Document Type



Master of Arts



Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Dr. Andrew Black


Dr. Andrew Black

Dr. Jon McGinnis

Dr. William Dunaway


In David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), he asserts that humans act most altruistically toward people in the closest relations to us, e.g., in family or friendship relations, and somewhat less so toward those who are merely in our own ethnic group, of our own nationality, etc., and least altruistically toward people in the most distant relations to us. But, current empirical data appears to indicate vast multitudes of exceptions to Hume's claim. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to determine the cause of this apparent conflict and suggest potential solutions that might allow Hume's theory to account for the data in a way that is consistent with his premise. To that end, the paper seeks to answer questions of whether or not Hume overlooked factors like evolving social, economic, or technological conditions, or underestimated the potential significance of various forces of influence at work in his system.

Section 1 of the paper's four-part study introduces fundamental concepts of Hume's general theory of human motivation, as it is detailed in the Treatise. Section 2 presents the current statistical evidence apparently reflecting a habit among US Americans of being more altruistic toward people farthest from us, in terms of the relations Hume stipulates. Section 3 is a three-part, step-by-step analysis of Hume's general theoretical process of motivation to action—from primary stimulation of passions, to forming of associations between passions, and between associations of passions and additional influences, to the branching of some of passions and influences together on a trajectory toward a sentiment of benevolence, finally to an act of altruism. Section 4 assesses proposed solutions offered throughout the paper, flexibility of Hume's theory to accept such suggested modifications, and alternatively, sustainability of the theory as-is.

The research finds that the seemingly subtle adjustments suggested for correcting possible small-seeming errors by Hume, when their implications are applied across large populations, should allow his theory to account for the volume of data in question. However, more extensive analysis of more refined data is necessary to determine whether any of the suggested solutions accomplishes that reconciliation.

Additional Files

US Charities Data (4-18-17).xlsx (15 kB)
statistical data supporting the thesis