But What of Shaftesbury?

In this and my previous post, I discuss some British philosophers that even most well-educated laypeople have never heard of.  Why?  Because they shed a great deal of light on the subjects of human nature and morality.  These subjects are critical to our self-understanding, which, in turn, is critical to our survival.  If we had read, understood, and built on what they taught, we might have avoided wandering into many of the blind alleys into which we were led by subsequent generations of the “men of science.”  The most damaging and delusional blind alley of all was the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Ironically, it was enforced by exploiting the very moral emotions whose existence it denied, setting back the behavioral sciences and moral philosophy by more than a century in the process.  View, if you like, these posts as an attempt to pick up the lost threads.

In my previous post I highlighted the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson.  I note in passing that he was actually born in Ireland, and studied and received his degree in Scotland.  I did that because Hutcheson was the first, or at least the first I know of, to elaborate a well thought out and coherent theory of the origins of morality in an innate “moral sense,” demonstrating in the process why, absent such a moral sense, moral behavior is not even possible.  In other words, the “root cause” of morality is this moral sense.  Furthermore, Hutcheson explained why, as a consequence, it is impossible to distinguish between good and evil using reason alone.  Two hundred years later the great Finnish moral philosopher Edvard Westermarck, who had read and admired Hutcheson, noted that in the ensuing years, his contention that, “the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.”

That said, it is hardly true that the works of many other 18th century British authors do not contain ideas similar to Hutcheson’s.  Such authors are often able to see further and more clearly than those who have come before by virtue of the privilege of, as Einstein put it, “sitting on the shoulders of giants.”  In Hutcheson’s case, one such giant was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  Hutcheson certainly left no one in doubt concerning his debt to Shaftesbury in his own time.  Sir James MacKintosh, who left sketches of many forgotten British moral philosophers who are well worth reading today in his, “On the progress of ethical philosophy, chiefly during the XVIIth & XVIIIth centuries,” which first appeared as a supplement to the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1829, went so far as to refer to Shaftesbury as Hutcheson’s “master.”  Although Shaftesbury was born in England, MacKintosh claimed that, “…the philosophy of Shaftesbury was brought by Hutcheson from Ireland,” after it and similar works had been suppressed in England for some time “by an exemplary but unlettered clergy.”

Like Hutcheson, many of the themes in Shaftesbury’s writings would have sounded very familiar to modern evolutionary psychologists.  For example, he had this to say on the Blank Slate ideology of his day:

It was Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world, and made the very ideas of these… unnatural and without foundation in our minds.

Locke, of course, is often cited as a forerunner of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century, although the comparison isn’t entirely accurate.  He rejected innate morality because it was incompatible with his Christian theology rather than the secular “progressive” ideology of a later day.

The key theme of Hutcheson’s work as far as the modern science of morality is concerned – the existence of an innate “moral sense” – is, if anything, emphasized even more strongly in the writings of Shaftesbury.  For example, from his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, probably his most important work on morality as far as modern readers are concerned,

Sense of right and wrong therefore being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution and make; there is no speculative opinion, persuasion or belief, which is capable immediately or directly to exclude or destroy it.  That which is of original and pure nature, nothing beside contrary habit or custom (a second nature) is able to displace.  And this affection being an original one of earliest rise in the soul or affectionate part; nothing beside a contrary affection, by frequent check and control, can operate upon it, so as either to diminish it in part, or destroy it in whole.

A somewhat startling aspect of Shaftesbury’s work, given the time in which it was written, was his recognition of the continuity between human beings and other animal species.  For example, again from the Inquiry,

We know that every creature has a private good and interest of his own, which Nature has compelled him to seek, by all the advantages afforded him within the compass of his make.  We know that there is in reality a right and a wrong state of every creature, and that this right one is by nature forwarded and by himself affectionately sought.

and

We have found that, to deserve the name of good or virtuous, a creature most have all his inclinations and affections, his dispositions of mind and temper, suitable, and agreeing with the good of his kind, or of that system in which he is included, and of which he constitutes a part.

and, finally,

The ordinary animals appear unnatural and monstrous when they lose their proper instincts, forsake their kind, neglect their offspring, and pervert those functions or capacities bestowed by nature.  How wretched must it be, therefore, for man, of all other creatures, to lose that sense and feeling which is proper to him as a man, and suitable to his character and genius?

If one didn’t know better, one might easily imagine that E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, with its assertions about our “good” nature being the result of group selection, and our “evil” nature the result of selection at the level of the individual, had been inspired by Shaftesbury.  For example,

There being allowed therefore in a creature such affections as these towards the common nature or system of the kind, together with those other which regard the private nature or self-system, it will appear that in following the first of these affections, the creature must on many occasions contradict and go against the latter.  How else should the species be preserved?  Or what would signify that implanted natural affection, by which a creature through so many difficulties and hazards preserves its offspring and supports its kind.

One must hope that such passages won’t draw down on Shaftesbury’s head the anathemas of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker as the great heresiarch of group selection theory.

In a remarkable passage that might have been lifted from the pages of Westermarck, Shaftesbury reveals some doubt regarding the objective existence of good and evil, in spite of our tendency to imagine them in that way:

If there be no real amiableness or deformity in moral acts, there is at least an imaginary one of full force.  Though perhaps the thing itself should not be allowed in nature, the imagination or fancy of it must be allowed to be from nature alone.  Nor can anything besides art and strong endeavor, with long practice and meditation, overcome such a natural prevention or prepossession of the mind in favor of this moral distinction.

Finally, at the risk of exhausting the patience of even my most dogged readers, allow me to throw in another aspect of Shaftesbury’s writings that would put him “ahead of his time” even if he were alive today; his dispassionate and temperate comments on the subject of atheism.  Consider, for example, the following:

…it does not seem, that atheism should of itself be the cause of any estimation or valuing of anything as fair, noble, and deserving which was the contrary.  It can never, for instance, make it be thought that the being able to eat man’s flesh, or commit bestiality, is good and excellent in itself.  But this is certain, that by means of corrupt religion or superstition, many things the most horridly unnatural and inhuman come to be received as excellent, good, and laudable in themselves.

and

…religion, (according as the kind may prove) is capable of doing great good or harm, and atheism nothing positive in either way.   For however it may be indirectly an occasion of men’s losing a good and sufficient sense of right and wrong, it will not, as atheism merely, be the occasion of setting up a false species of it, which only false religion or fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity, is able to effect.

To confirm those observations, one need look no further than recent events in the Middle East.  When it comes to “fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity,” the 20th century gave us two outstanding examples, in the form of Communism and Nazism.  Pundits like Bill O’Reilly claim that atheism itself is responsible for all the crimes of these modern secular versions of “corrupt religion.”  This was a form of bigotry of which Shaftesbury, writing three centuries earlier, give or take, was not capable.

Of course, Shaftesbury no more wrote in a vacuum than Hutcheson.  Similar themes may be found in the work of many other British moral philosophers of the time.  In particular, Joseph Butler, like Hutcheson, borrowed heavily from Shaftesbury in developing his own ideas regarding the origins of morality in human nature.  Brief descriptions of the work of many others may be found in the book by Sir James MacKintosh referred to above, and in Michael Gill’s excellent book, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics.

3 thoughts on “But What of Shaftesbury?”

  1. The Third Earl was also a full blown classical Stoic living in the seventeenth century. His “Askemata” were the same Stoic exercises that the emperor Aurelius performed with his Meditations. His Stoicism became the Deism of the founders.

  2. He was a brilliant man who had some remarkable insights, but I had to smile when I saw this passage:

    “If every thing which exists be according to a good order, and for the best, then of necessity there is no such thing as real ill in the universe, nothing ill with respect to the whole.”

    It sounds just like something Voltaire’s Pangloss would say to Candide. Shaftesbury must have admired Leibniz, who was, of course, the model for Pangloss.

  3. Good stuff! I just think there’s a little more going on with him than meets the eye. He’s a good observer because he’s cynical like Aurelius. Stoics trained themselves to define things clinically, like Marcus’ famous description of sex as “the rubbing together of pieces of gut, followed by the spasmodic secretion of a little bit of slime”  Med. VI, 13

    Your quote is the stoic “View from Above” exercise on the strict chain of causality than governs the universe. In this exercise, the stoic considers how small his life appears from a cosmic perspective (sub specie æternis). This dispels the erroneous significance our passions prompt us to assign to particular experiences. It gives us emotional distance. That’s what the stoic motto, ‘follow nature’, means. “Nature” is the material universe as a game of billiards—whence the deists got their clockmaker.

    “But what if it were ill for mankind; is it therefore ill for the whole? Or ought the interest and good of the whole to give way, be set aside, or passed, for such a creature as man and his affairs? Are the laws of the universe on this account to be anulled…” 3rd Shaftesbury, Askemata, “Necessity”, ¶3.
    “Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.” Epictetus, Encheiridion, VIII. See Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VII, 47-8 for the best example.

    And Voltaire was an epicure! Great blog, btw!

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