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.


Plato’s short dialogue Meno — concerned with virtue and knowledge — is among the most famous of what are referred to as his “Socratic” dialogues, which dwell on Socratic method, and on the character of Socrates as a kind of role model. Meno wants Socrates to provide an easy answer to how virtue is to be acquired. Socrates, ever distrustful of easy answers, shifts the discussion toward the more basic question of what virtue is. Meno first responds with examples, but Socrates points out that examples do not answer the “what is” question.

Meno eventually suggests that virtue is the desire of honorable things, combined with the power of attaining them. Socrates then points out that some people desire evil, and that a person may have power, yet still fail to properly recognize good as good and evil as evil. Meno complains that Socrates is always doubting himself and making others doubt, and says he feels bewitched.

Socrates introduces a poetic myth that learning is a kind of recollection of knowledge that we already had. He then walks a young boy through a simple geometrical construction. At the beginning, the boy seems to have no idea how to solve the problem. Then he thinks he does, but he is wrong. At a later point, he recognizes the mistake. Socrates points out that it is always better to know that we do not know, than to think that we know when we do not. But still later, after following the steps of the construction, it seems like the boy does understand how to find the solution, though he is never told. As Brandom might remind us, this shows the value of making what was implicit into something explicit.

Eventually, Socrates leads Meno to the conclusion that virtue is “either wholly or partly wisdom”. But then he introduces a further doubt, whether virtue can be reduced to knowledge. True opinion is said to be as good a guide to action as knowledge, and this is said to be how most good people function.

But then finally, true opinion is said not to be of very great value after all, because it is not “fastened by the tie of the cause”, and therefore tends to “run away” from us. That is to say, when we do not really know — i.e., cannot articulate — the why of a conclusion that is right in one context, it is easy to misapply it in a different context. (See also Dialogue; Platonic Truth; What and Why; Reasons.)

Aristotelian Virtue

Aristotelian ethics is not just about cultivating virtue as a kind of good character. Although he does emphasize it a lot, ultimately character is just a means and a potentiality for actualization of the real goal of that part of living well that is under our power. The actualization itself comes from good practice (praxis), grounded in sound, well-rounded deliberation and choice. Aristotle also says the very best life is that of the philosopher. Not only is philosophy valuable in itself, but it also helps us deliberate.

The best deliberation and choice is supported by intellectual virtues, a concern for justice, and a spirit of friendship or love, but it would not even get off the ground without progress in the classic “moral” virtues, which are all said to pertain to our emotions or passions, and to how we are affected by pleasure and pain. Aristotle characterizes each of these emotional virtues as a kind of mean, or balanced emotional state.

Thus, courage is presented as a mean between rashness and cowardice. Temperance is a mean between self-indulgence and insensibility. Interestingly, justice and prudence are also included among emotional virtues, and subjected to a similar analysis. Other emotional virtues are presented as following the same pattern. Unlike the Stoics, neither Plato nor Aristotle advocated suppressing the emotions.