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Author's Introduction

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British philosophers began to advance the view that morality originated not in the external commands of God or sovereign nor in self-interest but in a non-selfish principle internal to human nature. These philosophers disagreed, however, about what that internal principle was. The rationalists (such as Ralph Cudworth, Samuel Clarke, and John Balguy) maintained that morality originated in rationality. The sentimentalists (such as the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume) maintained that morality originated in sentiment. In addition to many other kinds of arguments, each side of this debate deployed a central argument by analogy: the rationalists claimed that moral judgment was crucially analogous to mathematical judgment, while the sentimentalists claimed that moral judgment was crucially analogous to aesthetic judgment.

Author Recommends:

1. Stephen Darwall, ‘Shaftesbury: Authority and Authorship’, in his The British Moralists and the Internal ‘Ought’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

This chapter provides a full-scale interpretation of Shaftesbury's moral views and places them in their early modern context.

2. Stephen Darwall, ‘Hutcheson on Practical Reason’, Hume Studies 23 (1997): 73–89.

This article articulates the central features of Hutcheson's view of practical reason and raises some penetrating worries about them.

3. Joel Feinberg, ‘Wollaston and his Critics’, Journal of the History of Ideas 38 (1977): 345–52.

This article explores Wollaston's moral theory and shows that while it is problematic in some ways it nonetheless is more viable than many critics have supposed.

4. Michael B. Gill, ‘Rationalism, Sentimentalism, and Ralph Cudworth’, Hume Studies 30 (2004): 149–81.

This article explains the basis of early modern moral rationalism through an examination of Cudworth's theory. It attempts to elucidate the main points of disagreement and agreement between the rationalists and the sentimentalists.

5. Michael B. Gill, ‘Moral Rationalism vs. Moral Sentimentalism: Is Morality more like Math or Beauty?’, Philosophy Compass 2/1 (2007): 16–30.

This article explains the main lines of debate between the rationalists and the sentimentalists and shows how the former relied on an analogy between morality and mathematics while the latter relied on an analogy between morality and beauty.

6. Christine Korsgaard, ‘Skepticism about Practical Reason’, Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986): 5–25.

This article examines one of the most central and influential anti-rationalist arguments developed by Hutcheson, Hume, and other sentimentalists. Korsgaard maintains that this argument – which is based on the motivational force of morality – does not succeed in showing that there is reason to favor sentimentalism over rationalism.

7. David Fate Norton, ‘Hume, Human Nature, and the Foundations of Morality’, The Cambridge Companion to Hume (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 148–82.

This chapter provides a useful introduction to all the major components of Hume's moral philosophy.

8. J. B. Schneewind, ‘The Austerity of Morals: Clarke and Mandeville’, The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 310–29.

This chapter explains the views of one of the most important British rationalists, Samuel Clarke, and shows how the British moralists argued against egoism (as exemplified by Bernard Mandeville).

9. Richard Tuck, ‘Hobbes's Moral Philosophy’, Cambridge Companion to Hobbes, ed. Tom Sorrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 175–207.

This chapter provides a helpful overview of the main features of Hobbes's moral views.

Online Materials:

1. Cambridge Platonists (Sarah Hutton):

2. Hobbes's Moral and Political Philosophy (Sharon A. Lloyd):

3. Hume's Moral Philosophy (Rachel Cohon):

4. Lord Shaftesbury (Michael B. Gill):

5. Samuel Clarke (Ezio Vailati):

6. Scottish Philosophy in the 18th Century (Alexander Broadie):

Sample Syllabus:

Books on Syllabus

Simon Blackburn, Ruling Passions: a Theory of Practical Reasoning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

David Hume, Moral Philosophy, ed. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006).

D. D. Raphael, ed., British Moralists 1650–1800, Vol. 1, Hobbes-Gay (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991).

Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Week 1: Egoist and Command Theories the British Moralists would Oppose

Thomas Hobbes, selections from ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Leviathan’, pp. 3–60 in Raphael's British Moralists.

Recommended secondary reading: Tuck, ‘Hobbes's Moral Philosophy’.

Bernard Mandeville, selections from ‘Enquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue, pp. 229–36 in Raphael's British Moralists.

Weeks 2 and 3: Early Modern Moral Rationalism

Ralph Cudworth, selections from ‘A Treatise concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality’, pp. 105–19 in Raphael's British Moralists.

Recommended secondary reading: Gill, ‘Rationalism, Sentimentalism, and Ralph Cudworth’.

Samuel Clarke, selections of ‘A Discourse of Natural Religion’, pp. 191–225 in Raphael's British Moralists.

Recommended secondary reading: Schneewind, ‘The Austerity of Morals: Clarke and Mandeville’.

William Wollaston, selections from ‘The Religion of Nature Delineated’, pp. 239–58 of Raphael's British Moralists.

Recommended secondary reading: Feinberg, ‘Wollaston and his Critics’.

Weeks 3 and 4: Early Modern Moral Sentimentalism

Shaftesbury, selections from ‘An Inquiry concerning Virtue, or Merit’, pp. 169–88 in Raphael's British Moralists.

Recommended secondary reading: Darwall, ‘Shaftesbury: Authority and Authorship’.

Francis Hutcheson, selections from ‘An Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil’, ‘An Essay on the Passions’, and ‘The Moral Sense’, 261–321 in Raphael's British Moralists.

Recommended secondary reading: Darwall, ‘Hutcheson on Practical Reason’.

David Hume, ‘Treatise of Human Nature’ 2.3.3, 3.1.1, 3.1.2, 3.2.1, 3.2.2, pp. 60–99 of Hume's Moral Philosophy.

Recommended secondary reading: Norton, ‘Hume, Human Nature, and the Foundations of Morality’.

Week 5: Rationalism vs. Sentimentalism, continued

Michael B. Gill, ‘Moral Rationalism vs. Moral Sentimentalism: Is Morality more like Math or Beauty?’, Philosophy Compass 2/1 (2007): 16–30.

David Hume, ‘Of the Standard of Taste’, pp. 345–60 of Hume's Moral Philosophy.

John Balguy, selections from ‘The Foundation of Moral Goodness’, pp. 389–408 of Raphael's British Moralists.

Weeks 6 and 7: Contemporary Moral Sentimentalism

inline image Simon Blackburn, selections from Ruling Passions.

Weeks 8 and 9: Contemporary Moral Rationalism

inline image Russ Shafer-Landau, selections from Moral Realism: A Defence.

Focus Questions

  • 1
    What are the main differences between drawing a mathematical conclusion and judging that something is beautiful? Is making a moral judgment more like the former or the latter?
  • 2
    When a person judges that an action is right, will he or she necessarily also possess a motive to perform that action?
  • 3
    Is morality necessarily the same for all people everywhere?
  • 4
    How do we justify our moral judgments to others? Is it more similar to how we justify out mathematical conclusions, or is it more similar to how we justify our aesthetic judgments?
  • 5
    Can two people who agree about all the facts about an action nonetheless disagree about its moral status?