In addition to English authors, the term "British moralists" includes Irish thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and Edmund burke; Scots such as David hume; and Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch physician who lived in England and wrote in English. Although certain medieval scholastics and such 16th-century thinkers as St. thomas more and Richard hooker belong to this list, their thought is more aptly considered in relation to medieval scholasticism and Renaissance humanism, and so the term is here restricted to philosophers living in Great Britain in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, writing in English, and making distinctive contributions to moral theory.
Chief among 17th-century moralists are Thomas hobbes, Ralph Cudworth, and Richard Cumberland (1631–1718). Hobbes and Cumberland were innovators, while Cudworth, one of the cambridge platonists, was a spokesman for traditional doctrine. Until the 20th century, Hobbes was reviled or dismissed because of his materialistic mechanism, his rejection of any sociability or sympathy in human nature, his determinism, and his account of morality as rooted in self-seeking desires. Yet, Hobbes had an immediate and lasting effect on ethics, mainly through his political theory. For him, each man in the state of nature possessed the supreme right of self-preservation and with it all other rights; hence, society, the state, and justice result from positive agreement among men. In the controversy occasioned by Leviathan, Shaftesbury stressed that the chief issue should be Hobbes's ethics and his defective picture of man as dominated by "only one Master-Passion, Fear, which has in effect devour'd all the rest, and left room only for that infinite Passion toward Power after Power, Natural (as he affirms) to All Men, and never ceasing but in Death." Cudworth argues for an objective and natural distinction between good and evil and for man's power to choose between them. Cumberland's De Legibus Naturae (1672) was the first attempt at a complete refutation of Hobbes. His use of a quantitative notion of the common good marks a break from previous treatments and anticipates utilitarianism.
Despite his religious interests, writings on the state and education, and pervasive influence on philosophy, John Locke can hardly be classed as a moralist. In The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, Mandeville (1670–1733) shows the influence of Locke and especially of Hobbes. Claiming to be a realist concerned with what man is rather than what he ought to be, he describes man as "a compound of various Passions, that help govern him by turns, whether he will or no." By nature unsociable, man has qualities such that he can be made sociable by rulers using force and cunning. Acts contrary to his natural impulses, whereby he strives to help others and conquer his passions out of a rational ambition to be good, are virtuous. Mandeville gives a repellent but effective statement of what follows from Hobbes's doctrine, and finds that debauchery, luxury, avarice, fraud, and the rest of the "private vices" serve the common good. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), author of Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, advances a refined Stoicism. An optimist, he finds that man is naturally disposed to virtue, which is its own reward and reflects the order instituted by God throughout the universe. Love of beauty is helpful to virtue, and man possesses a moral sense, a faculty partly rational and partly aesthetic, whereby he recognizes and loves what is good. He was criticized by George Berkeley, who was particularly critical in his Alciphron.
A follower of Shaftesbury, founder of the Scotch school and forerunner of Bentham and the utilitarians, Hutcheson (1694–1746), in his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue and elsewhere, elaborates the doctrine of a moral sense, equates virtue with benevolence, and makes universal happiness the norm of morality. Joseph Butler (1692–1752) is important for his Analogy of Religion, where he is a powerful opponent of Deism, and for his sermons on moral subjects. A cautious thinker, he settles for probability as the guide of life. While there are "natural appearances of our being in a state of degradation," man is disposed to condemn obvious vices and to approve other deeds in themselves and apart from consideration of which is "likeliest to produce an overbalance of happiness or misery." Hume's greatest work, the Treatise of Human Nature, applies Locke's method to morality or, better, is an introduction to such application, and by it and other works he made his great impact on conduct as well as on thought. Morality is the object of feeling rather than of thought. The "mere survey" of certain mental qualities gives pleasure and of certain others pain; hence he calls one class virtues and the other vices. Man has a power of unselfish benevolence, and moral approbation is "humanity," "a feeling for the happiness of mankind." Hume's analysis is never deep or thorough. Greatest of British empiricists, he describes certain things that are but never gets at what ought to be and why. Far higher in value are Burke's doctrine of man as a social and political being and moral agent and the shrewd and solid teachings of Samuel Johnson.
Among the 19th-century thinkers, Jeremy bentham, originator of utilitarianism; John Stuart mill, who refined the utilitarian doctrine; and Herbert spencer, the philosopher of evolution, are the most important. Basically a utilitarian, Spencer regarded his ethics as his greatest achievement. Moral realities are subject to evolutionary laws, and "absolute ethics" will arrive when man and his environment are completely evolved. At the same time, he limits the powers of state and society and puts supreme value on the individual man. Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), author of The Methods of Ethics, and partly a follower of Mill, the idealists T. H. Green (1836–82) and F. H. bradley, and Joseph Rickaby, SJ, a neoscholastic notable for his learning, grasp of principles, originality and sureness of thought, and clarity of presentation, may also be named.
The intuitionism of G. E. Moore (1873–1958), H. A. Prichard (1871–1947), and W. D. Ross (1877–1971) dominated the early decades of the 20th century. In Principia Ethica (1903), Moore offered a proof that "good" is an indefinable attribute and therefore rejected both the utilitarian and the idealist doctrines as resting on a fallacy, which he termed the "naturalistic fallacy." Morality consisted for him in simply seeing what states of affairs are good and acting to bring these about. Prichard and Ross extended Moore's analysis of goodness to obligation. In The Right and the Good (1930), Ross enumerated several types of duty, such as promise-keeping and gratitude, which all people immediately recognize as such. In opposition to utilitarianism, he insisted on the priority of duty over the maximization of pleasure while also denying that any duty could be absolute. After A. J. Ayer (1910–1989) applied logical positivism's theory of language to ethics in Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) to show that moral statements are literally meaningless, that is, incapable of being either true or false, moral philosophers devoted themselves to analyzing moral judgments. R. M. Hare (1919–) represents the mainstream in the 20th century. Against Ayer and the other emotivists, Hare argued in The Language of Morals (1952) that the logical positivists are mistaken in putting moral judgments in the same class as matters of taste and that this is evident from the fact that moral statements, unlike assertions of taste, have the logical features of being imperative and universalizable. In the last part of the century there has been increasing attention to the notion of virtue. Two essays published in 1958, G. E. M. Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy" and Philippa Foot's "Moral Beliefs," drew attention to the importance of character in moral reasoning and moral action. Alasdair C. MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), a dismissal of modern ethics as incoherent and a defense of Aristotelianism, and Iris Murdoch's (1919–1999) The Sovereignty of Good (1971) and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), which argue that morality has its source in love for goodness, have done much to establish virtue ethics as a branch within moral philosophy.
Despite the new openness to alternative traditions of moral thought, the most influential writing in British moral theory remains as individualistic, relativist, and utilitarian (or, to use Anscombe's more precise term, consequentialist) as it was in 1965.
Bibliography: b. willey, The English Moralists (New York 1964). w. r. sorley, History of British Philosophy to 1900 (Cambridge 1965). w. d. hudson, Modern Moral Philosophy (London 1983). j. b. schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge 1998). m. warnock, Ethics since 1900 (London 1960).
[j. k. ryan/
r. p. kennedy]