The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics

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All people deserve eternal damnation in hell. And when the elder Cudworth spoke of hell, he would have done so in vivid and horrifying terms — as an actual place of the most extreme, never-ending torment. The English Calvinists did not believe that everyone would go to hell. They thought that God had predetermined that some few people — the elect — would be saved. But the vast majority would be damned. And, crucially, even the elect did not deserve salvation. Sin suffused the soul of the elect and reprobate alike.

All human beings, on this Calvinist view, are ineluctably drawn toward evil, wickedness, and vice. So to the question of whether humans are basically good, the elder Cudworth and his Calvinist fellows would have responded with a resounding No. To grasp fully the depth and intensity of this Negative Answer, we need to go beyond a bare statement of its propositional content. We need to appreciate how the belief in inherent and ineradicable sin would have saturated the daily lives of English Calvinist families, creating in children such as young Ralph Cudworth an intimate and constant awareness of their own corruption.

It seems safe to assume, therefore, that young Ralph Cudworth would have grown up in a household governed by the principles Perkins espoused.

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Immediately after that innocuous exchange, however, the Negative Answer, in full Calvinist armor, comes charging onto the scene. First, in the mind there is nothing but ignorance and blindness concerning heavenly matters. Secondly, the conscience is defiled, being always either benumbed with sin, or else turmoiled with inward accusations and terrors. Thirdly, the will of man only willeth and lusteth after evil.

Michael B. Gill: The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics

Fourthly, the affections of the heart, as love, joy, hope, desire, etc. Lastly, the members of the body are the instruments and tools of the mind for the execution of sin. Perkins The curse of God the child is made to describe consists of pains in this life and damnation in the next. The pains of this life include all the unpleasant, unfortunate, and tragic events that can afflict a person — disaster, disease, and the death of loved ones.

The catechism thus impresses on the child the idea that everything bad that happens to him is warranted punishment for his sin. The catechism does also explain that some people will reach heaven. These heaven-bound people will, of course, accept Jesus Christ as their savior. But even acceptance of Christ is inextricably linked to an intimate and constant awareness of corruption. For the catechism teaches the child that he can have real faith in Christ only after he has fully embraced the sharp sorrow of his own sin.

So the English Calvinists emphasized the importance of an internal sense of sin. This emphasis on an internal sense or feeling will be highly significant in our later discussion.

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Unfortunately, most people according to the English Calvinists do not cultivate in themselves the proper internal state. For true repentance involves something much more difficult than simply going through the proper outward motions. The very fact that most people are sanguine about the state of their soul is according to the English Calvinists conclusive evidence of the superficiality of their own self-survey. But how can we find all the sin within ourselves?

How can we be sure that we have adequately condemned all the myriad things within ourselves for which condemnation is so justly warranted? And one must find and claim it all — every grand evil and small infraction, as well as every sinful thought, even if it did not issue in an external act. One must. Hence we may learn that in true repentance and conversion we must not search so only as only to find gross and palpable sins of our lives, but so as we may find those sins which the world accounts lesser sins and espy our secret faults and privy corruptions.

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Some corruptions seem more near akin to our nature and therein men hope to be excused when they forsake many other greater sins. Perkins —7. Perkins is instructing us to view all our motives with suspicion, if not outright hostility.


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For he takes it as an undeniable given that sin lurks within our soul. And the sin within our soul is crafty. It uses camouflage and misdirection to trick us into thinking we have found it all when in fact some still remains concealed. Indeed, our good works themselves may be tools used by Satan to lull us into a false sense of security.

One version says that the moral judgments, as distinct from the moral feelings, are factual judgments about the moral sentiments Capaldi. A distinct version, the moral sensing view, treats the moral beliefs as ideas copied from the impressions of approval or disapproval that represent a trait of character or an action as having whatever quality it is that one experiences in feeling the moral sentiment Cohon. These moral sentiments are emotions in the present-day sense of that term with a unique phenomenological quality, and also with a special set of causes.

Approval approbation is a pleasure, and disapproval disapprobation a pain or uneasiness. The moral sentiments are typically calm rather than violent, although they can be intensified by our awareness of the moral responses of others. They are types of pleasure and uneasiness that are associated with the passions of pride and humility, love and hatred: when we feel moral approval of another we tend to love or esteem her, and when we approve a trait of our own we are proud of it.


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We distinguish which traits are virtuous and which are vicious by means of our feelings of approval and disapproval toward the traits; our approval of actions is derived from approval of the traits we suppose to have given rise to them. We can determine, by observing the various sorts of traits toward which we feel approval, that every such trait — every virtue — has at least one of the following four characteristics: it is either immediately agreeable to the person who has it or to others, or it is useful advantageous over the longer term to its possessor or to others.

Vices prove to have the parallel features: they are either immediately disagreeable or disadvantageous either to the person who has them or to others. In the Treatise Hume details the causes of the moral sentiments, in doing so explaining why agreeable and advantageous traits prove to be the ones that generate approval. He claims that the sentiments of moral approval and disapproval are caused by some of the operations of sympathy, which is not a feeling but rather a psychological mechanism that enables one person to receive by communication the sentiments of another more or less what we would call empathy today.

Sympathy in general operates as follows. We at all times possess a maximally vivid and forceful impression of ourselves. Here resemblance and contiguity are primary. All human beings, regardless of their differences, are similar in bodily structure and in the types and causes of their passions. The person I observe or consider may further resemble me in more specific shared features such as character or nationality.

Because of the resemblance and my contiguity to the observed person, the idea of his passion is associated in my mind with my impression of myself, and acquires great vivacity from it. The sole difference between an idea and an impression is the degree of liveliness or vivacity each possesses. So great is this acquired vivacity that the idea of his passion in my mind becomes an impression, and I actually experience the passion.

When I come to share in the affections of strangers, and feel pleasure because they are pleased, as I do when I experience an aesthetic enjoyment of a well-designed ship or fertile field that is not my own, my pleasure can only be caused by sympathy T 2. Similarly, Hume observes, when we reflect upon a character or mental quality knowing its tendency either to the benefit or enjoyment of strangers or to their harm or uneasiness, we come to feel enjoyment when the trait is beneficial or agreeable to those strangers, and uneasiness when the trait is harmful or disagreeable to them.

This reaction of ours to the tendency of a character trait to affect the sentiments of those with whom we have no special affectionate ties can only be explained by sympathy. We greatly approve the artificial virtues justice with respect to property, allegiance to government, and dispositions to obey the laws of nations and the rules of modesty and good manners , which Hume argues are inventions contrived solely for the interest of society.

We approve them in all times and places, even where our own interest is not at stake, solely for their tendency to benefit the whole society of that time or place. The sympathy-generated pleasure, then, is the moral approbation we feel toward these traits of character.

We find the character traits — the causes — agreeable because they are the means to ends we find agreeable as a result of sympathy. Hume extends this analysis to the approval of most of the natural virtues.

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Hume’s Moral Philosophy

Those traits of which we approve naturally without any social contrivance , such as beneficence, clemency, and moderation, also tend to the good of individuals or all of society. So our approval of those can be explained in precisely the same way, via sympathy with the pleasure of those who receive benefit. And since the imagination is more struck by what is particular than by what is general, manifestations of the natural virtues, which directly benefit any individual to whom they are directed, are even more apt to give pleasure via sympathy than are the manifestations of justice, which may harm identifiable individuals in some cases though they contribute to a pattern of action beneficial to society as a whole T 3.

As we saw, the moral sentiments are produced by sympathy with those affected by a trait or action. However, the sympathetic transmission of sentiments can vary in effectiveness depending upon the degree of resemblance and contiguity between the observer and the person with whom he sympathizes. I receive the sentiments of someone very much like me or very close to me in time or place far more strongly than I do those of someone unlike me or more remote from me in location or in history.

Yet the moral assessments we make do not vary depending upon whether the person we evaluate resembles us in language, sex, or temperament, or is near or far. Indeed, our moral assessments of people remain stable even though our position with respect to them changes over time. At least with respect to natural virtues and vices, this common point of view is composed of the intimate perspectives of the various individuals who have direct interactions with the person being evaluated.

Thus I acquire by sympathy the pleasure or uneasiness that I imagine people would feel were the trait able to operate as it ordinarily does. As we have seen, for Hume evaluation of an action is derived from evaluation of the inner quality we suppose to have given rise to it. A character trait, for Hume, is a psychological disposition consisting of a tendency to feel a certain sentiment or combination of sentiments, ones that often move their possessor to action. Thus moral approval is a sentiment that is directed toward sentiments, or the dispositions to have them. He divides the virtues into those that are natural — in that our approval of them does not depend upon any cultural inventions or jointly-made social rules — and those that are artificial dependent both for their existence as character traits and for their ethical merit on the presence of conventional rules for the common good , and he gives separate accounts of the two kinds.

The traits he calls natural virtues are more refined and completed forms of those human sentiments we could expect to find even in people who belonged to no society but cooperated only within small familial groups. The traits he calls artificial virtues are the ones we need for successful im personal cooperation; our natural sentiments are too partial to give rise to these without intervention.

Hume does not explicitly draw a distinction between artificial and natural virtues in the moral Enquiry. In the Treatise Hume argues in turn that the virtues of material honesty and of faithfulness to promises and contracts are artificial, not natural virtues. Both arguments fall into at least two stages: one to show that if we suppose the given character trait to exist and to win our approval without help from any cooperative social arrangement, paradoxes arise; and another, longer stage to explain how the relevant convention might have come into being and to refute those with a different genetic story.

He also explains the social construction of the other artificial virtues and what social good they serve. Hume offers a rather cryptic argument to show that our approval of material honesty must be the product of collaborative human effort convention.


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Therefore all actions deemed virtuous derive their goodness only from virtuous motives — motives we approve. The basis of our approval could not be specified. For every virtue, therefore, there must be some non-moral motive that characteristically motivates actions expressive of that virtue, which motive, by eliciting our approval, makes the actions so motivated virtuous. The virtue of an action of this species would be established by its being done from this non-moral motive, and only then could an agent also or alternatively be moved so to act by her derivative concern for the virtue of the act.

However, Hume observes that there is no morally approved and so virtue-bestowing , non-moral motive of honest action. Hume offers an account of the genesis of the social convention that creates honesty with respect to property, and this is meant to cope in some way with the circularity he identifies. How it does so is a matter of interpretive controversy, as we will see. Hume next poses two questions about the rules of ownership of property and the associated virtue of material honesty: what is the artifice by which human beings create them, and why do we attribute moral goodness and evil to the observance and neglect of these rules?