Shaftesbury on Moral Feeling

Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), third Earl of Shaftesbury, was personally tutored by John Locke as a young man, and the two remained friends in spite of various philosophical differences. Shaftesbury was sympathetic to the Cambridge Platonists, and attracted to aspects of Stoic ethics. He is especially known, however, for his emphasis on the role of feeling in ethics. Rejecting pessimistic Hobbesian and Calvinist views of human nature, he regarded the sense of right and wrong as a kind of second-order feeling — a feeling about other feelings. It is reflective, and while grounded in nature requires the right kind of upbringing and education for its development. The much more rationalistic Leibniz was very impressed by Shaftesbury’s work.

The main role of philosophy for Shaftesbury is to help us “regulate our governing Fancys, Passions, and Humours”, rather than to elaborate a system of the world. Goodness for Shaftesbury is to be understood mainly in terms of motivation rather than results. More objectively, it is grounded in a kind of natural teleology of order and harmony in the world. Something is good if it contributes to the “Existence or Well-Being” of a larger whole such as a species or a world. A virtuous human cultivates “equal, just, and universal Friendship” with humanity as a whole.

Shaftesbury believed in a perfectly good God, and in the argument from design. He opposed voluntarist views that made what is good depend on divine will, and advocated religious tolerance. Motivation by reward and punishment he deemed inadequate as a basis for morality.

Human motivation for Shaftesbury depends entirely on feeling or sentiment, not on reason or belief. He is considered to be a source for Hume’s famous view that in real life, human reason always serves human passions.

Scholars debate the extent to which Shaftesbury’s views should be considered subjectivist, and the extent to which he can be assimilated to the generally egoistic tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and the later Utilitarians. As I have noted previously, “self” has many meanings, from crude to cosmic. Shaftesbury clearly rejects what we would call selfishness, but in other passages promotes a positive view of a broader notion of self. His de-emphasis on reason is tempered by his sense of natural order and purpose in the world and his emphasis on a kind of reflection.

Kant’s emphasis on principles in ethics and his critique of subtler kinds of selfishness in spontaneous moral feeling represent a strong criticism of views like those of Shaftesbury. I think Kant sometimes goes too far in criticizing feeling, but Shaftesbury also goes too far in identifying reason with sterile abstraction. With Aristotle, I see human feeling and human reason as cooperating with one another in producing well-rounded valuations.