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The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy

William Paley

Publication Year: 2012

This classic work by William Paley was one of the most popular books in England and America in the early nineteenth century. Its significance lies in the fact that it marks an important point at which eighteenth century "whiggism" began to be transformed into nineteenth century "liberalism."

First published in 1785, Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy was originally based on his Cambridge lectures of 1766-1776. It was designed for instructional purposes and was almost immediately adopted as a required text for all undergraduates at Cambridge.

The great popularity of Paley's Principles is perhaps due in part to the author's remarkable gift for clear exposition. Even today, this work is very readable and easily comprehended. But the popularity of the book also reflected the fact that Paley expressed some of the leading scientific, theological, and ethical ideas of his time and place. In this respect, Paley's great classic provides valuable insight into the Anglo-American mind of the early nineteenth century and helps us better understand the thinking processes and evolving concepts of liberty and virtue that were displacing the old "whiggism" of the preceding century.

As editor D. L. Le Mahieu states, "To Paley, the undeniable demands of self interest coincided rather than conflicted with the needs of society." Paley believed that "it was the utility of any moral rule alone which determined obligation." In his political theory, Paley rejected social contract theory and substituted instead a natural history of civil society. His opposition to electoral reform, and, later, the French Revolution, "became part of a larger ideological discourse that helped the British elites withstand the revolutionary currents of the 1790s."

D. L. Le Mahieu is Hotchkiss Presidential Professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois. He is also the author of The Mind of William Paley: A Philosopher and His Age (1976) and A Culture for Democracy (1988).

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Published by: Liberty Fund

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-x

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pp. xi-xxviii

William Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy first published in 1785, played a seminal role in the dissemination of utilitarianism in England. Adopted as an integral part of the curriculum at Cambridge University, the Principles helped shape the political thinking of England’s intellectual elite well into the nineteenth century. ...

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pp. xxix-xxx

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Letter to the Bishop of Carlisle

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pp. xxxi-xxxiv

Had the obligations which I owe to your Lordship’s kindness been much less, or much fewer, than they are; had personal gratitude left any place in my mind for deliberation or for inquiry; in selecting a name which every reader might confess to be prefixed with propriety to a work, that, in many of its parts, ...

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pp. xxxv-xliv

In the treatises that I have met with upon the subject of morals, I appear to myself to have remarked the following imperfections—either that the principle was erroneous, or that it was indistinctly explained, or that the rules deduced from it were not sufficiently adapted to real life and to actual situations. ...

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Book I: Preliminary Considerations

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pp. 1-32

The use of such a study depends upon this, that, without it, the rules of life, by which men are ordinarily governed, oftentimes mislead them, through a defect either in the rule, or in the application. ...

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Book II: Moral Obligation

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pp. 33-62

Because it is right, says one. Because it is agreeable to the fitness of things, says another. Because it is conformable to reason and nature, says a third. Because it is conformable to truth, says a fourth. Because it promotes the public good, says a fifth. Because it is required by the will of God, concludes a sixth. ...

Book III: Relative Duties

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pp. 63

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Part I: Of Relative Duties Which Are Determinate

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pp. 63-132

If you should see a flock of pigeons in a field of corn; and if (instead of each picking where and what it liked, taking just as much as it wanted, and no more) you should see ninety-nine of them gathering all they got, into a heap; reserving nothing for themselves, but the chaff and the refuse; keeping this heap for one, ...

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Part II: Of Relative Duties Which Are Indeterminate, and of the Crimes Opposite to These

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pp. 133-166

I use the term Charity neither in the common sense of bounty to the poor, nor in St. Paul’s sense of benevolence to all mankind: but I apply it at present, in a sense more commodious to my purpose, to signify the promoting the happiness of our inferiors. ...

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Part III: Of Relative Duties Which Result from the Constitution of the Sexes, and of the Crimes Opposed to These

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pp. 167-216

We will treat of these subjects in the following order: first, of the public use of marriage institutions; secondly, of the subjects collateral to marriage, in the order in which we have here proposed them; thirdly, of marriage itself; and, lastly, of the relation and reciprocal duties of parents and children. ...

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Book IV: Duties to Ourselves

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pp. 217-232

This division of the subject is retained merely for the sake of method, by which the writer and the reader are equally assisted. To the subject itself it imports nothing; for, the obligation of all duties being fundamentally the same, it matters little under what class or title any of them are considered. ...

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Book V: Duties Towards God

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pp. 233-280

In one sense, every duty is a duty towards God, since it is his will which makes it a duty: but there are some duties of which God is the object, as well as the author; and these are peculiarly, and in a more appropriated sense, called duties towards God. ...

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Book VI: Elements of Political Knowledge

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pp. 281-472

Paternal authority, and the order of domestic life, supplied the foundation of civil government. Did mankind spring out of the earth mature and independent, it would be found perhaps impossible to introduce subjection and subordination among them: but the condition of human infancy prepares men for society …


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pp. 473-481

Publication Information

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E-ISBN-13: 9781614878469
E-ISBN-10: 1614878463
Print-ISBN-13: 9780865973817

Page Count: 525
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: None

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Subject Headings

  • Utilitarianism.
  • Ethics.
  • Political science -- Philosophy
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