Self-Love, Egoism, and the Selfish Hypothesis: Key Debates in Eighteenth-Century British Moral Philosophy by Christian Maurer
Self-love was a pivotal topic of debate for moral philosophers in the first half of the eighteenth century. But, as was also the case for related concepts like sociability and virtue, philosophers meant many different things by ‘self-love.’ The historians of philosophy who discuss self-love often do as well. A great virtue of Christian Maurer’s Self-Love, Egoism, and the Selfish Hypothesis is to disambiguate five senses of self-love in eighteenth-century discussions. ‘Self-love’ and its synonyms variously refer to (1) egoistic desire, (2) love of praise, (3) self-esteem, (4) amour propre, and (5) self-respect. Maurer uses these ideal types forensically to provide a better understanding of what is being debated by whom and why.
Maurer has chapters on a number of British authors familiar to historians of philosophy— Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Butler, Smith, and Hume—and discusses the debate from its period of great liveliness to the gradual ebbing of its importance. He also includes chapters on some less discussed figures, Mandeville and Archibald Campbell, and brief sections on Alexander Forbes, Benjamin Tucker, John Gay, and David Hartley. A virtue of the study is how Maurer complicates the positions of familiar authors by showing how less familiar authors occupy positions that challenge assumptions about self-love. For example, like Mikko Tolonen (Mandeville and Hume: Anatomists of Civil Society [Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2013]), Maurer argues that Mandeville places less importance on self-love (“egoistic desire,” in Maurer’s terms) than self-liking (or amour propre). The focus on amour propre puts Mandeville in the tradition of Pierre Nicole and the Augustinian deflation of human pride after the fall. This explains why Mandeville was so harsh to Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury optimistically projected a false natural virtue onto a fallen world. This had to be debunked for a properly anatomical theory to show that the true sources were not in natural virtue but in self-liking.
By focusing on the difference between self-love and self-liking, Maurer can clearly distinguish Mandeville’s “selfish” theory from Campbell’s account of self-love as egoistic desire and self-esteem. Campbell shared comparatively little Augustinian pessimism with Mandeville, although both are philosophers of self-love. Maurer also documents that Hutcheson himself, like Shaftesbury, had a role for self-love as Stoic self-cultivation in his moral psychology, although I am skeptical that it is properly moral for Hutcheson and not just a natural motivation in us giving rise to properly moral sentiments. The contrast between Campbell, Mandeville, and Hutcheson shows that the varieties of self-love combine with other commitments in ways we might not at first expect. For example, Campbell, like Hutcheson, affirms natural sociability but on the different grounds of egoistic desire, since, unlike Mandeville, he is not advocating amour propre. Rational egoism also allows Campbell, like Butler and unlike Hutcheson, to avoid taking morality as an automatic sentimental response to approved qualities.
Butler was a great influence on the next generations of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers (and as Maurer points out, on Hutcheson’s later writings) and provided an [End Page 150] influential and satisfying solution to the conflicts between senses of self-love by arguing for the hierarchical role of self-love in the governing of first-order principles. However, Butler drew on quite different philosophical sources than many of these other authors: less Shaftesbury and Mandeville than Samuel Clarke, equity law, Anglican divines, and Aristotle. Indeed self-respect, which Maurer uses to characterize his variant on self-love, is (as Maurer notes) very similar to Aristotle’s philautia. This makes him a somewhat difficult fit within a conversation primarily focused on Augustinianism and anti-Augustinianism.
I do wonder whether what Maurer labels as Butler’s distinctive approach to self-love as self-respect is not rather properly directed second-order egoistic desire, that is, egoistic desire and self-esteem informed by adequate self-knowledge. Relatedly, Maurer presents Mandeville primarily as a theorist of amour propre in order to offset the more common egoistic desire interpretation. But, like Hobbes, part of Mandeville’s power is the way egoistic desire and amour propre interact. This is not to detract from Maurer’s accomplishments but to highlight that, as with any theory of ideal types, the positions it explains are often themselves confused on the ground, and confusion is sometimes philosophically productive.
All scholars of early modern moral philosophy will benefit from reading this book and will think about the debates over self-love differently after having read it. The text is clearly written and admirably free of typos (although it is the late, and greatly missed, Raymond— not Richard—Frey who wrote a provocative paper on self-love in Butler).