While Cudworth (1617-1688), in his treatise on the Eternal and Immutable Morality, upholds the essential and eternal distinction of good and evil as independent of mere arbitrary will, he does not offer a systematic exposition of the ethical principles, which, he says, are intuitively apprehended. Henry More (1614-1687), on the other hand, in his work Enchirideon Ethicum, gives a list of axioms, or self-evident truths, among which he places not only the principle of Justice, but also the virtue of Benevolence. Absolute Good, which includes doing good to others, is discovered by the intellect, or at least by a particular form of it, which he calls "the boniform faculty," which, by revealing "the sweetness and flavour" of goodness, supplies a motive to virtuous conduct. Richard Cumberland (1631-1718) proceeded against Hobbes in a similar fashion. He regards man's social nature to be as original as his egoism. While egoism is directed towards one's own private welfare, the social instincts are directed to the universal weal, without which, indeed, personal good is not possible. Cumberland is noteworthy as being the first to lay down the principle that "the common good of all" is the supreme end and standard to which all other virtues must be subordinated. The connection between the welfare of the individual and that of the public is regarded by Cumberland as a provision of God, whose commandments in this as in all other respects are authoritative. He is author of De Legibus naturae.
Two other writers, Clarke and Wollaston, may here be named, who, while recognising the intuitive character of goodness, seek to explain it, not so much as dependent on a separate faculty as resulting from a general sense of conformity with the fitness of things. Samuel Clarke (1675, 1729) made an attempt to place morality among the sciences capable of demonstration from self-evident propositions as incontestable as those of Mathematics. His great work—A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God—though dealing more particularly with the existence of God, is interesting on account of its treatment of moral questions. God, he holds, has so created the world that all things subsist in certain relations and agreements. These relations are inseparable from the nature of things, and are, therefore, eternal. The moral life consists in conformity with the fitness of things. This fitness, though recognised by all, is not by all obeyed. He who follows his passions acts contrary to the elementary nature of things; he not only contradicts the order of the world, but denies the law of his own reason.
William Wollaston (1659-1724) was in practical agreement with Clarke. The special point, however, which he emphasizes is that every action contains a principle, and is a practical declaration. If this principle is untrue, as when I take something that is not my own and use it as if it belonged to me—the action is morally bad—an action of the opposite character is morally good. Between those two kinds of actions, there are those which are morally indifferent. According to Wollaston, the moral law is thus summed up: "Let us follow nature, and treat everything as that which it is." It is a duty to act as things prescribe, which we can only do when the mind is in possession of accurate knowledge of the world. The reward of such action is happiness, the balance of pleasure and pain.
The most important writer of this period is the Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), the grandson of the nobleman who befriended Locke. His artistic sense was fostered by his classical studies, and he saw in the Greek ideas of beauty the highest types of manhood. He published from time to time several works—the principal of which was Characteristics, or Men, Manners, Opinions, and Uses.
The doctrine of Rational Morality preached by Clarke and Wollaston showed the difficulty of establishing ethics on any philosophical basis until the egoism of Hobbes had been definitely met. The significance of Shaftesbury is "that he initiates a new departure in his attempt to show that man has originally social tendencies. Instead of presenting the principle of social duty as abstract reason, Shaftesbury seeks to exhibit the naturalness of the social affection. In his Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit (1711), he begins by refuting Hobbes' theory, and seeks to show that the egoistic interpretation of human nature does not account for all man's feelings. Such an explanation might be sufficient if man were a wholly unrelated individual. But, as a matter of fact, he forms a part of a larger system, and his impulses and actions can only be called good when they are so graduated and balanced as to produce the larger good of the whole.
Man, says Shaftesbury, is really a social being. The individual is not a whole in himself. Every man's nature has a certain reference to others. Hence man is only good when he himself aims at the good of the system to which he belongs. So long as he seeks his own good and not merely his own pleasure, he does not come into collision with his system. In other words, man is so constituted that he cannot seek his own good without seeking the good of the system to which he belongs.
Shaftesbury is not faithful to his own theory, but relapses into the view that man has certain selfish tendencies towards his own good as well as certain tendencies towards the good of others. To strike a balance between the selfish and the social impulses is the aim of the moral life. Moral beauty, like all beauty, consists in a harmony or just proportion between two opposite elements. In morality, as in everything else, we decide what is beautiful by the aid of an innate instinct.
Hence arises the idea of a "moral sense," which decides how much is to be given to self and how much to others. This moral sense he conceives to be an immediate judgment not arising from education, as Locke held, though by culture and training it may be improved, just as a natural ear for music may be developed into a musical taste, by cultivation and practice.
Only when one set or other of our affections becomes unduly prominent can strife arise. Except in such a case, the good of the whole implies the good of the individual, and the good of the individual the good of the whole.
Shaftesbury was the first writer who suggested the idea of a moral sense, a doctrine which became a most important element in subsequent systems of ethics. He was also the first to bring into prominence psychological experience as the basis of ethics, which gave rise to the elaborate moral system of Hutcheson.
In the meantime the ethical optimism of Shaftesbury called forth the criticism of Mandeville, the author of the Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits (1724), in which he seeks to show that while, indeed, the wellbeing of society rests on the activity of the individual—that activity really depends upon his selfish instincts, and, indeed, on his passions and vices. Greed, prodigality, jealousy, envy, ambition, are the real roots of all achievements, and contribute more to the weal of society than does suppression of one's desires. Virtue, Mandeville holds, is purely artificial, where it is not merely a pretence. The world is really not served by virtues, but by vices. Mandeville's idea of virtue was wholly negative and ascetic. It is easy to see that if virtue consists in self-denial only, then it is but a negative good.
If we examine our desires we find within us something which makes us choose the calm affections, and also leads us to approve of the benevolent rather than the selfish affections. This approval arises from a reflective sense—or moral sense. A certain taste or relish comes from the benevolent affections like an ear for music, which makes us prefer them to all merely selfish desires. The theory of Hutcheson, in so far as it makes a distinction between the passions and the calm desires, marks an advance on Shaftesbury; but, on the one hand, he confuses the desires of man with the merely animal appetite, and, on the other, he fails to show how the rational nature of man produces those calm affections. The moral sense or taste simply comes in as a reinforcement of our benevolent tendencies. If it be merely a relish or taste with no rational basis, it is scarcely reasonable to promote it to the position of authority among all man's other desires, as Hutcheson does in his theory.
Joseph Butler, born 1692, one of the most eminent and influential divines of England, differs from Hutcheson, in ascribing to conscience, an authoritative principle somewhat akin to Kant's Categorical Imperative. Butler's main works were his Analogy and his famous fifteen sermons. The leading aim of the Analogy is to show that all the objections to revealed religion are equally applicable to the whole constitution of nature, and that the general analogy between the principles of divine government, as revealed in Scripture, and those manifested in Nature, warrants the conclusion that they have one author. The argument is valid against the deists, but it lacks completeness as a defence of Christianity.
Butler's greatness, however, lies in the sphere of Morals. The centre of his teaching is the deification of the conscience. Duty is his first and last word. According to his view, we have a number of tendencies, some of which are selfish and others beneficent. Those tendencies are at first purely disinterested. By and by we find that an object gives us pleasure, and desire springs up. At this point Conscience comes in, as a reflective faculty, bringing with it the idea of command. But what is the origin of this power, or why we feel bound to obey it, Butler does not inform us. He never gets beyond the circle—what is right is what conscience approves of, and what conscience approves of is right.
Among the most illustrious of Hutcheson's students was Adam Smith, whose fame rests on his work as a political economist rather than as a metaphysician. As the author of the Wealth of Nations his reputation is world-wide, though his treatise—A Theory of the Moral Sentiments— gives him a high place among the thinkers of the times. He may be regarded as the connecting link between the English moralists and the Scottish philosophy. He was born in Kirkcaldy in 1723, and studied at Glasgow, where he afterwards became professor.
According to him, the primary objects of our moral perceptions are the actions of other men. We put ourselves in their position and partake with them in their affections by virtue of a power or faculty he calls "sympathy." This sympathy is the fundamental principle of his system. We proceed to judge of others' conduct, and apply our decisions to our own actions. It is only by seeing our conduct reflected in another that we can rightly judge it. Moral excellence or sense of propriety, being thus obtained by this power of sympathy, the author proceeds to show that the sense of duty is found by an application to ourselves of the judgments we previously passed on others. It will thus be seen that Adam Smith is closely allied with Hume in his analysis of moral actions. He agrees with him also in holding that anything approved by the mind is useful and agreeable, but the mere utility is not the principal cause of moral approbation.
Ingenious as is the theory of Adam Smith, it is too artificial and intricate to be the true account of our moral nature. Virtue, which has no other foundation than the sympathy or approbation of men, must be felt to rest upon a most arbitrary and precarious basis.
Before passing to the Scottish school, the name of Henry Home (Lord Kames) (1696-1782) deserves mention in this connection. He was an intimate friend of David Hume, although he opposed many of his views.
In 1751 he published a work on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion which roused considerable interest. His view is that man is influenced by a great variety of principles,—self-love, benevolence, sympathy, utility, amongst others. But, at the same time, he possesses a separate principle,—a moral feeling or conscience, which at once judges his motives and directs his conduct to a beautiful end—the supreme happiness of his nature. He also expounded a doctrine of necessity, according to which he held that while our actions may be said to be determined by the will, the will is really determined by desire, and desire is always conditioned by the agreeable or disagreeable. Hence man's conduct is really dependent upon a chain of causes and effects, which is as irresistible and necessary as the laws of nature.
In consequence of these views, which seemed to many to undermine man's responsibility, Lord Kames was regarded as a Sceptic, and put in the same class as David Hume.