Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV.—: OF THE INFLUENCE OF ASSOCIATION ON OUR ACTIVE PRINCIPLES, AND ON OUR MORAL JUDGMENTS - Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense
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IV.—: OF THE INFLUENCE OF ASSOCIATION ON OUR ACTIVE PRINCIPLES, AND ON OUR MORAL JUDGMENTS - Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense 
Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, edited, with an introduction by G.A. Johnston (Chicago: Open Court, 1915).
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OF THE INFLUENCE OF ASSOCIATION ON OUR ACTIVE PRINCIPLES, AND ON OUR MORAL JUDGMENTS
In order to illustrate a little farther the influence of the Association of Ideas on the human mind, I shall add a few remarks on some of its effects on our active and moral principles. In stating these remarks, I shall endeavour to avoid, as much as possible, every occasion of controversy, by confining myself to such general views of the subject, as do not presuppose any particular enumeration of our original principles of action, or any particular system concerning the nature of the moral faculty. If my health and leisure enable me to carry my plans into execution, I propose, in the sequel of this work, to resume these inquiries, and to examine the various opinions to which they have given rise.
The manner in which the association of ideas operates in producing new principles of action, has been explained very distinctly by different writers. Whatever conduces to the gratification of any natural appetite, or of any natural desire, is itself desired on account of the end to which it is subservient; and by being thus habitually associated in our apprehension with agreeable objects, it frequently comes, in process of time, to be regarded as valuable in itself, independently of its utility. It is thus that wealth becomes, with many, an ultimate object of pursuit; although, at first, it is undoubtedly valued merely on account of its subserviency to the attainment of other objects. In like manner, men are led to desire dress, equipage, retinue, furniture, on account of the estimation in which they are supposed to be held by the public. Such desires are called by Dr Hutcheson1secondary desires, and their origin is explained by him in the way which I have mentioned. “Since we are capable,” says he, “of reflection, memory, observation, and reasoning, about the distant tendencies of objects and actions, and not confined to things present, there must arise, in consequence of our original desires, secondary desires of everything imagined useful to gratify any of the primary desires; and that with strength proportioned to the several original desires, and imagined usefulness or necessity of the advantageous object.” “Thus,” he continues, “as soon as we come to apprehend the use of wealth or power to gratify any of our original desires, we must also desire them; and hence arises the universality of these desires of wealth and power, since they are the means of gratifying all other desires.” The only thing that appears to me exceptionable in the foregoing passage is, that the author classes the desire of power with that of wealth; whereas I apprehend it to be clear (for reasons which I shall state in another part of this work) that the former is a primary desire, and the latter a secondary one.
Our moral judgments, too, may be modified, and even perverted to a certain degree, in consequence of the operation of the same principle. In the same manner in which a person who is regarded as a model of taste may introduce, by his example, an absurd or fantastical dress; so a man of splendid virtues may attract some esteem also to his imperfections; and, if placed in a conspicuous situation, may render his vices and follies objects of general imitation among the multitude.
“In the reign of Charles II.,” says Mr Smith,1 “a degree of licentiousness was deemed the characteristic of a liberal education. It was connected, according to the notions of those times, with generosity, sincerity, magnanimity, loyalty; and proved that the person who acted in this manner was a gentleman, and not a puritan. Severity of manners and regularity of conduct, on the other hand, were altogether unfashionable, and were connected, in the imagination of that age, with cant, cunning, hypocrisy, and low manners. To superficial minds, the vices of the great seem at all times agreeable. They connect them not only with the splendour of fortune, but with many superior virtues which they ascribe to their superiors; with the spirit of freedom and independency; with frankness, generosity, humanity, and politeness. The virtues of the inferior ranks of people, on the contrary,—their parsimonious frugality, their painful industry, and rigid adherence to rules, seem to them mean and disagreeable. They connect them both with the meanness of the station to which these qualities commonly belong, and with many great vices which they suppose usually accompany them, such as an abject, cowardly, ill-natured, lying, pilfering disposition.”
The theory which, in the foregoing passages from Hutcheson and Smith, is employed so justly and philosophically to explain the origin of our secondary desires, and to account for some perversions of our moral judgments, has been thought sufficient, by some later writers, to account for the origin of all our active principles without exception. The first of these attempts to extend so very far the application of the doctrine of Association, was made by the Rev. Mr Gay, in a Dissertation concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue, which is prefixed by Dr Law to his translation of Archbishop King’s Essay on the Origin of Evil. In this dissertation, the author endeavours to shew, “that our approbation of morality, and all affections whatsoever, are finally resolvable into reason, pointing out private happiness, and are conversant only about things apprehended to be means tending to this end; and that wherever this end is not perceived, they are to be accounted for from the association of ideas, and may properly be called habits.” The same principles have been since pushed to a much greater length by Dr Hartley, whose system (as he himself informs us) took rise from his accidentally hearing it mentioned as an opinion of Mr Gay, “that the association of ideas was sufficient to account for all our intellectual pleasures and pains.”1
It must, I think, in justice be acknowledged, that this theory concerning the origin of our affections, and of the moral sense, is a most ingenious refinement upon the selfish system, as it was formerly taught; and that, by means of it, the force of many of the common reasonings against that system is eluded. Among these reasonings, particular stress has always been laid on the instantaneousness with which our affections operate, and the moral sense approves or condemns; and on our total want of consciousness, in such cases, of any reference to our own happiness. The modern advocates for the selfish system admit the fact to be as it is stated by their opponents, and grant that, after the moral sense and our various affections are formed, their exercise, in particular cases, may become completely disinterested; but still they contend, that it is upon a regard to our own happiness that all these principles are originally grafted. The analogy of avarice will serve to illustrate the scope of this theory. It cannot be doubted that this principle of action is artificial. It is on account of the enjoyments which it enables us to purchase that money is originally desired; and yet, in process of time, by means of the agreeable impressions which are associated with it, it comes to be desired for its own sake, and even continues to be an object of our pursuit, long after we have lost all relish for those enjoyments which it enables us to command.
Without meaning to engage in any controversy on the subject, I shall content myself with observing in general, that there must be some limit beyond which the theory of association cannot possibly be carried; for the explanation which it gives of the formation of new principles of action, proceeds on the supposition that there are other principles previously existing in the mind. The great question then is, when are we arrived at this limit; or, in other words, when are we arrived at the simple and original laws of our constitution?
In conducting this inquiry philosophers have been apt to go into extremes. Lord Kames and some other authors have been censured, and perhaps justly, for a disposition to multiply original principles to an unnecessary degree. It may be questioned whether Dr Hartley and his followers have not sometimes been misled by too eager a desire of abridging their number.
Of these two errors the former is the least common and the least dangerous. It is the least common, because it is not so flattering as the other to the vanity of a theorist; and it is the least dangerous, because it has no tendency, like the other, to give rise to a suppression or to a misrepresentation of facts, or to retard the progress of the science by bestowing upon it an appearance of systematical perfection, to which in its present state it is not entitled.
Abstracting, however, from these inconveniences which must always result from a precipitate reference of phenomena to general principles, it does not seem to me that the theory in question has any tendency to weaken the foundation of morals. It has, indeed, some tendency, in common with the philosophy of Hobbes and of Mandeville, to degrade the dignity of human nature, but it leads to no sceptical conclusions concerning the rule of life. For, although we were to grant that all our principles of action are acquired, so striking a difference among them must still be admitted, as is sufficient to distinguish clearly those universal laws which were intended to regulate human conduct, from the local habits which are formed by education and fashion. It must still be admitted that while some active principles are confined to particular individuals, or to particular tribes of men, there are others which, arising from circumstances in which all the situations of mankind must agree, are common to the whole species. Such active principles as fall under this last description, at whatever period of life they may appear, are to be regarded as a part of human nature no less than the instinct of suction; in the same manner as the acquired perception of distance by the eye, is to be ranked among the perceptive powers of man, no less than the original perceptions of any of our other senses.1
[1 ]See his Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions.
[1 ]Theory of Moral Sentiments.
[1 ]Mr Hume, too, who in my opinion has carried this principle of the Association of Ideas a great deal too far, had compared the universality of its applications in the philosophy of mind, to that of the principle of attraction in physics. “Here,” says he, “is a kind of attraction, which in the mental world will be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural, and to shew itself in as many and as various forms.”—Treatise of Human Nature, vol. i. p. 30.
[1 ]“Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind,” Works, vol. ii. pp. 334-338.