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.

Aquinas and Scotus on Power

Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain (Genesis of the Sovereign God) concludes with chapters on Aquinas and Scotus. She finds that Aquinas systematically substitutes power and action for Aristotle’s less familiar and more subtle ends-oriented concepts of potentiality and act. Aquinas then distinguishes between active power and receptive or passive power, neither of which has much to do with Aristotelian potentiality.

For Aristotle, Aubry says, potentiality is an indwelling tendency of a being to be attracted toward an end. Pure act is the realization of an end (and, I would add, not itself a movement but an unmoved mover that is an attractor). For Aquinas, the receptive power of beings is the power to receive being from God. Pure act is equated with God’s creation from nothing. Aquinas strongly associates being with power; the power of God, pure Being, pure Existence, is for him an active and efficient cause, not an unmoved attractor. On my reading of Aristotle, it is only the less-than-pure acts of moved movers that are active and efficient causes; the “first” cause is an end that attracts beings.

Duns Scotus, according to Aubry, seems to have originated the modern notion of purely logical possibility. For Scotus, anything at all that is noncontradictory is possible, whereas Aristotle considered possibility more pragmatically, in relation to real-world conditions.

Scotus held that the order of the world is radically contingent, able to be reshaped by God’s will. According to Aubry, he explicitly speaks of God’s arbitrary choice, and attributes a power of arbitrary choice to the human will as well. For Aristotle, the source of contingency in the world is the potentialities of things. For Scotus, it is the absolute power of God.

Whereas Bonaventure, Aquinas, and the 14th century pope John XXII treated the “absolute” power of God as only logically distinct from the “ordained” power associated with the order of the world as we know it, and as not actually separately exercised, Scotus insisted that the absolute power of God is actually exercised. He identified the absolute power of God with a kind of pure fact, and insisted that God from eternity could choose to change the order of the world. (I’m inclined to think Abelard was right, and choice is incompatible with eternity.)

God’s choice for Scotus has no reason beyond itself. Scotus explicitly rejects the passage from Plato quoted by Abelard that everything that is has a cause or reason. Aubry says that for Scotus, the good is only good because God wills it so. This is the exact opposite of the argument of Plato, Abelard, and Leibniz that goodness comes first.

Scotus strongly emphasizes the infinity of God in contrast to the finitude of creatures; infinity for Scotus is God’s most important attribute. Moreover, God’s infinite power acts immediately in the world. This reminds me of the extreme positions on omnipotence articulated by Philo and al-Ghazali. According to Aubry, Scotus also says that a worldly prince enjoys a similar absolute power.

In passing, Aubry notes that Descartes — also a voluntarist — held that God creates eternal truths. This seems to be a somewhat Scotist position. (See also Aubry on Aristotle; Leibniz on Justice vs Power; Power of the One?; Disambiguating “Power”; Not Power and Action; Nature and Justice in Augustine; Peter Abelard; 1277; Being and Essence; Being and Representation.)

Nature and Justice in Augustine

“But if the miracle is not thought as violence, if the opposition between violence and nature is suspended, it is because the Augustinian concept of nature considerably weakens the Aristotelian notion of physis. It is because miracle and nature are both referred back to [Augustine’s] concept of seminal reason, and are only distinguished as the inhabitual and the habitual.”

“In effect, just as the miracle can be called an inhabitual order, in the same way, in the final analysis, order is only a miracle to which one is habituated” (Gwenaëlle Aubry, Genèse du dieu souverain, p. 73, my translation). Augustine’s position is rhetorically more moderate and balanced than those of later occasionalists and theological voluntarists; but Aubry’s point is that when pushed, it leads to the same conclusions. She notes that Augustine’s use of “seminal reasons” is quite different from that of the Stoics; in Augustine, they are referred back directly to the creative power of God.

Augustine never calls God’s will arbitrary; on the contrary, he calls it good and just. But once having put the power of God first in the order of explanation — ahead of goodness and justice — he can only save God’s goodness and justice by invoking mystery, which is to renounce the intelligibility of the good.