Price, Richard (1723–1791)

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Richard Price, a Welsh dissenting preacher, moral philosopher, and actuary, was born at Tynton, Llangeinor, Glamorganshire. His father, Rees, was a dissenting minister with extreme Calvinist opinions. Richard Price was educated at a number of different academies, finally entering Coward's Academy in London, where he remained for the years 17401744. He was ordained at the age of twenty-one and began his ministerial career as a domestic chaplain. He later served a number of London congregations, notably those at Stoke Newington, where he lived, and at the Gravel-Pit Meeting House in Hackney. Price was buried in the cemetery at Bunhill Fields; his friend Joseph Priestley preached the funeral oration.

In addition to his writings on moral philosophy, Price wrote with considerable influence on financial and political questions. His papers on life expectancy and on calculating the values of reversionary payments were instrumental in reforming the actuarial basis of the insurance and benefit societies of the time. His paper on the public debt is said to have led William Pitt, the prime minister, to reestablish the sinking fund to extinguish England's national debt. In his pamphlet Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of the War with America (London, February 8, 1776), Price defended the American cause. The widespread circulation and generally favorable acceptance of this work is said to have encouraged the American decision for a declaration of independence. Price had become friendly with Benjamin Franklin during the latter's stay in London, and in 1778 the Continental Congress moved to grant Price American citizenship if he would come to America and serve as an adviser on the management of American finances. He was grateful for the invitation but did not accept it. Price also regarded the French Revolution with approval, which he expressed, along with an appeal for reform in England, in his Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789). Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) was written in reply.

Price is also the author of Four Dissertations: I. "On Providence"; II. "On Prayer"; III. "On the Reasons for expecting that virtuous Men shall meet after death in a State of Happiness"; IV. "On the Importance of Christianity, the Nature of Historical Evidence, and Miracles" (London, 1767). In the fourth of these dissertations Price criticized David Hume's "Of Miracles." Hume was grateful for the civility with which Price argued, and he wrote to Price that the light in which he put this controversy was "new and plausible and ingenious, and perhaps solid. But I must have some more time to weigh it, before I can pronounce this judgment with satisfaction to myself."

Moral Philosophy

Price's contribution to moral philosophy is A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (London, 1758; corrected editions in 1769 and 1787). Price criticized the moral-sense doctrines of Francis Hutcheson in order to clear them away and make room for an account of immutable right and wrong, derived from Samuel Clarke.

Price says that we may have three different perceptions concerning the actions of moral agents. We may notice whether they are right or wrong, whether they are beautiful or ugly, and whether they are of good or ill desert. By talking of perceptions here, he shows that he has accepted the premise, of Lockean origin, that all knowledge is to be accounted for as some kind of perception by one of our faculties. Thus, Price's first question, "How do we know right?," is treated as a search for the faculty by means of which we obtain our ideas of right and wrong. He considers Hutcheson's answer that our moral ideas come to us by the way of a moral sense, and he understands Hutcheson to be claiming that this sense is "a power within us, different from reason; which renders certain actions pleasing and others displeasing to us."

Price objects to this doctrine because of certain consequences that he believes are implied by it. Our approval and disapproval of actions appear to depend on the way our minds work or, to carry the matter back a step, on the way God has made them to work. Thus, our judgments of right and wrong depend on the mere good pleasure of our Maker, who created us in a certain way. But if he had pleased, he might have made us to be pleased or displeased by quite different actions, even actions contrary to those that now please and displease us. Thus, right and wrong would be only matters of taste, only a certain effect in us, and nothing in actions themselves.

For his part, Price is convinced that morality is equally unchangeable with all truth and that right and wrong are real characteristics of actions and not mere sensations derived from the particular way in which our minds are framed. To show the immutability of right and wrong, Price argues that these ideas are derived not from a special sense but from the understanding. As Price sees it, the only debatable issue in morals is not what actions are right and wrong but what is the faculty by which we discern right and wrong.

Price prefaces his argument for regarding the understanding as our moral faculty with the preliminary claim that the understanding is a source of new ideas. He objects to interpreting John Locke as saying that sensation and reflection are the sources of all our ideas. Price argues that Locke may have meant only that all our ideas are ultimately grounded on ideas derived from sensation and reflection. Thus, Price makes room for certain new ideas that may arise as the understanding compares the objects of thought and judges them. Some of these new ideas are solidity, inertia, substance, accident, duration, space, cause or power, entity, possibility, and actual existence.

Price locates these new ideas in a revised classification of simple ideas. He divides simple ideas into those implying nothing real outside the mind and those that denote real and independent existence distinct from sensation. The first class of simple ideas consists, on the one hand, of tastes, smells, and colors and, on the other, of such notions as order, happiness, and beauty. The second class of simple ideas has three subclasses: the real properties of external objects, such as figure, extension, and motion; the actions and passions of the mind, such as volition, memory, and so on; and those new ideas noted above which arise as the understanding considers the ideas it has been supplied with. It is important to note that Price does not regard the second class of simple ideas as constructions of the mind. The real properties of external objects are in the objects, and such new ideas as cause, duration, and space are of properties in a real world.

Armed with his reclassification of simple ideas, Price is now prepared to locate our ideas of moral right and wrong in the scheme and thus establish that they are perceptions of the understanding. Price first considers the question of whether moral right and wrong are simple ideas. He declares that they must be, for we cannot give definitions of them that are more than synonymous expressions. It is Price's recognition of this point which has led contemporary students to declare him one of the first to recognize the naturalistic fallacy, although he does not use that term. Having established that our ideas of right and wrong are simple ideas, Price then locates them in his scheme as two of those new ideas which arise in the understanding.

Hutcheson had simply assumed that if right and wrong are immediately perceived, they must be perceptions of an implanted sense. But the question of how we perceive these ideas may be settled by simply considering the nature of our own perceptions.

Let anyone compare the ideas arising from our powers of sensation, with those arising from our intuition of the natures of things, and enquire which of them his ideas of right and wrong most resemble. It is scarcely conceivable that anyone can impartially attend to the nature of his perceptions, and determine that when he thinks gratitude or beneficence to be right, he perceives nothing true of them, and understands nothing, but only receives an impression from a sense.

Price notes that some impressions of pleasure or pain, satisfaction or disgust, generally attend our perceptions of moral right and wrong; the proponents of a moral sense may have confused these impressions with our actual perceptions of right and wrong.

But there is an assumption in Price's own system on which much depends and for which he offers insufficient argument. He tells us that "all actions undoubtedly have a nature. That is, some character certainly belongs to them, and somewhat there is to be truly affirmed of them." It is the task of the understanding to perceive these truths. Price regards actions in this way because it enables him to say that their rightness or wrongness is in them, not in the mind of the person judging the actions, but apart from noting the advantage to his own moral philosophy, Price offers no justification for the claim that actions have natures. It is unfortunate that he does not, for he rests his contention that morality is eternal and immutable on this claim.

When Price turns to our ideas of the beauty and deformity of actions, the second kind of perception of actions which he promised to account for, he finds that these perceptions are feelings of delight or detestation which may accompany our perceptions of the rightness or wrongness of actions. These feelings of delight and detestation are the effects on us of the actions we consider, and it is very likely that they arise from an arbitrary structure of our minds, which may be called a sense. Price allows that there is a distinction between noting that an action is right and approving it. We are made, however, in such a way that we cannot perceive an action to be right without approving it, for in humans it is necessary that the rational principle, or the intellectual discernment of right and wrong, should be aided by instinctive determinations. When these feelings of the heart support the perceptions of the understanding, we are provided with the motivation for moral behavior. Here Price agrees with Hutcheson, pointing out that he has never disputed that we owe much to an implanted sense and its determinations. He means to resist only the claim that we owe our knowledge of right and wrong to such a sense.

Our ideas of the good and ill desert, the third sort of perception concerning actions which Price notes, carry the mind to the agent. He finds that we cannot but love a virtuous agent and desire his happiness above that of others. Quite apart from any advantage which we may gain from someone else's virtuous behavior, we have an immediate approbation of making the virtuous happy and of discouraging the vicious.

Price distinguishes between abstract and practical virtue. Abstract virtue denotes "what an action is independently of the sense of an agent; or what, in itself and absolutely, it is right such an agent, in such circumstances, should do." But Price recognizes that the actual practice of virtue depends on the opinion of the agent concerning his actions. Thus, an agent may be mistaken about his circumstances but sincere about what he believes he ought to do. In this respect practical virtue may diverge from abstract virtue but be no less obligatory insofar as the agent acts from a consciousness of rectitude. The ideal state of affairs is a correspondence of practical virtue with abstract virtue. Its achievement depends on the liberty and intelligence of the agent. These constitute the agent's capacity for virtue, and intention gives virtue actual being in a character. Price takes a short way with the question, "Why be moral?" "The knowledge of what is right, without any approbation of it, or concern to practise it, is not conceivable or possible. And this knowledge will certainly be attended with correspondent, actual practice, whenever there is nothing to oppose it." Why a person chooses to do what he knows he should do is a question "which need not and should not be answered."

Benevolence is not the sole virtue. We also have duties to God and to ourselves, and there is room for many other sorts of good behavior, such as veracity, sincerity, and gratitude. As a measure of virtue Price offers the rule that "the virtue of an agent is always less in proportion to the degree in which natural temper and propensities fall in with his actions, instinctive principles operate, and rational reflexion on what is right to be done, is wanting."

Price discusses at length the relation of morality to the divine nature. Just as moral right and wrong are independent of man's mind, they are also absolutes for God. Were this not so, there would be no sense in which God's will could be good.

Freedom of the Will

Price and Priestley published a set of letters as A Free Discussion of the Doctrines of Materialism and Philosophical Necessity (London, 1778). The correspondence had its origin in Price's criticism of Priestley's Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit. The letters cover the nature of matter, the human mind, the mortality of the soul, the essence of the deity, and the doctrine of necessity. The last topic is the one that is treated in the most interesting way. Priestley contended that there can be no human liberty because "liberty" must mean someone's willing without a motive, which he regards as impossible. Price enlarges on the account of liberty that he offered in A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals. He argues that human agents are not physical objects but unique entities capable of self-determination. Consider the difference between a man who is dragged by a superior force and a man who follows a guide for a reward. Both of these examples may be certainties, but having different foundations, they are of totally different natures. "In both cases the man might in common speech be said to follow ; but his following in the one case, however certain in event, would be his own agency: In the other case, it would be the agency of another. In the one case, superior power moves him: In the other he moves himself."

See also Burke, Edmund; Clarke, Samuel; Hume, David; Hutcheson, Francis; Liberty; Locke, John; Moral Principles: Their Justification; Moral Sense; Priestley, Joseph; Properties; Responsibility, Moral and Legal.


Price's Works were published in 10 volumes (London, 1816), with a memoir of his life by W. Morgan. A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals has been published with a critical introduction by D. D. Raphael (Oxford, 1948). This is a reprint of the third edition (1787) with an appendix and "A Dissertation on the Being and Attributes of the Deity."

For biography, see Carl B. Cone, Torchbearer of Freedom, the Influence of Richard Price on Eighteenth Century Thought (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1952). Other works on Price include Joseph Priestley, A Discourse on the Occasion of the Death of Dr. Price (London, 1791); Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1876; 2nd ed., London, 1902); and Roland Thomas, Richard Price (London: Oxford University Press, 1924).

Elmer Sprague (1967)