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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.4 (2000) 529-548

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Shaftesbury's Two Accounts of the Reason to be Virtuous

College of Charleston


Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), was the founder of the moral sense school, or the first British philosopher to develop the position that moral distinctions originate in sentiment and not in reason alone. Shaftesbury thus struck the initial blow in the battle waged by sentimentalists such as Hutcheson and Hume against rationalists such as Cudworth and Clarke.

Such is a common view of Shaftesbury's place in the history of moral philosophy.1 But while this common view is accurate in a very general sense, it also oversimplifies in a manner that threatens to misrepresent the development of modern ethical theory and obscure what is most interesting about Shaftesbury.2 The view suggests, in particular, that the most important distinction in early modern British moral philosophy was between sentimentalism and rationalism. There was, however, a distinction ontologically deeper than [End Page 529] that, which explains how Shaftesbury, even while developing his moral sense theory, could at times be much closer to his rationalist predecessors Cudworth and Clarke than to his sentimentalist followers Hutcheson and Hume.

In this paper I will elucidate this deeper ontological distinction by examining two different accounts that Shaftesbury gives of the reason to be virtuous. Both of Shaftesbury's accounts are in a sense sentimentalist, but only the second of them constitutes a sharp break from his rationalist predecessors. Shaftesbury himself does not seem fully aware of the radical implications of his second account, but the implications are there nonetheless. And by exposing them we will gain a view not only of a crucial ambiguity in Shaftesbury's thought but also of a central faultline in the history of British moral philosophy. We will also come to see that while Shaftesbury does pave the way for a new ontology of morals, he does so more by accident than by design.3


Shaftesbury believes that to be virtuous is to have a benevolent character or a deep non-derivative commitment to promote the "publick Interest."4 He also believes that a person who has a benevolent character will always be happier than a person who does not, and that this constitutes a sufficient reason for each of us to "embrace" virtue (Inquiry 48).5 But of course some will deny that the benevolent person is always happiest and so Shaftesbury sets out to prove that there exists between benevolence and happiness a natural and necessary connection.

How does Shaftesbury establish the connection between benevolence and happiness? In two different ways.6 The first way of establishing the connection [End Page 530] can be called the teleological account, and the second way can be called the mental enjoyment account. Let us first examine the teleological account.

The initial claim of Shaftesbury's teleological account of the reason to embrace virtue is that benevolence is what is most natural for humans, or their proper end or telos.7 As he puts it just after explaining "whatVirtueis,"

It has been already shewn, that in the Passions and Affections of particular Creatures, there is a constant relation to the Interest of a Species, or common Nature. This has been demonstrated in the case of natural Affection, parental Kindness, Zeal for Posterity, Concern for the Propagation and Nurture of the Young, Love of Fellowship and Company, Compassion, mutual Succour, and the rest of this kind. Nor will any-one deny that this Affection of a Creature towards the Good of the Species or common Nature, is as proper and natural to him, as it is to any Organ, Part or Member of an Animal-Body, or mere Vegetable, to work in its known Course, and regular way of Growth. 'Tis not more natural for the Stomach to digest, the Lungs to breathe, the Glands to separate juices, or other Intrails to perform their several Offices; however they may by particular Impediments...


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