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Gay, John (1699–1745)


John Gay, the English moral philosopher, was a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and later vicar of Wilshampstead, Bedfordshire. His short "Dissertation concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality" was first published as a preface to Edmund Law's translation of William King's Latin Essay on the Origin of Evil (1731). (Law was bishop of Carlisle and King was archbishop of Dublin.) The "Dissertation" is one of the seminal works in the history of English utilitarianism. In the eighteenth century its influence may be found in the works of the theological utilitarians, Abraham Tucker (The Light of Nature Pursued, 7 vols., 17681778) and William Paley (Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1785). David Hartley said that Gay's assertion of the importance of psychological association in human nature was the origin of his Observations on Man (1749).

Gay hoped to eradicate confusion in moral philosophy and to harmonize the competing theories about the criterion of virtue. In his survey of candidates for the criterion of virtue, Gay noticed acting agreeably to nature; acting agreeably to reason; conformity to the fitness of things; conformity with truth; promoting the common good; and conformity to the will of God. In opposition to the claim that a criterion of virtue can be stated, Gay noticed the protagonists of the moral sense who claim that our judgments of virtue and vice are but the instinctive determinations of a moral sense. Gay set himself the task of showing that all of the above-mentioned criteria of virtue are compatible and not inconsistent with our having a moral sense.

Gay insisted upon the difference between a definition and a criterion, claiming that one must know what a thing is before one can measure it. Therefore, he first defined virtue as conformity to a rule of life. He expanded on the concept of "rule of life" by saying that it is a rule directing the actions of all rational creatures with respect to each other's happiness and that the rule must be understood to be obligatory for everyone in all cases.

Gay next turned to the question, What is it that can oblige everyone in all cases to follow a rule of life? He argued that a full and complete obligation can only arise from the authority of God, because only God can in all cases make a man happy or miserable. Gay then said that the criterion of virtue is the will of God. But what rule of life does God will that we follow? Attending to God's nature, we find him supremely happy. From God's goodness we infer that he has designed men to be happy and that he has willed the means to human happiness. Therefore, a person should always behave so as to be a means to the happiness of humankind. Arguing from the will of God, Gay thus arrived at a criterion of virtue once removed.

The above account covers what might be called the first part of Gay's system. In it he found the clues for harmonizing the several criteria of virtue he had collected from earlier writers. He found conformity to the will of God to be the fundamental criterion of virtue, but the other criteria are necessary to explicate this one. Thus the criterion of the will of God with respect to virtue is whatever promotes the happiness of humankind or the common good. Gay defined things that are fitting and agreeable to nature as those things or actions which may be used to bring about the happiness of humankind. He complained about earlier writers who left the phrases "fitness of things" or "agreeableness to nature" empty of meaning by not seeing that they must be used in relation to some end, namely, the happiness of humankind.

To account for agreeableness to reason as a criterion of virtue, Gay included under his notion of reason not only reasonthat is, the foreseeing of the inconveniences of certain things and actions by contemplating their naturesbut also experience, or the perceiving of these inconveniences when they happen. Reason in this extended sense is the criterion of the fitness and unfitness of things and actions, as they contribute to human happiness. Gay added that when reason conforms to things as they really are, we say that we have the "reason" of things, or the "truth" of things. Thus, he fit in conformity with truth as yet another criterion of virtue. But while he succeeded in fitting all these criteria into an account of virtue, he also warned that some are more remote criteria than others.

Gay brought the moral sense into his account of virtue by denying that it is innate, or that it operates instinctively. Men must acquire the moral sense, notably by learning to be pleased by those actions which promote human happiness and to be displeased by those which do the contrary. Gay allowed that once it is learned, the operation of the moral sense may be habitual. He also allowed that much of humankind may learn what virtue is by example and observation, without being able to reason out their judgments.

Gay also explained why a person may be virtuous. Curiously enough, he made little of man's obligation to obey the will of God. Rather he appealed to the universality of man's inclination to seek pleasure and to avoid pain; and he equated a person's happiness with his being pleased. There are two motives, then, for virtuous behavior. First, when I see that my own happiness depends on the happiness of others, I will seek to promote their happiness in the hope that they will in turn promote mine. Second, since esteem and merit are associated with virtue, I may behave virtuously in order to enjoy the pleasure of being esteemed. Similarly, I will esteem those who promote my happiness, in order to encourage them.

See also Ethics, History of; Hartley, David; Paley, William; Virtue and Vice.


The "Dissertation" is reprinted in British Moralists, Vol. 2, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897). Gay also wrote a preface to Edmund Law's Enquiry into the Idea of Space, Time, Etc. (London, 1734). For critical discussion, see Ernest Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism (New York: Macmillan, 1902).

Elmer Sprague (1967)

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