CHAPTER 12: THE BRITISH EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ARGUMENT
JOHN LOCKE’S Two Treatises of Government was published in England in 1690 with the avowed motive of justifying the Whig rebellion and revolution of 1688, which had put William of Orange on the English throne. Locke wished to defend the new regime by showing that rebellion by Williamites against King James had been legitimate, but that rebellion by Jacobites against King William in 1689 and after would be illegitimate. Thus Locke poses once more the Hobbesian questions, In what does the legitimate authority of a sovereign consist? and, When, if ever, is rebellion justified?
Like Hobbes, Locke begins from a portrait of the state of nature. But the Lockean state of nature is not in fact presocial, nor premoral. Men in it live in families, in a settled social order. They have and enjoy property. They make and acknowledge claims upon one another. But their life has defects. Every rational creature is aware of the law of nature; but the bias of interest and lack of attention cause men to apply it more rigorously in the case of others than of themselves, while crimes that are committed may well go unpunished for lack of a proper authority. Disputes between men have no impartial arbiter to decide them, and every dispute will therefore tend toward a state of war between the parties. All these considerations make desirable the handing over of authority to a civil power in whom trust can be reposed. So the contract. The aim of the contract is to create an authority adequate to safeguard our natural rights, and for Locke the most important of rights is that of property. Locke begins from a position not too dissimilar from that of Overton. A man’s person and his property are so closely linked that his natural right to liberty must extend from one to the other. To what property am I entitled? To that which my labor has created. A man may acquire as much property as his labor enables him to make use of. We must remember at this point that what is being spoken of is a man’s rights in a state of nature, prior to the laws of civil society. Locke supposes a state of affairs where land is unlimited and transfer of property not yet instituted. Can such a state of things exist? “In the beginning all the world was America, and more so than it is now; for no such thing as money was anywhere known.”36
What is the effect of the contract? Men hand over to a legislative and executive power the authority to pass and to enforce laws which will protect their natural rights. In so doing, they both transfer that authority and set limits to it; for insofar as the civil authority does not protect natural rights, it ceases to be a legitimate authority. The guarantee that it will protect such rights lies in the provision that the only valid laws are those passed by a majority vote. In this aspect of his thought Locke is the ancestor of liberal democracy. But with just this aspect of his thought a difficulty arises. The laws are designed for the protection of property. Who are the possessors of property? Although Locke believed that a man could not alienate away from himself the right to liberty for his person (the legal expression of which includes such measures as habeas corpus), he does allow that property is alienable. A man’s initial right is only to such property as his labor has created; but with the wealth derived therefrom he may acquire the property of others and he may acquire servants. If he does, their labor creates property for him. Therefore, gross inequality in property is consistent with Locke’s doctrine of a natural right to property. Not only this, but Locke seems to have been aware of the fact that more than half the population of England was effectively propertyless. How, then, is he able to reconcile his view of the right of the majority to rule with his view of the natural right to property? Is he not involved in the difficulty which has been alleged against the Levellers? That if the kind of franchise which they advocated had been brought in, the majority of the voters would in fact have chosen to abolish even such civil and religious liberty as existed under the Parliament and under Cromwell, and would have voted to restore the monarchy. So, against Locke, might it not be argued that to give the rule to the majority will be to give the rule to the many whose interest lies in the abolition of the right of the few to the property which they have acquired? This problem is raised nowhere explicitly in Locke, and the reason may be that Locke takes it for granted that the answer to this question is No; and he is able to take this for granted, because he is able to assume that what the majority do and will accept is an oligarchical government controlled by the property owners, and especially by the owners of large-scale property. Why is he able to assume this? Perhaps because of his doctrine of tacit consent.
Locke writes that “every Man, that hath any Possession, or Enjoyment, of any part of the Dominions of any Government, doth thereby give his tacit Consent, and is as far forth obliged to Obedience to the Laws of that Government, during such Enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his Possession be of Land, to him and his Heirs for ever, or a Lodging only for a Week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the Highway; and in Effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the Territories of that Government.”37 Thus it follows that the wandering gypsy on the road has consented to the authority of the government, which may therefore legitimately conscript him into its armed forces. Locke’s doctrine is important because it is the doctrine of every modern state which claims to be democratic, but which like every state wishes to coerce its citizens. Even if the citizens are not consulted and have no means of expressing their views on a given topic, they are held to have tacitly consented to the actions of governments. Moreover, we can see why modern democratic states have no alternative but to fall back upon a doctrine of this kind. For, like Locke’s Whig oligarchy, they have nothing to ground their legitimacy upon but popular consent; and, as in Locke’s Whig oligarchy, the majority of their subjects have no genuine opportunity to participate in the political process except in the most passive way. It follows that either the authority claimed by the government of these states is not genuine, and that their subjects are therefore under no obligation to obey them, or that they are legitimated by some kind of tacit consent on the part of the subjects. But for the latter alternative to hold, the doctrine of tacit consent must, of course, be meaningful. Unfortunately-for the state-it is not. For the minimum conditions for the word consent to have meaningful application include at least that the man alleged to have consented shall somehow have signified his consent and that he shall have sometime indicated his understanding of what he has consented to. But neither of these conditions is satisfied by the doctrine of tacit consent.
Locke’s own doctrine also stands or falls with his particular version of the argument that natural rights derive from a moral law which we apprehend by reason. In the Essay concerning Human Understanding he argues that although our moral ideas derive from sense experience, the relations between these ideas are such that “morality is capable of demonstration, as well as mathematics.” The propositions of morals can be apprehended as certain truths merely by a scrutiny of the terms which they contain and the ideas expressed by these terms. What are the key moral terms? Good is that which causes pleasure or diminishes pain; evil that which causes pain or diminishes pleasure. Moral good is the conformity of our actions to a law the sanctions of which are rewards of pleasure and punishments of pain. There are three kinds of law-divine, civil, and those conventions established tacitly with a quite different criterion of consent from that involved in the Treatise (for now consent to “the law of opinion or reputation” is signified by active approval of what the law enjoins or prohibits).
In this view of moral judgments as founded upon the rational scrutiny of moral concepts Locke has both English predecessors and English successors. What is distinctive in Locke is the way in which good and evil are defined in terms of pleasure and pain without the abandonment of this semi-Platonic view of moral concepts. The reference to Plato is important; the view of moral judgments as resembling mathematical is found in Locke’s immediate predecessors, the Cambridge Platonists, a group of Anglican metaphysicians and moralists who included Benjamin Whichcote and Henry More. More had argued in his Enchiridion Ethicum (1668) that the twenty-three fundamental moral principles which he enumerates are self-evident moral truths. If we look at them, we shall perhaps be tempted to conclude that the resemblance between moral truths and mathematical consists in the fact that the alleged moral truths turn out to be mere tautologies, at best definitions of the key moral terms rather than judgments which make use of them. The first of More’s truths, for example, is that “Good is that which is pleasing, agreeable and fitting to some perceptive life, or to a degree of this life, and which is conjoined with the conservation of the percipient,” which is clearly intended as a definition. But those English philosophers from the Cambridge Platonists onward who held that moral distinctions are derived from reason in a manner similar to that in which mathematical distinctions are derived cannot be adequately characterized solely in terms of a confusion between the role of definitions and that of substantial moral judgments. Of this confusion they were certainly often guilty; but they combined with it a much more plausible contention, whose authentic ancestor is indeed Plato. This is the doctrine that it is a condition of having grasped a moral concept that one should have grasped the criteria for its correct application, and that these criteria are unambiguous and sufficient to determine the truth of any moral judgment. Of this doctrine two things must be said. The first is that it makes moral judgments resemble empirical judgments as much as it makes them resemble mathematical; if I have grasped the concepts expressed by the word red, then I have grasped the criteria for correctly calling some object red. This point the Cambridge Platonists themselves might have made; for they were equally anxious to stress the a-priori element in empirical knowledge. The second remark worth making is that if this view is correct, then of two men who judge differently on a moral question it must always be the case that one at least must simply have failed to grasp the relevant concept and so have failed to use the relevant moral expression correctly. But this appears certainly to be a mistake. Any adequate account of moral concepts must include some more plausible account of moral disagreement than this.
This was not, however, the ground on which the ethical rationalists were attacked by their contemporaries. Anthony Ashley, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Locke’s pupil, argued that it is not by reason but by a moral sense that moral distinctions are made. “No sooner are actions viewed, no sooner the human affections and passions discerned (and they are most of them as soon discerned as felt) than straight an inward eye distinguishes and sees the fair and shapely, the amiable and admirable, apart from the deformed, the foul, the odious or the despicable. How is it possible therefore not to own that as these distinctions have their foundation in nature, the discernment itself is natural and from nature alone?38 A moral judgment is thus the expression of a response of feeling to some property of an action, just as, on Shaftesbury’s view, an aesthetic judgment is the expression of just such a response to the properties of shapes and figures. But what are the properties of the actions which evoke a favorable rather than an unfavorable response? The virtuous man is he who had harmonized his own inclinations and affections in a way that renders them also harmonious with the inclinations and affections of his fellow creatures. Harmony is the great moral property. Between what will satisfy me and what will be for the good of others there is no conflict. Man’s natural bent is toward benevolence. This appears to Shaftesbury to be a simple matter of contingent fact. It is as a simple matter of contingent fact that Bernard de Mandeville questions it.
In The Grumbling Hive, or Knaves Turned Honest and in The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices Public Benefits Mandeville attacks Shaftesbury’s two central propositions-that man’s natural bent is to act in an altruistic way, and that it is altruism and benevolence that procure social benefit. In fact, argues Mandeville, the spring of action is private and egoistical self-interest; and the public good of society is the outcome of the private individual’s disregard for any good but his own. It is a happy accident that the pursuit of enjoyment and luxury promotes economic enterprise, and that the promotion of economic enterprise raises the level of general prosperity. Were men in fact virtuous in the way that Shaftesbury supposes, social life would never advance at all. The notion that private virtue is a public good is derived from the claims to private virtue made by those who wish to disguise their self-seeking behind moral professions in order to aggrandize themselves more successfully.
Mandeville thus raises the second great issue for English moral philosophy in the eighteenth century. If moral judgments are expressions of feeling, how can they be more than expressions of self-interest? If moral action is grounded in feeling, what feelings provide the springs of benevolence? From Mandeville onward philosophers divide not only upon the issue of the moral sense versus reason, but also-although sometimes implicitly rather than explicitly-on the correct way to answer Mandeville. The greatest of the moral-sense theorists between Shaftesbury and Hume, Francis Hutcheson, simply evaded the issue. The moral sense is one which perceives those properties which arouse responses of moral feeling (there is also an aesthetic sense, which stands to beauty as the moral sense does to virtue). The properties which arouse a pleasurable and approving response are those of benevolence. What we approve are not actions in themselves but actions as manifestations of traits of character, and our approval seems to consist simply in the arousal of the required response. But why do we approve of benevolence rather than of self-interest? Hutcheson has no answer to this question. He merely asserts that we do. Equally, when he treats of benevolence as the whole of virtue, he rests his view on mere assertion. It is noteworthy that in his account of choice Hutcheson never puts himself in the place of the agent. He speaks, and anyone who held his views would have had to speak, as a purely external observer. It is in the course of this account that a famous phrase enters the history of ethics for the first time, when Hutcheson asserts that “that nation is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers, and that worst which in like manner occasions misery,”39 and so becomes the father of utilitarianism.
The reason why we could not hope to find any adequate answer to Mandeville in either Shaftesbury or Hutcheson is fairly clear. Both of them assimilate ethics to aesthetics; both are preoccupied with describing the character of our response to virtuous actions rather than with clarifying the way in which moral judgments may provide us with reasons for acting in one way rather than another. Both speak from the standpoint of the critic of action rather than from that of the agent. Neither therefore is under pressure to provide us either with an account of how reasoning can be practical or with an adequate theory of motives. Unfortunately, although these defects are in some ways supplied by the two greatest of English eighteenth-century moralists, Butler and Hume, they, as it were, divided the problems between them and thus solved neither of them. Butler attacks the problem of moral reasoning, but never asks-or rather, asks and answers in the sketchiest and most unsatisfactory fashion-how this kind of argument can weigh with human agents. Hume tries to supply an adequate account of motives, but leaves no proper place for moral reasoning. Nor can we by adding Butler to Hume, supply the deficiencies of each. For what is omitted in each distorts what is supplied.
Joseph Butler (1692-1752), Bishop of Durham, denied at least two of Hutcheson’s central positions. He begins, in fact, from a position closer to that of Shaftesbury. We have a variety of “appetites, passions, and affections.” Benevolence is merely one affection among others, which deserves its due but no more than its due. To see it, as Hutcheson did, as the whole of virtue is not merely a mistake but a pernicious mistake. For it leads straight to the criterion of the promotion of the future happiness of mankind in general as the criterion by which my present actions should be judged. But the use of this criterion would sanction the commital of every kind of crime or injustice, provided only that such crimes and injustices appeared likely to promote the long-run happiness of the greatest number. This objection of Butler’s really falls into two parts. He believes that we cannot in fact be sufficiently certain of what the consequences of our action will be for us to justify present action by future consequences; and he believes that the moral character of actions is and must be independent of their consequences. To the former of these contentions a utilitarian might well reply that the criterion of the greatest happiness only has application insofar as consequences are genuinely predictable; the argument between him and Butler then becomes a factual one as to how far consequences can reliably be predicted. The crux of the argument therefore lies in Butler’s latter contention. Are there classes of actions which ought to be done, and which ought to be prohibited, independently of and irrespective of their possible consequences?
Butler’s positive answer to this question is part of his total doctrine. The mistake made by philosophers as different as Mandeville and Hutcheson is that they suppose benevolence and self-love to be opposed. Self-love is the desire for our own happiness, but our natures are so constituted that part of our happiness derives from gratifying our desire to be benevolent toward others. An excessive indulgence of those appetites which are inconsistent with benevolence would in fact lead to our unhappiness and thus would be a denial of self-love. Nonetheless, men do give themselves up to such passions and affections “to their known prejudice and ruin, and in direct contradiction to manifest and real interest and the loudest calls of self-love.” How do we avoid such prejudice and ruin? By rational reflection. It is “cool” or “reasonable” self-love that we need to guide us. But how does reasonable self-love reason?
“There is a superior principle of reflection or conscience in every man, which distinguishes between the internal principles of his heart, as well as his external actions.”40 Reasonable self-love consists in governing our actions in conformity with a hierarchy of principles which define human nature and what its good consists in. There is no clash between duty and interest, for to perform the actions that we ought and to refrain from prohibited actions will ensure our happiness. But how do we know which actions are enjoined and which proscribed? Here the argument becomes entirely obscure because it is circular. I ought to perform those actions which will satisfy my nature as a rational and moral being; my nature as a rational and moral being is defined by reference to my adherence to certain principles; and those principles demand obedience because the actions which they enjoin will as a matter of fact satisfy my nature as a rational and moral being. Suppose I do not perform these actions, what then? Is Butler arguing that as a matter of fact if I am immoral, I will always be unhappy? Certainly I shall be unhappy if I have a well-instructed moral reason. But I may in fact fail to recognize the authority of genuine conscience and so not be disquieted. Moreover I may, although Butler judges this to be the exception rather than the rule, find that duty and interest do not precisely coincide, so far as life in this present world is concerned. The providence of God insures such a coincidence in the world to come, but even though this is so, so far as the present is concerned, my duty and my happiness are not necessarily coincident. Thus the satisfaction of my nature as a reasonable and moral being is not precisely coincident with my happiness in any empirical sense. How then does the criterion of duty manifest itself? At this point Butler only fails to notice the circularity of his argument because he exchanges argument for rhetoric. The rhetoric is magnificent, but it remains rhetoric. “Had it strength,” he says of conscience, “as it has right; had it power, as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world.”41
What is valuable in Butler is his revival of the Greek notion of moral reasoning as determined by premises about what will or will not satisfy our nature as rational animals. What is defective is the omission of any justification for construing our nature in the way that he does. We can trace this defect to at least two sources, Butler’s theology and his individualism. The theology is pernicious because it enables him to bring in the eternal world to redress the balance of duty and interest in the temporal world. The individualism is apparent in his account of human nature, which is expressed in terms of the self-awareness of the single individual. Contrast Aristotle, whose account of human nature and what will satisfy it presupposes a social framework of a certain kind. Or if we remember Plato, whose account of justice as an inner state in which rational principle governs appetite appears to be the same type of account as Butler gives, we ought to remember that the justice of the inner state is connected with a form of life in a given type of society. Indeed, the comparison with Plato and Aristotle suggests a general diagnosis of the difficulties of eighteenth-century English moral philosophy.
Traditional European society inherited from the Greeks and from Christianity a moral vocabulary in which to judge an action good was to judge it to be the action of a good man, and to judge a man good was to judge him as manifesting dispositions (virtues) which enabled him to play a certain kind of role in a certain kind of social life. The acceptance of this kind of social life as the norm by which actions are judged is not something asserted within the moral system. It is the presupposition of there being moral judgments at all. Actual social life did in fact always diverge widely from the norms; but not so widely that it could not be seen as an imperfect reflection of the norms. But that breakup of the traditional forms of social life which was produced by the rise of individualism, begotten partly by Protestantism and capitalism, made the reality of social life so divergent from the norms implied in the traditional vocabulary that all the links between duty and happiness were gradually broken. The consequence was a redefinition of the moral terms. Happiness is no longer defined in terms of satisfactions which are understood in the light of the criteria governing a form of social life; it is defined in terms of individual psychology. Since such a psychology does not yet exist, it has to be invented. Hence the whole apparatus of appetites, passions, inclinations, principles, which is found in every eighteenth-century moral philosopher. Yet in spite of all this psychological construction, happiness remains a difficult key term for moral philosophy, if only because all too often what would in an obvious sense make us happy is what in an obvious sense we ought not to do. Consequently there is an instability in the history of the moral argument, exhibited in an oscillation between attempts to define morality in terms of consequences leading to happiness and attempts to define morality in terms that have nothing to do with consequences or happiness at all. So long as theology survives as a socially influential force it can be called in to connect virtue with happiness in a world other than this. But theology itself became more and more the victim of its environment.
In a writer like Butler the appeal to divine providence is reasonably sophisticated. In lesser figures such as Abraham Tucker or Archdeacon William Paley, God has clearly been turned from an object of awe and veneration into a device for bridging otherwise unbridgable gaps in philosophical argument. But the very crudity of their views helps to make the issue clearer. Tucker, in The Light of Nature Pursued, argued, first, that men only and always pursue their private satisfactions, and second, that the basic moral rule is that we should all work for the good of all men, to increase the amount of satisfaction in the universe, whether it is our own or that of others. His fundamental task, therefore, is to show how men constituted in accordance with his first conclusion could possibly accept his second conclusion as their rule of life. Tucker’s answer is that if I so work as to increase the happiness of all men, then God has in fact insured that all the happiness there was, is, and shall be is deposited, as Tucker puts it, in the “bank of the universe.” This happiness God has divided into equal shares-equal because our original corruption makes us all equally undeserving-to be allotted one per person. I become entitled to my share by working to increase the common stock. By so working I increase that stock and thus my own share. I am, in fact, a partner in a cosmic joint stock enterprise of which God is the unremunerated managing director.
Tucker’s treatment of happiness as though it were quantitative in the way that money is, is important. So is his treatment of theology as merely providing additional information that the prudent investor in his own happiness will take into account in calculating his actions. In both he was followed by Paley, who believes that the rule of morality is provided by the divine will, and that the motive for morality is our own happiness, and more especially, our everlasting happiness. What is crucial about Paley and Tucker is that they are logically committed to the view that if God did not exist, then there would be no good reason for being other than entirely selfish. Indeed they do not so much mark the distinction between vice and virtue as obliterate it. For what we normally call vice or selfishness turns out to be merely imprudent, miscalculated short-term selfishness rather than prudent long-term selfishness.
It is so often asserted by religious apologists that religion is a necessary foundation for morality that it is worth insisting upon the relief that one must feel in turning away from the narrow, niggardly self-interested writings of clergymen such as Paley and Tucker (though not of course Butler) to the generous and acute observations of the irreligious and skeptical writer who would have to be accounted the greatest of all English moralists, were he not a Scotsman. David Hume had an unusually attractive character for a moral philosopher. “Upon the whole,” wrote Adam Smith after his death in 1776, “I have always considered him both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.” He said of himself that he was “a man of Mild Disposition, of Government of Temper, of an open social and cheerful Humour, capable of Attachment, but little susceptible of Enmity, and of great Moderation in all my Passions. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling Passion, never soured my humour, not withstanding my frequent Disappointments.” His two chief disappointments were the cold reception of the two works which contain his moral philosophy. In 1738 the Treatise of Human Nature “fell dead-born from the Press”; in 1752 the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals “came unnoticed and unobserved into the world.”
Hume began under Hutcheson’s influence, but while he follows Hutcheson in his rejection of rationalist ethics, the arguments with which he develops his own position are original and far more powerful than anything in Hutcheson. Moral judgments, so Hume argues, cannot be judgments of reason because reason can never move us to action, while the whole point and purpose of the use of moral judgments is to guide our actions. Reason is concerned either with relations of ideas, as in mathematics, or with matters of fact. Neither of these can move us to act. We are moved to act not by this or that being the case, but by the prospect of pleasure or pain from what is or will be the case. It is the passions and not reason which are aroused by the prospect of pleasure and pain. Reason can inform the passions as to whether the object they seek exists and as to what the most economical and effective means of seeking it may be. But reason cannot judge or criticize the passions. It follows without paradox that “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” For reason cannot in any sense adjudicate between the passions. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”42
We cannot discover the ground for moral approval or disapproval in any distinctions or relations of the kind that reason can grasp. Consider incest in animals, or the effect of a sapling which destroys the parent oak. We do not judge these as we judge incest in human beings, or parricide. Why not? Not because the animals or the tree lack reason to discern that what they do is wrong. For if reason’s function is to discern that what is done is wrong, what is done must be wrong independently of discerning it to be so. But we do not judge trees or animals capable of virtue or vice at all. Hence, since our rational apprehension of relations among trees and animals does not differ from our rational apprehension of relations among humans, moral judgment cannot be founded upon rational apprehension. “Morality, therefore, is more properly felt than judged of.”43 “Take any action allowed to be vicious: wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights and see if you can find that matter of fact or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast and find a sentiment of disapprobation which arises in you towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object.”44 “To have the sense of virtue is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind from the contemplation of a character. The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration.”45
Who are Hume’s targets here? Not only rationalist: philosophers, such as Malebranche, Montesquieu, and Wollaston, although these are not neglected. In a famous footnote William Wollaston, the deistic author of The Religion of Nature Delineated (1722), is singled out for attention. Wollaston was the author of the perverse but ingenious theory that the distinction between vice and virtue which reason apprehends is simply the distinction between the true and the false. All wrongdoing is a species of lying, and lying is saying or representing what is false. To call something wrong is simply to say that it is a lie. Stealing is wrong because it is representing what belongs to someone else as belonging to oneself by treating it as if it belonged to oneself. Adultery is wrong because by treating someone else’s wife as if she were your own you represent her to be your own wife. Hume demolishes this theory splendidly, first, by pointing out that it makes the wrongness of adultery to consist in the false impression it gives of one’s marital relationships, and so has the consequence of making adultery to be not wrong provided that I commit it entirely unobserved; and second, by pointing out that if true, it prevents me from explaining why lying is wrong. For the notion of wrongness has been explained in terms of the notion of lying. Wollaston, in any case, confused lying (which involves an intention to deceive) with simply saying what is in fact false. But Hume is concerned to produce a form of argument which will have a more general application. He wishes to show that moral conclusions cannot be based on anything that reason could establish; that it is logically impossible that any genuine or alleged factual truth could provide a basis for morality. In so doing he is out to refute theologically based ethics quite as much as rationalism.
When Hume was dying he was called upon by his friend the pious and lecherous Boswell, who was anxious to see the great skeptic’s deathbed repentance. Hume disappointed Boswell by remaining immune to the consolations of either theism or immortality, but Boswell has left a splendid record of their conversation. “I asked him if he was not religious when he was young. He said he was, and he used to read the Whole Duty of Man; that he made an abstract from the Catalogue of vices at the end of it, and examined himself by this, leaving out Murder and Theft and such vices as he had no choice of committing, having no inclination to commit them.”
The Whole Duty of Man was a seventeenth-century work of popular devotion, probably by the royalist divine Allestree. It is full of arguments in which the premises are factual, to the effect that God has done something or given us something, and the conclusions are moral, to the effect that we ought therefore to perform some particular duty. So it is argued that “whoever is in distress for any thing, wherewith I can supply him, that distress of his makes it a duty on me to supply him and this in all kinds of events. Now the ground of its being a duty is that God hath given me abilities not only for their own use, but for the advantage and benefit of others.”46 Hume summarizes his case against such arguments in a famous passage: “I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers and am persuaded, that this small attention cou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is founded not merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”47
How did Hume intend this passage to be taken? He has been almost universally read as asserting that there are two classes of assertion, factual and moral, whose relationship is such that no set of factual premises can entail a moral conclusion. This has been held to be a special case of the more general logical truth that no set of factual premises can entail an evaluative conclusion. How are moral and evaluative defined by writers who not only suppose this to have been Hume’s point but also suppose this to be a crucial discovery about the logic of moral discourse? They cannot define either moral or evaluative by means of the notion of not being entailed by factual premises; for if they did, they could not treat the alleged discovery that moral conclusions cannot be entailed by factual premises as more than a tautology of the most insignificant kind. Nor is it plausible to define moral, or even evaluative, in terms of its function in guiding action or not guiding action, if the definition is to enable us to contrast these terms with factual; for, clearly, purely factual assertions such as “This house is on fire” or “That fungus which you are about to eat is poisonous” are capable of guiding action. How then are we to understand their contention? Perhaps in the following way.
The expression “You ought” has a complex background. It differs from the imperative mood of the verbs to which it is attached in at least two connected ways. The first and fundamental one is that the use of ought originally implied the ability of the speaker to back up his ought with a reason, whereas the use of the simple imperative does not and did not carry any such implication. The reasons which can be employed to back up an ought are of different kinds. “You ought to do that-if you want to achieve such and such.” Or “You ought-because you are a chief [tutor, night watchman] to. . ” And so on. Because the ought of “You ought” has this backing of reasons, it always has a range of application beyond the person to whom it is immediately addressed-namely, the whole class of persons for whom the reason implied or stated holds good (the class of those who want to achieve such-and-such and the class of chiefs in the two examples). This is the second difference between ought and imperatives.
In this original situation what distinguished the moral ought from other uses was the kind of reason implied or given for the injunction. Within the relevant class of reason there were various species; “You ought to do this if you want to live up to this ideal” (to be a magnanimous man, a perfect knight, one of the saints) and “You ought to do this if you want to discharge your function as a . .” are samples. But as shared ideals and accepted functions drop away in the age of individualism, the injunctions have less and less backing. The end of this process is the appearance of a “You ought . .” unbacked by reasons, announcing traditional moral rules in a vacuum so far as ends are concerned, and addressed to an unlimited class of persons. For this ought the title of the moral ought is claimed, and it has two properties. It tells us what to do as an imperative does, and it is addressed to anyone who happens to be in the relevant circumstances. When to this use of “You ought” the response is, But why ought I? the only ultimate answer is “You just ought,” although there may be an immediate form of reply in which some particular injunction is deduced from a general principle containing the same ought.
Of this ought it is clear that it cannot be deducted from any is; and since it is probably in the eighteenth century that this ought first appears, perhaps it is of this ought that Hume is speaking. But a careful reading of the passage leaves it ambiguous as to whether Hume is asserting that the transition from is to ought needs great care, or that it is in fact logically impossible; whether he is deducing that most transitions from is to ought have in fact been of a fallacious kind, or that any such transition must necessarily be fallacious. Some very limited support for preferring the former to the latter interpretation might be drawn from the fact that in Hume’s own moral philosophy the transition from is to ought is made and made clearly. But too much must not be made of this, for Hume is a notoriously inconsistent author. Yet how does Hume make this transition?
Hume, as we have already seen, argues that when we call an action virtuous or vicious we are saying that it arouses in us a certain feeling, that it pleases us in a certain way. In what way? This question Hume leaves unanswered. He passes on to give an account of why we have the moral rules we do have, why it is this rather than that which we judge virtuous. The basic terms of this account are utility and sympathy. Consider for example the account of justice which Hume gives in the Treatise. He begins by asking why we accept and obey rules which it would often be in our interest to break. He denies that we are by nature so constituted that we have a natural regard for public rather than private interest. “In general, it may be affirm’d that there is no such passion in human minds as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to oneself.”48 If private interest would lead us to flout the rules, and we have no natural regard for public interest, how then do the rules come about? Because it is a fact that without rules of justice there would be no stability of property, and indeed no property, an artificial virtue has been created, that of abiding by the rules of justice, and we exhibit this virtue not perhaps so much because we are aware of the benefit that flows from our observing the rules as because we are conscious of how much we are harmed by others infringing them. Our long-term benefit from insisting on strict observance of the rules will always outweigh our short-term benefit from breaking them on this occasion.
In the Enquiry human nature is exhibited as less self-interested. “It appears also, that, in our general approbation of character and manners, the useful tendency of the social interests moves us not by any regards to self-interest, but has an influence much more universal and extensive. It appears that a tendency to public good, and to the promoting of peace, harmony, and order in society does always, by affecting the benevolent principles of our frame, engage us on the side of the social virtues.”49 But what is clear is that Hume’s altered picture of human nature is made to provide the same type of explanation and justification of moral rules. We are so constituted that we have certain desires and needs; these desires and needs are served by maintaining the moral rules. Hence their explanation and justification. In such an account we certainly begin with an is and end with an ought.
On most topics Hume is a moral conservative. His skeptical views on religion led him to attack the prohibition of suicide, but he is generally the spokesman for the moral status quo. Unchastity in women is more immoral than unchastity in men, for it may lead to confusion over heirs and endangering of property rights. The natural obligation to behave justly is not so strong between princes in their political transactions as it is between private individuals in their social transactions, for the advantage to be gained from abiding by the rules is much greater among individuals within a state than it is among sovereign heads of state. Indeed, Hume is for the most part avowedly engaged in explaining why we have the rules that we do and not in any work of criticism. Just here lies his weakness.
Hume treats moral rules as given, partly because he treats human nature as given. Even though a historian, he was an essentially unhistorical thinker. Feelings, sentiments, passions, are unproblematic and uncriticizable. We just do have the feelings which we have. “A passion is an original existence.” But desires, emotions, and the like do not just happen; they are not sensations. They can, to varying degrees, be modified, criticized, rejected, developed, and so on. But this point is not taken with full seriousness either by Hume or by his successors.
Richard Price, a Unitarian minister, was perhaps the most important of Hume’s immediate successors. Price argues in his Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties of Morals (1757) that moral distinctions are intellectually grounded just as the rationalists said that they were, and that the apprehension of first principles in morals is not a matter of argument but of grasping their self-evidence. Ought, and other moral terms likewise, cannot be explained in terms of any state of feeling, partly because I can always ask, Ought I to feel like this? If asked to justify my judgments, I can only avoid infinite and vicious regress if I allow that there are some actions that are ultimately approved, and for justifying which no reason can be assigned. If asked to explain the concept of duty or obligation, I can only reply that its meaning is evident to any rational being. The basic concepts of right and wrong are “simple ideas,” not susceptible of further analysis.
The only other post-Humean moralist worthy of note is Hume’s friend the economist Adam Smith. Smith, like Hume, appeals to sympathy as the basis of morals. He makes use of a figure who also appears in Hume-the imaginary impartial spectator of our actions, who provides the standard by which they are to be judged. Smith disagrees with Hume on the question of utility; when we morally approve of a man’s conduct we approve of it primarily as fitting or proper, and not as useful. The discernment of propriety in our own actions is the guide to right conduct; or rather, we must ask whether the imaginary spectator would judge our actions to be proper. By so doing, we overcome the bias of self-love. The detail of Smith’s account is full of interest; his central thesis leaves us with the difficulty we discovered in earlier writers. Why, given the psychological account of human nature that has been proposed, should we take the attitude we do to moral precepts? If we need moral precepts to correct self-love, what is the character of this need in us? The whole difficulty is engendered by the way the discussion is carried on in two stages. First, human nature is characterized; and the moral rules are introduced as an addendum, to be explained as expressions of or means to the satisfaction of the already specified nature. Yet the human nature specified is individualist human nature, unamenable to moral rules. And are we not, in any case, back again with a new form of the error committed by the sophists and by Hobbes? Can we actually characterize individuals apart from and prior to their adherence to certain rules?
The successors of Hume and Adam Smith in Scottish philosophy have little to say to us. Thomas Reid was a rationalist in the spirit of Price. James Beattie, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Brown belong to the class of Hume’s critics whom Kant castigated for their epistemological misunderstandings of Hume. It is, in fact, elsewhere that we shall find the highest achievements of the eighteenth century in ethics. But the barrenness of Hume’s successors is not accidental. They had inherited a set of insoluble problems. Small wonder that they either assert the existence of self-evident moral perceptions, as Stewart does, or assert that God has constructed our emotions so that we approve of what it is most expedient for us to approve of, as Brown does. Appeals to self-evidence of this kind, which are involved in all their arguments, are at best defensive strategies for whatever moral positions are taken to be part of common sense. And because common sense is never more than an inherited amalgam of past clarities and past confusions, the defenders of common sense are unlikely to enlighten us.