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History of Philosophy
British Moralists
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)


The group of distinguished moralists who flourished in Great Britain during the eighteenth century may be said to represent the ethical phase of the empirical movement of that age. In determining moral values, mediaeval ethics had subordinated worldly interests to the interests of the future life. Hobbes, by his doctrine of state absolutism, had subjugated the moral to the political aspect of human conduct. Locke, however, admitted self-interest and the good of the many as moral determinants, and thus enabled his contemporaries and successors to develop a system of morality which should be independent of religion as well as of state authority, and should rest ultimately on the ego.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), in his Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, expounded a system of morals which, although rational rather than empirical, prepared the way for the advocates of independent morality who appeared in the following century. He taught that moral principles and ethical ideals come neither from the will of God, nor from political authority, nor from experience, but from the ideas which necessarily exist in the mind of God and are universally and immutably present in the human mind. He agreed with the schoolmen in maintaining the universality and immutability of the natural law, but differed from them in teaching that it is absolutely a priori.

Shaftesbury (1671-1713). Anthony Ashley Cooper Shaftesbury, the grandson of Locke's patron, and the author of Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times, points out the consequences that follow from Locke's rejection of innate principles of morality, but instead of basing the morality of actions on innate principles he bases it on innate sentiment. For an innate logic of conduct he substitutes an innate aesthetic. His concept of the universe as a whole is aesthetic rather than logical: he conceives the all-pervading law of creation to be unity in variety. The parts of the bodily organism are governed and held together by the soul, and thus arises the unity in diversity which is the ego. But the ego is not complete in itself, for individuals are joined together into species and genera by unities higher than the individual soul, and above all species and all genera is the mind of the Deity, which, by uniting the diversities of genera and species makes the world a cosmos, a beautiful thing.

The individual is, therefore, swayed in one direction by the impulse of self-preservation, and in another direction by the impulse to preserve the higher unity (species) to which it belongs; that individual is good in which the latter impulse is strong and the former not too strong. [2]
[2] Cf. Characteristicks (ed. 1727), II, 14ff.
Applying these principles to man, Shaftesbury defines the essence of morality as consisting in the proper balancing of the social and selfish impulses. There is no morality in "sensible creatures," because, although they may balance the impulse for the preservation of self with the interests of the species, they are incapable of reflecting on the nature of their impulses, or of perceiving the harmony which results when the social and the selfish impulses are properly balanced. Man, on the contrary, is endowed with the power of reflection and of perceiving and approving the harmony which results from the proper balancing of his propensities. The faculty of moral distinction is not, therefore, a rational faculty but an aesthetic sense, -- the power of perceiving harmony and beauty.

As the harmony of impulses constitutes virtue, so also it constitutes happiness. Virtue is its own reward. Religion is an aid to virtue inasmuch as it teaches that the world is ruled by an all-loving and all-protecting God, thus confirming the aesthetic concept of the universe as a harmony. Positive religion, however, is a hindrance to virtue in so far as it promises heavenly rewards, thus making men mercenary and selfish. [3]
[3] Cf. op. cit., II, 58.
Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) revealed, by his advocacy of a startling paradox, the weakness of Shaftesbury's system of morals, the danger namely of attaching to noble impulses so much importance as to neglect the cultivation of useful though commonplace virtues. In The Fable of the Bees he advocates the novel doctrine that private vices are public benefits. He attempts to show that just as in the hive contentment and honesty cannot go hand in hand with splendor and prosperity, so in the community of social life it is the selfish impulses -- the desire of food and drink, ambition, envy, and impatience (which Shaftesbury would have us balance against the social instincts) -- that lead to labor, civilization, and the social life. We must choose between moral progress and material progress, for we cannot have both. [4]
[4] Cf. Höffding, op. cit., I, 400ff.
In spite of the opposition which it provoked at the time, Shaftesbury's doctrine of moral aestheticism continued to win adherents, and the remaining moral systems of the period, those of Hutcheson, Butler, and Adam Smith, are simply the logical development of Shaftesbury's teachings.

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) was born in Ireland and, after teaching in a private academy in Dublin, was appointed professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. He wrote an Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue and a System of Moral Philosophy.

By endeavoring to found a system of ethics on the observation of human nature as it actually is, Hutcheson imparted to the British philosophy of morals a distinctively empirical spirit. He taught that the faculty of moral discrimination and moral approval is not rational, nor yet aesthetic, in the sense of perceiving and approving merely the aspect of harmony or beauty, but a distinct power of the soul called moral sense. He maintained that there is in human nature, besides the egoistic instincts, a natural and instinctive desire to help and please others, and an equally instinctive feeling of approval of actions which aim at helping and pleasing others. The moral sense, which determines what actions are calculated to please and what actions are calculated to displease others, is distinct from reason; for reason merely aids us to find the means to given ends. The faculty of moral discrimination is not acquired by experience, having been originally planted in the soul by the Creator to enable the rational creature to know what actions promote the welfare of others and also his own welfare in conformity with the welfare of others.

Joseph Butler (1692 -- 1752), the author of the Analogy, developed in his Sermons on Human Nature a system of morals which is practically a theological application of Shaftesbury's ethical theory. Butler agrees with Shaftesbury and Hutcheson in maintaining the immediateness of the criterion of morality, which, however, he identifies, not with a sense of harmony, nor with a sense of the pleasure and usefulness which others experience from our actions, but with conscience. This guide of conduct is not a deduction from practical reason, as the schoolmen taught, but a faculty which directly and immediately approves or disapproves, and which must be obeyed without regard to the effect of our action on ourselves or others. It is not a distinctively religious sentiment; still, religion is its greatest aid, for in the "cool hour," when fervor and enthusiasm have deserted him, man finds in the thought of a future life a source of moral inspiration.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), author of The Wealth of Nations, -- a work justly regarded as the first modern treatise on political economy, -- is the last, and if we except Hume the most important, representative of the empirical school of morals in the eighteenth century. His chief merit lies in the completeness and thoroughness of his psychological analysis of the criterion of morality. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments he develops a system of morals based on the principles that all moral judgment depends on participation in the feelings of the agent, and that an action is good if the spectator can sympathize with the end or effect of the action. He traces sympathy from its first manifestation (the power of imitating to a certain degree and participating to a certain extent in the feelings of others) to its culmination in moral appreciation and moral imperative.

Historical Position. The change brought about in the science of ethics by the British moralists of the eighteenth century was practically a revolution in the theory of morals. Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Smith, by reducing the subjective criterion of morality to feeling or sympathy, subverted the established idea of conscience as a dianoetic, or inferential, subjective norm, and substituted for it something which may be called an aesthetic or intuitional criterion. When, in studying the philosophy of the nineteenth century, we shall take up the course of the development of British systems of morals, we shall find the influence of French materialism in the hedonism of Bentham, and the influence of Kant in the importance which the successors of Bentham attach to the problem of the origin of moral obligation. The moralists of the eighteenth century were, apart from "Hutcheson's unconscious lapse into hedonism," altruistic, at least in tendency, and instead of concerning themselves with the analysis of the sense of obligation, devoted their attention exclusively to the analysis of the faculty of moral discrimination and moral approval.
Consult Fowler, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson (London, 1882); Leslie Stephen, op. cit.; Albee, History of English Utilitarianism (London and New York, 1902).


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