restricted access The Problem of Circularity in Wollaston's Moral Philosophy
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The Problem of Circularity in Wollaston's Moral Philosophy OLIN JOYNTON WILLIAMWOLLASTON'S(t660-- 17~4) moral theory enjoyed much acclaim at its first appearance (in The Religion of Nature Delineated, 17~2), then fell into desuetude as a result of hostile criticism from some of the leading philosophical figures of the day. However, long-neglected theories have a way of attracting fresh notice, either because objections once thought devastating themselves come to be found wanting or because contemporary discussions turn back to issues on which they once shed light. Both of these considerations have prompted recent work on Wollaston by Stanley Tweyman and Joel Feinberg.' Neither Tweyman nor Feinberg intends to effect a full-scale revival of Wollaston's views, but each uncovers serious flaws in the facile refutations of Wollaston. Feinberg even acknowledges the WoUastonian character of his views on the expressive functions of punishment set out in Doing and Deserving. In the same rehabilitative spirit I shall address a problem of apparent circularity that has troubled Wollaston's critics, generous and ungenerous alike, and show that his theory must be interpreted in a way that removes the force of this objection. Various versions of the circularity objection have been given, but all center on Wollaston's quite uncommon way of connecting right and wrong with truth and falsity. This connection is established through a two-step argument in The Religion of Nature Delineated. First, Wollaston sets forth a theory of declarative actions: "I lay this down as a fundamental maxim that whosoever acts as if things were so, or not so, doth by his acts declare that they are so, or not so.''2 A declarative action is any action in the performing ' Stanley Tweyman, "Truth, Happiness, and Obligation: The Moral Philosophyof William Wollaston,"Philosophy51 0976): 35-46; Joel Feinberg, "Wollastonand his Critics,"TheJournal oftheHistoryofIdeas38 (1977): 345-52. WilliamWollaston, The ReligionofNatureDelineated,ed. StanleyTweyman (Delmar, New York: Scholars' Facsimilesand Reprints, 1974), 13. [435] 436 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY ~2:4 OCT t984 of which the agent makes a declaration, and in his book Wollaston provides some thirty-odd examples of actions he considers declarative. 3 One of his dearer cases is the breaking of a promise: if I promise to do X and then ignore my vow, I act as if I had never promised to do X, and in so doing declare as much. Firing on a body of troops is a declaration of war, practicing charity is a statement about human needs, and behaving gratefully eloquendy acknowledges benefits received from others. Wollaston does not consider all actions declarative, only those which have either (what he calls) a "natural" significance or those which have a clear meaning for observers in the particular culture in which they are performed. In the second state of his argument Wollaston advances the view that morally right actions are declarative of true propositions, while morally wrong actions are declarative of false propositions: "No act (whether word or deed) of any being, to whom moral good and evil are imputable, that interferes with any true proposition, or denies anything to be as it is, can be right. TM Though no advocate of apatheia, Wallaston instructs us to achieve a stoic-like harmony with nature by treating things as what they are, which for him consists of making sure that our declarative actions accord with the truth. The wrongness of treating another human being inhumanely is signaled by the way in which the agent, in so acting, "declares" the abused person not to be human and so "interferes" with the fact of the matter. The first response of many to Wollaston's theory is that it is circular, for among the truths a person may violate are moral truths. To treat a human being inhumanely, certain truths about how human beings ought not to .be treated must be presupposed, and it may be just these truths which an immoral action violates. Thus Wollaston appears to have defined immorality with referene to totality (viz., all truths), which includes some truths about immorality: hence the circularity. To this it may be replied that the definition is not viciously circular but harmlessly impredicative. 5 Understanding...