has not endowed man with all of the essential motives. In the Treatise, he presents justice as an artificial virtue. He raises questions regarding the source of inspiration for establishing the various rules of justice in society and what encourages people to conform to these rules. He lays down that the rules of justice give rise to property rights, and therefore, justice ultimately deals with the property of man.

According to him, to solve problems, mankind enters into a set of conventions to establish certain practices. This leads to the creation of several new conventions. These new conventions give rise to new problems forcing man to enter into more conventions and the cycle goes on and on. One such convention was the need to bring about property rights. When property rights are sufficiently established, a man enters into more conventions dealing with the transference of property and the creation of promises and contracts.

As man is cooperative, he is capable of cooperating with everyone ranging from family to strangers. This attribute of man is what facilitates the production and exchange of goods. It must be noted that all of these conventions come into existence before the government is formed, thus, enforcing the idea that man is capable of coexisting harmoniously before the government comes into being.

Although material goods are produced and exchanged peacefully, they are scarce in number. This is why man is tempted to take these goods from strangers and give them to his family and friends. As a result, there are disputes over these goods which hamper the social order. Thus arises the need for property rights – the only solution to these disputes.

As per Hume, “self-interest is the original motive to the establishment of justice,”[8] as it benefits the individual first and only then, the society. Therefore, justice evolves out of the partiality man has for his loved ones, but it is ultimately man’s sympathy with a ‘public interest’ which leads to its continued practice in society.[9]


The Humean rules of justice, can thus, be summarized as under:

  • Stability of property;
  • Transfer of property by consent;
  • Fulfilment of promises.[10]


In the Enquiry, Hume raises the issue of the free rider. A free rider is an individual who does not find the practice of justice to be in his favour, so he overrides the rules put in place by society. This ‘sensible knave,’ as Hume puts it, desires the benefits the practice brings like any other person in society, but he wants these benefits without having to follow some of the rules set to ensure justice.

The free rider understands that one act of injustice could not possibly topple the entire institution. He, therefore, acts in his self-interest and against the rules put in place by the institution. It is unclear whether Hume provides an answer to the free rider problem in his theory.[11]


Hume assumes an economic perspective on justice by relating it to the concept of property and the need for property rights. David Hume in his writings attempts to present justice as an artificial virtue. To him, justice is created by man and achieved through the creation and recognition of property rights in society. It is observed by the establishment and maintenance of certain practices which all individuals are expected to follow. However, even in this system, there are free riders who disregard the rules of justice in their self-interest. The question of how free riders are to be dealt with remains to be just that, a question.

Questions relating to life and society have perplexed mankind for eternity. Man has tried to offer explanations for numerous complex phenomena, many of which to date remain inexplicable and incomprehensible. Hume too, like many thinkers before him, and after him presented his theory of justice in an attempt to understand humanity.

Author(s) Name: Srishti Singh (Army Institute of Law, Mohali – Punjabi University, Patiala)


[1] D.R. Bhandari, ‘Plato’s Concept Of Justice: An Analysis’ (Paideia Archive) <,effective%20harmony%20of%20the%20whole.> accessed on 25 June 2023

[2] Ibid

[3] Morris et al., ‘David Hume’ (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2022) <> accessed 25 June 2023

[4] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2000)

[5] David Hume, Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals (first published in 1777, 3rd edn, Oxford, 1975)

[6] David Hume (n 4)

[7] Morris (n 3)

[8] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (2nd edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) 499-500

[9] Ibid

[10] Enes Eryılmaz, ‘David Hume’s Account of Justice’ (2019) 9(1) I&T-JH&S <> accessed 26 June 2023

[11] Morris (n 3)