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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


SHAFTESBURY

(1671 — 1713)

 

MORAL SENSE THEORY

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury was born in London. He was taught Greek and Latin by a private tutor (under the supervision of Locke) and after three years at Winchester College travelled on the Continent with another tutor (1686-89). He was elected to Parliament in 1695, but from 1698 onwards devoted most of his time to study and writing.

 

ETHICS

[1] Shaftesbury starts from a consideration of the "passions or affections"; for it is their harmonization under the control of reason and in the fullest development of his natural potential that man's good or virtue is found [a]. To the extent that a man is virtuous he will find happiness — though Shaftesbury stresses that virtue should be sought for its own sake [b] rather than to achieve some end such as happiness or pleasure or because he is enjoined to be virtuous by his religious precepts. Indeed religion presupposes morality. Nor should we seek for virtue because God has willed it. Nevertheless, he stresses that virtue must include piety. He also says that harmonization is not possible if the individual considers himself in isolation; man is a social being. But while he rejects egoism, he argues that there is no conflict between self-regarding behaviour and altruistic or benevolent action [c]. In the genuinely moral man the two seemingly opposing impulses are in harmony. How do we know what the good is? Can we recognise harmony? According to Shaftesbury, all men are born with a capacity to feel, in the course of their development, moral concepts or notions (they are 'connatural' to him as a social being), though he allows that the capacity may be corrupted by education or custom. Thinking about one's actions and affections constitutes 'reflected sense' and brings them into the mind as another kind of affection. Shaftesbury calls this feeling moral sense or conscience, and it is akin to an aesthetic sense [d] in that it judges the harmony of passions and affections in terms of such qualities as soft and harsh, agreeable or disagreeable, which characterize objects of art or musical compositions. Shaftesbury's ethics and aesthetics are thus grounded in concrete human experience (as contrasted with rationalism) — though he does also think of goodness, beauty, truth — and harmony as reflections of an absolute realm of being and value revealed in nature [e].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Shaftesbury's importance in ethics lies in his concept of moral sense as 'conscience', his linking of this with an aesthetic sense, and his emphasis on harmonizing the passions under the control of reason. Questions can be asked about the compatibility of altruistic concern for the common good with self-interest. Does the latter require the former or does it lead to it? Some critics argue that Shaftesbury's view is optimistic and that it is not borne out by experience. It has also been argued that the concept of moral sense does not discriminate adequately between virtue and vice. Finally, it is generally accepted that his moral philosophy would have been improved had it been worked out more fully.

 

READING

Shaftesbury: Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.

Studies

T. Fowler, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson.

S. Grean, Shaftesbury's Philosophy of Religion and Ethics.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Shaftesbury

 

Note: Shaftesbury admired classical Greek thought and was influenced in particular by the religious and moral philosophy of Plato and the Neoplatonists — whose ideas were mediated to him primarily by the seventeenth century Cambridge Platonists.

 

[1a] Harmonization of passions and 'affections' under the control of reason; self-realization

   Plato

Butler

Diderot

Herder

[11b g]

[1a]

[3a]

[2d]

 

[1b; cf. 1e] Virtue is sought for its own sake (independently of religious precepts), man being as he is, and leads to happiness

   Plato

Butler

Diderot

[11f]

[1e]

[3a]

 

[1c] Man a social being (pre-requisite for harmony); rejection of extreme egoism; self-regard compatible with benevolence

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Hobbes

Butler

Diderot

[sec. 14]

[22a b]

[7a b]

[1a]

[3b]

 

[1d] 'Affection' for virtue (or moral sense) arises from 'reflected sense'): 'connatural' to man as social being — not strictly innate; akin to aesthetic sense

   Locke

Berkeley

Butler

Hutcheson

Hume

Diderot

Kant

[2a]

[3f]

[1b f]

[1a]

[3g i]

[3a 4b]

[9c f]

 

[1e] Goodness, truth, beauty, harmony as reflection of absolute realm of being and value — which 'enthuses' the soul and is source of religion

   Plato

   Plotinus

Hume

Diderot

Kant

Herder

[11e 15b]

[1e]

[3g i]

[4a]

[9f]

[1e]