The Reading Room

Shaftesbury’s Theory of a “Moral Sense” Sets the Direction of the British Enlightenment (Part 1)

The moral sense is “predominant...inwardly joined to us, and implanted in our nature...a first principle in our constitution...” Lord Shaftesbury
Does every human being have an innate “moral sense”—or at least a moral sense so entrenched in human nature and experiences as to be virtually innate? Today, a standard  answer might be: “I don’t even know what you mean by a “moral sense.” Or “Nobody believes in innate ideas anymore.” Other views might be more positive, referring to religion for an answer.
And yet, the concept, origin, and impact on society of a moral sense dominated the British Enlightenment, starting with the Third Earl of Shaftesbury around 1700 and climaxing with Adam Smith--in particular, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). That is to say, the explication of the moral sense idea climaxed with Smith, but it was far from fading away. Smith’s book became a bestseller of the century, going through edition after edition. even after the publication of The Wealth of Nations (1776). 
So continuously did the “moral sense” preoccupy eighteenth-century British thinkers that historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Roads to Modernity (Random House, 2005) points out that many historians scarcely acknowledge an eighteenth-century “British Enlightenment,” focusing almost exclusively on the Enlightenment in France—the French Enlightenment thinkers called philosophes and the British “moral philosophers.”
A chief distinction is that the French Enlightenment focused intently, even fiercely, on “reason,” attacking and scorning all “superstition” (including religion, especially Catholicism), bewailing the lower classes as hopelessly lacking in rational thought, and shaking their heads at the British philosophers, even David Hume, for tepid atheism. University of Pennsylvania historian Alan Kors, in his lectures on the Enlightenment for the “Great Courses” (my references are to the complete published and notes, 1998), include none of British moral philosophers: Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, Frances Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Reid, and Adam Smith. (He does deal with David Hume, but focusing on his epistemology and religious writings, not his endorsement of the “moral sense.”)
Now, go back to the beginning. The French philosophes did indeed acknowledge, and laud, seventeenth-century British precursors of the Enlightenment. In fact, the defining project of the French Enlightenment (1715-1815), involving most of the philosophes, the multi-volume Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, was dedicated to Issac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke. All British, all of the seventeenth-century Age of Science, and all enormously influential in the following century. (To their number, add the first British secular philosophical thinker, Thomas Hobbes.) 
These four contributed what historians view as core Enlightenment concepts: naturalism (as opposed to supernaturalism), mechanism (as opposed to God’s intervention or Aristotelian ideas of causation), scientific method (empiricism as opposed to deduction from settled classical authority), and, of course, reason, with its right to reach and pronounce conclusions on any subject, independent of any authority, to understand all of Nature. 
The story of British philosophy’s transition at the turn of the century (1685-1715), becomes in one important instance a story of personalities. The first Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683), scion of an influential Whig (“progressive”) family, became fast friends with a promising young physician just out of Oxford University, John Locke (1632-1704), who ended up living in Shaftesbury’s household as his personal physician and following the Earl into exile in Amsterdam (where he fled after being charged with treason for sponsoring a bill opposing the crowning of James II, a Roman Catholic).  
The Earl needed a private tutor. His son, the second Earl, was chronically ill and debilitated (also cared for by Locke), so much so that his children went to live with their grandfather. One of these children was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), whose lifelong friend and philosophical advisor, Locke, supervised his education by choosing a governess whom he guided in teaching a daily curriculum he developed for Anthony and the other children.
The young Shaftesbury became the first British “moral philosopher,” the originator of the concept of a “moral sense,” and influencer of a century or more of British, French, and German thought. He shaped the entire history of English language philosophy with his complex, sophisticated explication, argumentation, and application of the  concept of a “moral sense.” It was an impact that extended beyond the Enlightenment, his view of intuition as integral to reason seized upon by the Romantic movement in its pursuit of creative imagination.
Shaftesbury’s early education featured intensive study of Latin and Greek, which he is said to have mastered by age 11. The next year, when his grandfather died, Anthony went to Winchester College, a secondary school where to Anthony’s discomfort Tory sentiment dominated. Four years there completed Anthony’s formal education; the next stage was the young British nobleman’s Grand Tour of Europe for a full two years, most of its spent in Italy, but also some months in Holland in conversation with Locke.
Returning to England, Shaftesbury had to assume management of the family estates, with their tenants, and all other affairs of his increasingly debilitated father, including choices for the future of his brothers and sisters. He also took his father’s seat in Parliament in the House of Commons and, revering the memory of his grandfather and his political convictions, fought for religious tolerance and a balance of powers between Parliament and crown. Motivating him always was determination to rehabilitate his family’s name after the public disgrace of the First Earl.  
It was now that he began his first work of philosophy, An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, and a preface to an edition of the selected sermons of Benjamin Whichote (1609-1683), whose views he admired. The essay was published in 1699 to great acclaim—but without his permission.  
Thus, Shaftesbury began explication of the thesis that would shape the new century’s philosophical endeavors. Those familiar with the unpredictable outcomes of the intense mentor-student relationship may not be surprised that Shaftesbury pioneered and spent his life promoting a view directly contrary to Locke’s. Locke had come to stand for opposition to “innate ideas,” Aristotle’s view of man’s mind as tabula rasa, and that ‘blank slate” naturally meant the absence of any inborn idea, “sense,” or attitude toward morality. 
For Locke, mankind’s natural “endowment” was his capacity to experience pleasure or pain, happiness or distress, and that capacity, not only in the “state of nature” but any context, determined his choices, which he then characterized as “right” or “good” if they were productive of pleasure/happiness and “wrong” or “bad” if productive of pain/distress. Thus baldly stated, this comported with the earlier philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who declared all revealed religious moral precepts to be “nonsense” and that man in a state of nature acted solely on “selfish” motives, pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, with governments founded to try to forestall this “war of all against all” by throwing the weight of punishment into the calculations of those who would use force to gain their pleasure at the expense of others.
Many shades of difference can be discerned between Locke’s account of self-interest and Hobbes’s. But Lord Shaftesbury was having none of it. He discerned in men, all men in any state, men by their nature, an inclination to benevolence toward their fellow man. Even when they acted against that inclination, contrary to their natural sympathy with fellow men in pain and enjoyment of their fellow men experiencing pleasure, they knew what was right and what was wrong. 
Hobbes had set the course of British moral philosophy (the quest for secular grounding of universal moral principles) and Locke defined the method (empiricism). Thus far, Shaftesbury followed them, but now offered what virtually all British intellectuals demanded: a satisfactory rejoinder to Hobbes’s advocacy of selfishness, which Locke, in his own way, did not answer but affirmed.
Shaftesbury did not name Locke in his 1699 essay, but later, after Locke had died, Shaftesbury wrote to a student that as between Hobbes and Locke, Locke was “the real villain” because his exemplary character and admirable political theory (as contrasted with Hobbes) made his view of morality still more reprehensible. 
To endeavor to state Shaftesbury’s arguments often requires beginning with a qualifier: There are two (or three) leading interpretations of Shaftesbury’s ideas, Much of the reason for this lies in Shaftesbury’s view of philosophy’s role, a quintessential Enlightenment conviction. Philosophy is not about system building or even primarily about understanding. Its purpose is to inform man’s choices to reduce life’s suffering and increase its happiness—a purely naturalistic (non-religious) premise.(The second part of this article will appear at the Reading Room on Thursday, May 9, 2024.)