Balguy, John (1686–1748)

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John Balguy, the English theologian and moral philosopher, was born in Sheffield and educated at the Sheffield grammar school and at St. John's College, Cambridge. He was admitted to the B.A. in 1706, ordained in the established church in 1710, and granted the living of Lamesley and Tanfield in Durham in 1711. Later he was made a prebendary of Salisbury (1727) and finally vicar of Northallerton, York (1729). He was an associate of Bishop Benjamin Hoadley and was the bishop's defender in the Bangorian controversy. Hoadley was the close friend of Samuel Clarke.

Balguy's first piece of moral philosophy was an attack on the philosophy of Shaftesbury, titled A Letter to a Deist concerning the Beauty and Excellency of Moral Virtue, and the Support Which It Receives from the Christian Religion (London, 1726). His most important work was The Foundation of Moral Goodness (Part I first published in London in 1728, Part II in 1729). Part I is a criticism of the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson and an exposition of Balguy's own views, much influenced by Samuel Clarke. Part II is a set of critical queries with Balguy's answers. A Lord Darcy, an admirer of Hutcheson's philosophy, is said to have proposed the queries.

Hutcheson claimed that we distinguish between virtue and vice by means of the perceptions of a moral sense. These perceptions are kinds of pleasure and uneasiness, and they are invoked to account for our approval of virtue and our abhorrence of vice, as well as our obligation to behave virtuously and to avoid viciousness. Hutcheson believed that our moral sense has been determined by God to operate as it does and that we are naturally endowed with a benevolence toward our fellow creatures.

Balguy agreed that God has endowed our minds with benevolent affections toward others, but these affections are only helps or incentives to virtue and not the true ground or foundation of it. By making virtuous behavior flow from divinely founded instincts, Hutcheson had made virtue arbitrary. It is compatible with Hutcheson's view that God might have made us different from what we are, even inverting virtue and vice if he pleased. What is more, if God had not given us an instinct for benevolence, it appears that we should be altogether incapable of virtue; and this would be so even if we were possessed of reason and liberty.

Balguy argued that there is something in actions absolutely good (or bad) that is antecedent to both affections and laws. If this were not so, no reason could be given for God's preferring us to act benevolently and disposing us accordingly. For an action to be virtuous, there must be a perception or a consciousness of its reasonableness, or we would have to admit that beasts can be virtuous. Genuine goodness consists in our being determined to do a good action merely by the reason and the right of the thing. This is the purest and most perfect virtue of which any agent is capable. The obligation to perform a virtuous act is to be found in its reasonableness, and for a rational creature to refuse to be reasonable is unthinkable.

Balguy's elucidation of "reasonable" is found in his account of our knowledge of virtue. He argued that our understanding is altogether sufficient for the perception of virtue. Virtue is the conformity of our moral actions to the reasons of things; vice is the contrary. Moral actions are actions directed toward some intelligent being, and Balguy called them moral to distinguish them from other kinds of action. By a moral action's conformity to reason, Balguy meant the agreeableness of the action to the nature and circumstances of the persons concerned and the relations existing between them. Gratitude is an example of what he meant by conformity to reason: "We find that some actions are agreeable, others disagreeable, to the nature and circumstances of the agent and the object, and the relations interceding between them. Thus, for instance, we find an agreement between the gratitude of A and the kindness of B; and a disagreement between the ingratitude of C and the bounty of D. These agreements and disagreements are visible to every intelligent observer, who attends to the several ideas" (The Foundation of Moral Goodness ). He likens our perception of such an agreement to our perception of the agreement between the three angles of a triangle and two right ones, or our perception of the agreement between twice three and six. Since we do not require an intellectual sense superadded to our understanding in order to perceive these mathematical agreements, then clearly we do not require a moral sense to perceive the agreement of A's gratitude and B's kindness.

There are difficulties in Balguy's account of virtue as conformity to reason. The agreement between twice three and six is an equality, which is logically necessary. But the agreement of A's gratitude and B's kindness is not a defined equality. How, then, does the agreement come about? One of Balguy's synonyms for "agreement" is "fitting," and it appears to let the proponents of the moral sense in at the back door. For why is gratitude a fitting response to kindness and a lack of gratitude unfitting? What can we say but that we feel gratitude to be fitting and the lack of gratitude unfitting? "Fitting" and "unfitting" are normative terms, and while one can learn such a rule as "Gratitude is the fitting response to kindness," the rule must originally have been given life by someone's feeling that gratitude is the fitting response to kindness. Balguy would treat the rule as an end in itself, because he believed it exhibits some inherent self-consistency. The proponents of the moral sense would argue that the consistency of gratitude and kindness lies not in them but in us who find them to be consistent.

Balguy would agree, of course, that it is we who find gratitude to be the fitting response to kindness. The dispute is only over how we find it to be fitting, and we find it so not by a moral sense as by using our reason or understanding. The final defense for this contention is Balguy's assessment of reason as the noblest of our faculties, superior to any sense. Therefore, reason must be the arbiter of virtue and vice. The question of what faculty assesses the relative superiority of our faculties is never asked.

Balguy also wrote Divine Rectitude: or a Brief Inquiry concerning the Moral Perfections of the Deity, Particularly in Respect of Creation and Providence (London, 1730). He argued that God's goodness follows from a regard for a real and absolute order, beauty, and harmony.

See also Clarke, Samuel; Ethics, History of; Hutcheson, Francis; Moral Sense; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Virtue and Vice.


L. A. Selby-Bigge, ed., The British Moralists (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), Vol. II, reproduces Part I of The Foundation of Moral Goodness and representative selections from Part II.

For critical discussion, see B. Peach, "John Balguy," in Encyclopedia of Morals, edited by V. Ferm. (New York: Greenwood, 1956).

Elmer Sprague (1967)