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The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics. (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael B. Gill. The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. viii + 359. Cloth, $85.00.

The book covers a long period of the history of British moral philosophy, from the Cam-bridge Platonists to Hume, through Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. The choice of authors, which leaves aside such major figures as Adam Smith and Reid, is justified by the focus on the issue of the relationships between morality and human nature. Hume is the (perhaps temporary) end of the story insofar as he liberates moral theory from a normative conception of human nature so that, contrary to his predecessors, he suggests that ‘good’ is not synonymous with ‘natural’ in the sense that ‘evil’ would be synonymous with ‘unnatural’. Gill’s survey of the British moralists terminates with Hume because it purposes to characterize [End Page 323] the “Copernican” inversion carried out by Hume as the result of a gradual shift from an initially “Ptolemaic” position: drawing on Hutcheson’s account of moral judgment, Hume ascribes to (natural) psychological states that which traditional moral philosophy used to attribute to the nature of things. Hume goes further than either Shaftesbury or Hutcheson, since he transforms moral philosophy into a theoretical or “metaphysical” undertaking.

Gill leads us to revise our understanding of the opposition between “rationalism” and “sentimentalism.” He suggests that the controversies in contemporary metaethics between cognitivists and anticognitivists, or between Kantian arguments and Humean arguments, should not be merely projected onto the history of moral philosophy. For the moral sense school, broadly understood, the recourse to reason in order to account for moral judgment is not incompatible with the appeal to sentiment. The Copernican inversion also affects the relationships between ethics and theology. That aspect is stressed in the title, although it is not the only angle that the book takes. Hume’s moral philosophy is presented as the result of a process of conceptual secularization that starts with Whichcote’s and Cudworth’s antivoluntarism (i.e., the claim that morality is antecedent to the will of God), that intensifies with Shaftesbury’s version of the paradox of the virtuous atheist, and culminates in the Humean destruction of the theistic argument with regard to ethics as well as to metaphysics.

The overall argument is very cogent. There are also numerous illuminating analyses in the details, such as the comparison between the two stages in Cudworth’s philosophy—that of the protosentimentalist sermons (1647) and that of his Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality—or the use that Gill makes of the debate between Gilbert Burnet and Hutcheson about the role of reason in moral judgment. The author also draws our attention to the positive function that “association” has in Hume’s account of moral life, or the ways in which Hume agrees with Mandeville (who, otherwise, would have been unhappily absent from the book).

To strengthen his argument that Shaftesbury founds morality on a normative conception of nature, Gill is inclined to present Shaftesbury’s philosophy as if it conflated the concept of “virtue” (the moral good) with the concept of “goodness” (the natural good). The way in which Gill construes the relationship between morality and nature in Shaftesbury may seem unnecessary to his main argument. It may also be considered as an oversimplification, since when Shaftesbury stresses in his Inquiry Concerning Virtue that virtuous behavior promotes the good of the species or of the “system,” he points out a very important property of morality, but not a definitional property. It is clear that Shaftesbury sticks to a normative conception of nature, but his Stoic pedigree prevents him from reducing the moral good to the promotion of the natural good and from seeing the origin of value “in the universal system, not in our approval” (120). It would be more accurate to say that the origin of moral value is in the universal system through and only through our approval, i.e., for Shaftesbury, through second-order rational dispositions. Here we recognize the element of rationalism that Gill interestingly uncovers in Shaftesbury.

On the philological level, the work is very well documented and argued. It...