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  • Moral Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain: God, Self, and Other by Colin Heydt
  • James A. Harris
Colin Heydt. Moral Philosophy in Eighteenth-Century Britain:God, Self, and Other. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. pp. viii + 289 Cloth, $99.99.

"There is in Ethicks as in most Sciences," Thomas Reid told the students in his moral philosophy class, "a Speculative and a practical Part. … The proper object of the Theory of Morals is to explain the Constitution of the human Mind so far as regards Morals, that is to explain the Moral and active Powers of the human Mind." He continued: "The various Theorists disagree not about what is to be accounted virtuous Conduct but why it is so to be accounted." It was as a theorist of morals that, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith distinguished between the questions of, first, what virtue consists in (whether benevolence, or acting according to principles of reason, or self-interest), and, secondly, "by what faculty or power in the mind is it, that this character, whatever it be, is recommended to us." Transposed into a different philosophical language, these are the questions that concern metaethicists today, and that, in their eighteenth-century guise, have been studied by historians of eighteenth-century British moral philosophy such as Stephen Darwall, Michael Gill, Knud Haakonssen, Isabel Rivers, and Jerome Schneewind. They are not the questions pursued in Colin Heydt's fascinating book. His concern, rather, is with the "practical part" of ethics as taught in Britain in a long eighteenth century that begins around 1670 and [End Page 760] ends around 1790. As the manuscripts of Reid's lectures make clear, this was the part of ethics that eighteenth-century philosophers—certainly those who taught in universities, colleges, and dissenting academies—spent most time on. After all, their pupils were mostly boys in their early teens who needed to be taught how to be good Christians, good fathers and husbands, and good Britons.

Heydt begins in the 1670s because that is when what he calls "the Pufendorfian shift in moral philosophy" (chapter 1) took place. The way moral philosophy was taught changed dramatically in the late seventeenth century, as professors and regents dispensed with Aristotelian eudaimonism and virtue theory and took up instead modern, Protestant natural jurisprudence and its interest in specifying the duties and rights possessed by all human beings as such. What was going on here, Heydt explains, was a change in the understanding of what moral philosophy was for. After a century and more of violent conflict in post-Reformation Europe, it had come to seem obvious that the basic problems of moral life were how to find common ground with those who have radically different views of religion, the nature of the good life, the basis and limits of property, and so on. Moral thought needed to orient itself around the problems of the conditions of the possibility of peaceful communal life. The idea that there was a single summum bonum for all human beings had come to seem incredible. Avoiding the summum malum—civil war—was the more pressing concern. Thus, ethics came to be regarded as fundamentally other-directed, and as about, primarily, how one acted with respect to others. Those others included God as well as one's family members and fellow citizens. In the moral philosophy class, students were taught what their duties were to God, and to other men. They were also taught their duties to themselves, though, as Heydt makes clear, these were usually understood to be duties that regarded ourselves but were owed to God our creator.

In the main part of his book, Heydt explains clearly—with reference to a very wide variety of primary sources, some well known, most unfamiliar—how teachers of moral philosophy in Britain in the eighteenth century presented their students with their duties to God, to themselves, and to others. In his lectures, Reid claimed that "There is therefore no branch of Science wherein Men would be more harmonious in their opinions than in Morals were they free from all Biass and Prejudice," and Heydt's picture is, indeed, one of general consensus as to...


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