The Reading Room

Shaftesbury’s Theory of a “Moral Sense” Sets the Direction of the British Enlightenment (Part 11)

“T’was Mr. Locke that struck all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world...” Lord Shaftesbury
In his presentation of the theory of a “moral sense” Lord Shaftesbury disdains “system building.” His goal is to teach the reader what he needs to know to improve life and, even more, inspire him to apply that knowledge. To that end, he calls into play every literary device, an array of presentations of the same ideas—often in the mouths of speakers we cannot be sure are Shaftesbury or his foils. 
Still, his essential message emerges. We can answer Hobbes and Locke if we think of moral goodness as analogous to beauty. We all have a sense of beauty: we all respond to visual and other harmony, for example. We all respond to proportionality. That is why art and music exist in every known culture. There is a universal “sense of beauty” that is a response to form not content. Man’s moral goodness can be grounded in objective features of the world, not arbitrarily but in an empiricist framework. Again, speaking broadly: moral beauty is the harmony and proportionality of our choices and actions with what advances and preserves the life of creatures of our species—the life of man qua man, man living as man.
We can know that empirically, by observation and analysis. As moral agents, we are attracted to choices and actions that advance life as man (there is no beneficial way to live as anything but what we are). Thus, as moral agents, capable of free choice, we can be attracted to virtue for its own sake, for its harmonious rightness for life—not virtue directly arising from self-interest.
As Shaftesbury deepens his argument, he presents moral judgment as reflection on our own actions. We have motives and can reflect on them—the only species able to do so. And, in reflecting, we can feel moral approval or condemnation. Because we can recognize the comportment of our motives with what is harmonious with life as lived as the kind of species we are.
It is the same, of course, when we evaluate other moral agents: We reflect upon and approve or condemn their motives. In the language of esthetics to which Shaftesbury returns, when we have morally correct motives we are “morally beautiful,” or, as he sometimes puts it, we have “good moral taste.”
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy specifies that “moral sense” is the “capacity to feel second-order affections, the ‘Sense of Right and Wrong’ or the ‘Moral Sense’... There is little evidence that he thinks the moral sense is a distinct psychological faculty...Nevertheless, Shaftesbury does think that the moral sense (whether one faculty or a less bounded disposition) is that which produces in us feelings of “like” or “dislike” for our own (first-order) affections. When the moral sense is operating produces positive feelings towards affections that promote the well-being of humanity and negative feelings towards affections that detract from the well-being of humanity.”
In other words, the affections that the “moral sense” enables us to affirm as right of wrong are those motivating us to advance our society as a whole. The good, then, is cast in terms of that purpose. The best evidence seems to confirm that Shaftesbury believes our ability to know the good of our society, and our reflective approval of our motivation to serve this good, are innate human capacities.
There are passages in Shaftesbury that support disagreement with this interpretation. Frances Hutcheson, first publishing a bit later than Shaftesbury seems clearly to view the moral sense as innate. On the other hand, Adam Smith and David Hume, writing later, do not view the moral sense as innate, but nevertheless universal in human nature as a disposition or tendency. 
All of the moral philosophers agreed that not reason, but affect is primary in morality. Our moral sense is an affection for actions and motives harmonious with how we live with our fellow men in society. Reason could not be primary because among other things it is far too “slow” to account for reactions of our moral sense. But reason comes into the picture in understanding the motives upon which we are acting and formulating rules that define the category of actions consistent with the kind of choices and actions of which we approve or disapprove.
One can make a case that Lord Shaftesbury’s vision—as a nobleman, gentlemen, and political and public man—is to employ philosophy, and every literary effort, to inspire people to identify and heed their moral sense and thereby to bring about a “polite,” humane, public-spirited, and as nearly as possible “happy” English people and polity.
Like his father but to a lesser degree, Shaftesbury suffered chronic illness, either asthma or tuberculosis, apparently aggravated by the notorious London air. At first, he retired to Holland, but at his father’s death (in 1700), when he inherited the title Earl, he felt he must return to Parliament to his seat in the House of Lords. 
As his health worsened, he spent longer stretches in retirement, preparing his philosophical works for publication.  He brought together his most important writings in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times. It ran to three volumes because Shaftesbury dealt not only with ethics, but psychology, politics, esthetics, history, and much else. He labored to make it accessible, working back and forth with artists to create allegorical illustrations, and it has one of the first indexes in the English language.
Eventually, he sought desperately needed respite in Naples. The sulfurous sea air reportedly agreed with him, but it was too late. He spent his final two years revising Characteristics and died in 1713.
The next year, Characteristicks was republished with is final changes. It rivaled Locke’s Second Treatise (on politics) as the top selling book of the time, going through 10 editions in the eighteenth century and set the course of the British Enlightenment. An account of Shaftesbury’s influence, if not his practical success, must await another discussion.
The same year the final version of Characteristicks appeared, Bernard Mandeville, a Dutchman who spent his life practicing medicine in England, reissued his impassioned attempt to turn back the momentum of “moral sense” defined as serving the public good. He had published the poem, The Fable of the Bees, in 1705, as a cheap pamphlet. It relates the story of a society, a hive of bees, where everyone was a knave and where knavery was essential to prosperity and happiness. Mandeville was dead serious: “...every part was full of Vice/Yet the whole mass a Paradise.”  
Now, in 1714, he published the poem with an introductory essay, “The Origin of Moral Virtue,” and extended remarks elaborating his thesis that primary selfishness—all Shaftesbury deemed immoral and despicable—in fact best served everyone. He issued still further editions in the early 1720s, elaborating his ideas. Well-intentioned attempts by do-gooders, including government, were the poison that undercut all productive human motivations because “fellow-feeling and condolence for the misfortunes and calamities of others” were phony emotions that preyed upon the weakest minds. It shocked England, including its new moral philosophers, but like many literary shocks it became a sensation. It did not take hold, in the end, and did not stem the momentum of Shaftesbury’s ideas.
A few years after the expanded version of the Fable, Frances Hutcheson (1694-1746) joined the debate with An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. Its subtitle made explicit his defense of Shaftesbury’s thesis against Mandeville. Hutcheson here gets credit for first enunciating the principle of the “greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” The formulation would have a rich and extended future well into the nineteenth century as the philosophy of utilitarianism advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill. But whereas the utilitarians rooted their thought in supposed rational calculations, Hutcheson reaffirmed the path tread by Shaftesbury, deducing the idea from morality, the “moral sense,” and man’s innate benevolence toward his fellow men.
Hutcheson reiterated but also reformulated Shaftesbury, and, of course, had announced this intention in his subtitle. For example, he agreed that reason could not be primary in morality: “Notwithstanding the mighty reason we boast of above other animals, its processes are too slow, too full of doubt and hesitation, to serve us in every exigency, either for our own preservation, without the external senses, or to direct our actions for the good of the whole, without this moral sense.”
Thomas Reid (1710-1796) joined the conversation when he formulated the idea that “common sense” not reason was the special quality of the “plain man.” In fact, had men only been endowed by reason they would be extinct. What made the difference was that reason was complemented by the “benevolent affections” as active in our preservation as the appetites of hunger and thirst. 
Hutcheson, Reid, and a third moral philosopher, Adam Ferguson, who deemed "fellow-feeling” and our humanity as a “characteristic of the species,” all were intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment, that astonishing assemblage of brilliance in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and collectively, as moral philosophers, constituted the Scottish school of common sense. So, too, was David Hume of the Scottish Enlightenment, and, despite his notoriously unsentimental take on human nature, believed in “sentiment,” a “moral sense,” a “moral taste”—all common to all men.
It all built on Shaftesbury, with variations, as did Hume with his take on reason. Hume’s final book of A Treatise of Human Nature stated his position in the opening section entitled “Moral Distinctions not derived from reason.” And the section that followed was “Moral distinctions derived from a ‘moral sense.’” Hume returned, too, to the term’s origins with Shaftesbury in his criticism of the “selfish system of morals” advanced by Hobbes and Locke. They had failed to recognized “disinterested benevolence”—an essential quality of human nature and one with no necessary connection to personal relations and affections. 
In the end, perhaps, one of Hume’s closest friends, Adam Smith, produced what Himmelfarb calls “The most nuanced statement of this creed, and the most influential...”
Smith concluded: “Hence it is that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.” And yet, in doing so “man is fulfilling his own nature for his own sake.” A notable variation in Smith is his view that “fellow-feeling” refers to “positive” virtues and these are more important and to be elevated over “negative” virtues of justice. Thus, the public realm (justice) is of secondary importance to the private realm “where sympathy and benevolence prevail...”
The Theory of Moral Sentiments published in 1759 went through four editions before the later Wealth of Nations reached readers in 1776. The Wealth of Nations did not eclipse the earlier work in Smith’s mind. He devoted the last year of his life to revising and expanding Moral Sentiments. At this time, he added a chapter billed as “Of the Corruption of Our Moral Sentiments, Which Is Occasioned by This Disposition to Admire the Rich and the Great, and to Despise or Neglect Persons of Poor and Mean Condition” 
Neither Shaftesbury nor any moral philosopher would have been surprised or in fundamental disagreement. They were anything but naive or blind to the often appalling, always repetitive manifestations of human nature and choice throughout history and in their own day. But their conviction human nature harbored no “original sin.” Man as an individual and men in society were by their nature equipped to survive and prevail in a natural world God (they all were at least Deists) designed for this success of man as for other species. But for man, unique in Creation, survival and success must be chosen and nothing ensured that choice but knowledge of what truly served man’s good.


Paul Marks

An interesting examination - although I think the examination does not grasp that both Thomas Hobbes and David Hume undercut any theory of ethics - by denying the human capacity to do other than we do (their denial of moral agency - free will).