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Hume Studies Volume 32, Number 2, November 2006, pp. 362-365 Michael Gill. The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. viii +359. ISBN 0-521-85246-3, Cloth, $85.00. Michael Gill begins his book with what he terms "the Human Nature Question ": "Are human beings naturally good or evil? Are we naturally drawn to virtue or to vice? Is it natural for us to do the right thing, or must we resist something in our nature in order to do what is right?" (1). The story he goes on to tell is of how the Human Nature Question shaped British moral philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a story that begins with the negative answer to the Human Nature Question given by Calvinist divines such as William Perkins, Fellow of Christ's, Cambridge from 1584 to 1594, and afterward an influential lecturer at the Cambridge church of St. Andrew's. Perkins preached that "the affections of heart, as love, joy, hope, desire, etc., are moved and stirred to that which is evil to embrace it, and they are never stirred to that which is good unless it be to eschew it" (quoted, 8). On such a view, God's grace, given in return for Christ's sacrifice of himself upon the cross, is a necessary condition of redemption for human beings. Virtue requires an overcoming and transcendence of what is given as a matter of nature, and thus Calvinism of Perkins's kind forges a tight connection between virtue and the Christian religion. Gill charts the way in which British philosophers disposed to give a positive answer to the Human Nature Question slowly came to terms with the fact that, once virtue is taken to be something natural to human beings, it is no longer clear what relation, if any, there is between being a good person and being a good Christian. The first philosopher to recognise the consequences for Christianity of a positive answer to the Human Nature Question was, according to Gill, Shaftesbury. Before him, Cambridge Platonists such as Benjamin Whichcote and Ralph Cudworth had returned a positive answer to the question while at the same time attempting to hold on to the Calvinist conception of the overriding importance of Christ's sacrifice. Gill describes Cudworth as having in fact seen through to the tension between his answer to the Human Nature Question and his Christian belief, most obviously in his Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, from which Christ is completely absent, replaced by a "complete and uncompromising picture of how, through the use of reason, human minds can participate with the mind of God" (74). But Cudworth was not comfortable with the implications of his positive answer. Shaftesbury had no such qualms as regards the fate of Christian belief. Virtue as described in The Moralists has nothing whatsoever to do with Christian doctrine. Virtue is, of course, defined in religious terms, as judgment and action that is in accord with the goodness and beauty Hume Studies Book Reviews 363 of God's creative energy, but the God of The Moralists is not a distinctively Christian God. As Gill puts it, "For Shaftesbury, God is still the cornerstone of morality. But Christ has left the building" (117). At the same time, there are signs in Shaftesbury of a still more radical departure from Calvinism. Much of Shaftesbury's philosophy, Gill correctly asserts, is deeply marked by the rationalism of the Cambridge Platonists. But when Shaftesbury argues in answer to the skeptic that, irrespective of the truth or falsity of our speculative beliefs, still, there is reason to be virtuous in the mental enjoyments that virtue makes possible, there occurs what Gill describes as "a kind of Copernican Revolution in moral philosophy" (130). For then "the study of morality becomes the study of human nature" (130), and is no longer conceived in terms of access through reason to a vision of life in harmony with divine design. Gill moves from Shaftesbury to Hutcheson, whom he sees, again correctly, as much more concerned to refute the negative answer given to the Human Nature Question...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 362-365
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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