History of Ethics


Humean Moral Pluralism

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History of Philosophy Quarterly 28.1 (2011): 45-64.
If you’re a moral sentimentalist, you ought to be a moral pluralist. If you’re a moral pluralist, you ought to be a moral sentimentalist. And there are excellent reasons to be a pluralist and to be a sentimentalist....My presentation has three parts. In the first, I elucidate the historical antecedents of Hume’s sentimentalist-pluralist position — namely, the non-sentimentalist pluralism of Samuel Clarke and Joseph Butler, and the non-pluralist sentimentalism of Francis Hutcheson. In the second, I examine Hume’s own development of a sentimentalist-pluralist position. In the third, I show how the Humean position captures aspects of our moral experience that are often taken to be the province of Rossian non-naturalism. To make a full case for the superiority of Humean pluralism over Rossian pluralism, I would need to argue for the weakness of Rossian meta-ethical non-naturalism and the strength of Humean meta-ethical sentimentalism. But that is something I will not be able to attempt here. What I will do is try to show that a Humean meta-ethics can explain important moral phenomena1 at least as well as a Rossian meta-ethics. Showing the independent merits of a Humean meta-ethics is something that will have to be done elsewhere.

Ethics and Sentiment

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The Routledge Companion to Ethics (2010)
An overview of the moral sentimentalism of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson.

From Cambridge Platonism to Scottish Sentimentalism

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The Journal of Scottish Philosophy 8.1 (2010)
The Cambridge Platonists were a group of religious thinkers who attended and taught at Cambridge from the 1640s until the 1660s. The four most important of them were Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith, Ralph Cudworth, and Henry More. The most prominent sentimentalist moral philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment — Hutcheson, Hume, and Adam Smith — knew of the works of the Cambridge Platonists. But the Scottish sentimentalists typically referred to the Cambridge Platonists only briefly and in passing. The surface of Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith’s texts can give the impression that the Cambridge Platonists were fairly distant intellectual relatives of the Scottish sentimentalists — great great-uncles, perhaps, and uncles of a decidedly foreign ilk. But this surface appearance is deceiving. There were deeply significant philosophical connections between the Cambridge Platonists and the Scottish sentimentalists, even if the Scottish sentimentalists themselves did not always make it perfectly explicit.

Moral Phenomenology in Hutcheson and Hume

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The Journal of the History of Philosophy 47.4 (2009): 569-94.
This paper explores the ways in which Hutcheson and Hume use phenomenological claims to argue against moral rationalism and moral egoism, evaluates the tenability of those phenomenological claims, and elucidates the extent to which Hutcheson and Hume’s overall sentimentalist position relies on phenomenology.

Moral Rationalism vs. Moral Sentimentalism: Is Morality More Like Math or Beauty?

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Philosophy Compass 2.1 (2007): 16-30.
Link to earlier version.
One of the most significant disputes in early modern philosophy was between the moral rationalists and the moral sentimentalists. The moral rationalists — such as Ralph Cudworth, Samuel Clarke and John Balguy — held that morality originated in reason alone. The moral sentimentalists — such as Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson and David Hume — held that morality originated at least partly in sentiment. In addition to arguments, the rationalists and sentimentalists developed rich analogies. The most significant analogy the rationalists developed was between morality and mathematics. The most significant analogy the sentimentalists developed was between morality and beauty. These two analogies illustrate well the main ideas, underlying insights, and accounts of moral phenomenology the two positions have to offer. An examination of the two analogies will thus serve as a useful introduction to the debate between moral rationalism and moral sentimentalism as a whole.

Rationalism, Sentimentalism, and Ralph Cudworth.

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Hume Studies 30.1 (2004): 149-81.
Moral rationalism is the view that morality originates in reason alone. It is often contrasted with moral sentimentalism, which is the view that the origin of morality lies at least partly in (non-rational) sentiment. The eighteenth century saw pitched philosophical battles between rationalists and sentimentalists, and the issue continues to fuel disputes among moral philosophers today. The eighteenth-century rationalists took Ralph Cudworth to be one of their champions, and the sentimentalists of the period — Hume among them—agreed, placing Cudworth squarely in the opposing camp. This view of Cudworth as moral rationalist was further solidified in 1897, when Selby-Bigge published his influential two-volume collection of the writings of the British moralists. In his preface, Selby-Bigge explained that the first volume contained the writings of moral sentimentalists and the second volume the writings of moral rationalists. Cudworth appeared in the second — the rationalist — volume. Passmore has argued, however, that we should not think of Cudworth as a moral rationalist. Proper attention to all of Cudworth’s writings, Passmore maintains, reveals that his position was in important respects much closer to that of sentimentalists such as Hutcheson and Hume than it was to rationalists such as Clarke and Balguy. Both characterizations of Cudworth are accurate, up to a point. The mistake is to think that Cudworth’s overall philosophy falls neatly onto one side of the rationalist-sentimentalist distinction or the other.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury.

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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2002)
Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, lived from 1671 to 1713. He was one of the most important philosophers of his day, and exerted an enormous influence throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on British and European discussions of morality, aesthetics, and religion.

Shaftesbury's Two Accounts of the Reason to be Virtuous

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.4 (2000): 529-48.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671—1713), was the founder of the moral sense school, or the first British philosopher to develop the position that moral distinctions originate in sentiment and not in reason alone. Shaftesbury thus struck the initial blow in the battle waged by sentimentalists such as Hutcheson and Hume against rationalists such as Cudworth and Clarke. Such is a common view of Shaftesbury's place in the history of moral philosophy. But while this common view is accurate in a very general sense, it also oversimplifies in a manner that threatens to misrepresent the development of modern ethical ethical theory and obscure what is most interesting about Shaftesbury. The view suggests, in particular, that the most important distinction in early modern British moral philosophy was between sentimentalism and rationalism. There was, however, a distinction ontologically deeper than that, which explains how Shaftesbury, even while developing his moral sense theory, could at times be much close to his rationalist predecessors Cudworth and Clarke than to his sentimentalist followers Hutcheson and Huem. In this paper, I will elucidate this deeper ontological distinction by examining two different accounts that Shaftesbury gives of the reason to be virtuous.

Hume's Progressive View of Human Nature.

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Hume Studies 26.1 (2000): 87-108.
In the introduction to the Treatise, Hume maintains that scientific advance will come only through an accurate and comprehensive conception of human nature. He praises “some late philosophers in England, who have begun to put the science of man on a new footing” and declares his intention to build upon their work (T xvii). How much of the “science of man” that Hume goes on to develop is a recapitulation of the work of the other British philosophers and how much is new? When is Hume borrowing the insights of those who came before and when is he innovating? It is difficult to answer these questions, and not just because the rules of attribution in the eighteenth century were looser than in ours. For at times the verve with which Hume writes can lead one to think that he is in the grip of a new discovery when he is in fact recounting the ideas of a predecessor. And at other times Hume puts others’ ideas to work in a manner that they themselves never considered or would have actively opposed. There can be no doubt, however, that Hume does put forth new ideas, and some of them, I think, must be counted real advances on what came before. In this paper I will elucidate one such advance — the development of what I will call a progressive view of human nature. This view will stand out clearly when we place Hume’s Treatise account of the virtue of justice against the backdrop of a dispute on the origin of human sociability between Shaftesbury, Mandeville and Hutcheson, three of the five “late philosophers in England.” For while a number of the pieces of Hume’s account appear in the work of his three predecessors, Hume’s combination of them is novel, and in the end constitutes a significant “improvement in the science of man” (T xvii).

The Religious Rationalism of Benjamin Whichcote

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 37.2 (1999): 411-40.
Most philosophers today have never heard of Benjamin Whichcote (1609-83), and most of the few who have heard of him know only that he was the founder of Cambridge Platonism. He is well worth learning more about, however. For Whichcote was a vital influence on both Ralph Cudworth and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, through whom he helped shape the views of Clarke and Price, on the one hand, and Hutcheson and Hume, on the other. Whichcote should thus be seen as a grandparent of both the rationalist and the sentimentalist strands of eighteenth century British ethical theory. In this paper, I will elucidate the particular ethical positions of Whichcote’s that played such an important role. Whichcote’s thought is interesting in its own right, moreover, as a lens for examining the implications of certain prevalent religious and moral commitments. In what follows, then, I will also seek to show that Whichcote’s profoundly theistic view of human nature is ultimately incompatible with the belief that is fundamental to his Christianity. Perhaps the idea of an irresolvable conflict between Whichcote’s Christianity and his theism sounds at first a bit paradoxical. I hope, though, that by the end of this paper it will be clear how, for many 17th century rationalists, such a conflict was virtually inevitable.

On the Alleged Incompatibility Between Sentimentalism and Moral Confidence

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History of Philosophy Quarterly (1998).
Moral rationalism is defined in part by the claim that the everyday moral consciousness of each of us is deeply informed by the belief that the foundation of morality is purely rational. According to rationalists, therefore, our everyday moral consciousness is such that we can be fully confident in moral judgments only if we believe that they originate in reason alone. Moral sentimentalism is defined in part by the claim that moral judgments can never originate in reason alone. Rationalists hold, consequently, that our confidence in our moral judgments would crumble if we came to believe that moral sentimentalism is true. For rationalists hold that we can be fully confident in a moral judgment only if we believe that it possesses a feature that sentimentalism denies any moral judgment ever can possess. I will call this rationalist view the incompatibility thesis, where the incompatibility lies between confidence in our moral judgments and belief in sentimentalism. Rationalists have argued for the incompatibility thesis in a number of different ways. In this paper I will examine one particular argument for the thesis, which I will call the argument from necessity. This argument states, roughly, that we can have confidence in a moral judgment only if we believe that it is grounded in what is necessarily the case. But, the argument continues, it is not necessarily the case that we possess the sentiments we happen to possess. Therefore, the argument concludes, since sentimentalism asserts that all moral judgments are grounded in sentiments (which are non-necessary), our coming to believe in sentimentalism would lead ineluctably to our losing confidence in our moral judgments.

A Philosopher in His Closet: Reflexivity and Justification in Hume's Moral Theory

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Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26.2 (1996): 231-56.

Fantastick Associations and Addictive General Rules: A Fundamental Difference between Hutcheson and Hume

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Hume Studies 22.1 (1996): 23-48.
The belief that God created human beings for some moral purpose underlies nearly all the moral philosophy written in Great Britain in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. David Hume attacks this theological conception of human nature on all fronts. It is out of these attacks that Hume develops his own “science of man” based solely on “experience and observation.” Francis Hutcheson is often taken to be the most important positive influence on Hume. And there can be no doubt that Hume does take on board several crucial Hutchesonian elements. But Hutcheson’s moral theory, like that of most of his contemporaries, is grounded in a theological conception of human nature to which Hume is adamantly opposed. In this paper I will examine how Hume’s disagreements with Hutcheson embody the anti-theological purpose that defines Hume’s work as a whole. I will look, in particular, at Hume’s and Hutcheson’s different positions on the principles of association. I hope to show how Hume’s use of these principles in the Treatise advances his larger goal of placing “the science of man” on “a foundation almost entirely new” (T xvi).

Nature and Association in the Moral Theory of Francis Hutcheson

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History of Philosophy Quarterly 22.1 (1995): 281-301.

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