Chap. 2: Systems Which Base Approbation on Reason

Chap. 2: Systems Which Make Reason the Principle of Approbation


7.3.8. Mr. Hobbes’ doctrine is that:

  • a state of nature is a state of war
  • antecedent to the institution of civil government, there could be no safe or peaceful society among men

According to him, therefore:

  • to preserve society was to support civil government
  • to destroy civil government was to end society

But the existence of civil government depends on the obedience paid to the supreme magistrate.

  • The moment he loses his authority, all government is ended.
  • Self-preservation teaches men to:
    • applaud whatever promotes society’s welfare, and
    • blame whatever will hurt it.
  • If they would think and speak consistently, self-preservation should teach them to always:
    • applaud obedience to the civil magistrate, and
    • blame all disobedience and rebellion.,
  • The very ideas of laudable and blamable should be the same with those of obedience and disobedience.
  • Therefore, the laws of the civil magistrate should be regarded as the sole ultimate standards of what was:
    • just and unjust
    • right and wrong.


7.3.9. By propagating these notions, Mr. Hobbes’ avowed intention was to subject the consciences of men immediately to the civil, and not to the ecclesiastical powers.

  • The ecclesiastical powers’ turbulence and ambition taught him to regard them as the principal source of society’s disorders, by the example of his own times.
  • His doctrine was peculiarly offensive to theologians.
    • They vented their indignation against him with great asperity and bitterness.
    • It was also offensive to all sound moralists.
      • It supposed:
        • that there was no natural distinction between right and wrong, and
        • that these:
          • were mutable and changeable, and
          • depended on the civil magistrate’s mere arbitrary will.
  • Therefore, his account of things was attacked:
    • from all quarters, and
    • by all sorts of weapons:
      • by sober reason, and
      • by furious declamation.


7.3.10. To confute so odious a doctrine, it was necessary to prove that the mind was naturally endowed with a faculty which it used to distinguish right and wrong, antecedent to all law or positive institution.


7.3.11. Dr. Cudworth justly observed that law could not be the original source of those distinctions.

  • Since on the supposition of such a law, it must be:
    • right to obey it and wrong to disobey it, or
    • indifferent whether we obeyed or disobeyed it.
  • The law which could be obeyed or disobeyed, could not be the source of the distinction of right and wrong.
    • The law which was right to obey and wrong to disobey was also not the source.
      • Since even this supposed:
        • the antecedent ideas of right and wrong,
        • that obedience to the law was conformable to the idea of right, and
        • that disobedience to the law, to that of wrong.


7.3.12. Since the mind had a notion of those distinctions antecedent to all law, it follows that it derived this notion from reason.

  • Reason pointed out the difference between right and wrong in the same way it did for truth and falsehood.
    • This conclusion is true in some respects but is rather hasty in others.
  • It was more easily received at a time:
    • when the abstract science of human nature was young, and
    • before the distinct offices and powers of the faculties of the human mind had been carefully examined and distinguished from one another.
  • When Mr. Hobbes carried this controversy with the greatest warmth and keenness, the ideas of right and wrong were only possibly thought to have come from reason.
    • It became the popular doctrine that the essence of virtue and vice did not consist in the conformity or disagreement of human actions with the law of a superior.
      • It arose in their conformity or disagreement with reason.
        • Reason was thus considered as the original source and principle of approbation and disapprobation.


7.3.13. It is true in some respects that virtue consists in conformity to reason.

  • In some sense, reason may very justly be the source and principle of:
    • approbation and disapprobation,
    • of all solid judgments on right and wrong.
  • It is by reason that we discover:
    • those general rules of justice which should regulate our actions, and
    • those more vague and indeterminate ideas of what is prudent, decent, generous or noble.
      • We carry these ideas constantly with us.
      • We try to model our conduct according to them, as well as we can.

Like all other general maxims, the general maxims of morality are formed from experience and induction.

  • We observe in a great variety of cases what:
    • pleases or displeases our moral faculties,
    • these approve or disapprove of.
      • By induction from this experience, we establish those general rules.
  • But induction is always regarded as one of the operations of reason.
    • Therefore, we are very properly said to derive all those general maxims and ideas from reason.
      • These ideas regulate most of our moral judgments.
      • Our judgments would be extremely uncertain and precarious if they depended altogether on immediate sentiment and feeling.
        • Immediate sentiments are liable to so many variations
        • They are capable of being altered by the different states of health and humour.
  • Therefore, our most solid judgments with regard to right and wrong are regulated by maxims and ideas derived from an induction of reason.
    • Virtue may very properly be said to consist in a conformity to reason.
    • Reason may be considered as the source and principle of approbation and disapprobation.


7.3.14. Reason is undoubtedly the source of:

  • the general rules of morality and
  • all the moral judgments which we form by means of them

But it is absurd to suppose that the first perceptions of right and wrong can be derived from reason, even from experiences on which the general rules are formed.

  • Reason cannot be the basis for:
    • these first perceptions, nor
    • all other experiments on which any general rules are founded.
  • These are based on the immediate sense and feeling.
  • We form the general rules of morality by finding in a vast variety of instances that:
    • one tenor of conduct constantly pleases in a certain way,
    • another tenor of conduct constantly displeases.
  • But reason cannot render any particular object agreeable or disagreeable to the mind for its own sake.
    • Reason may show that this object is the means of obtaining some other object which is naturally pleasing or displeasing.
    • In this way, reason may render it agreeable or disagreeable for the sake of something else.
  • But nothing can be agreeable or disagreeable for its own sake, which is not rendered such by immediate sense and feeling.
    • If virtue pleases and vice displeases for their own sakes, it is the immediate sense and feeling which reconciles us to virtue and alienates us from vice.


7.3.15. Pleasure and pain are the great objects of desire and aversion.

  • But these are distinguished by immediate sense and feeling and not by reason.
  • Therefore, if virtue is desirable and vice detestable for their own sakes, it cannot be reason which originally distinguishes those qualities.
    • It is immediate sense and feeling.


7.3.16. In a certain sense, reason may justly be the principle of approbation and disapprobation.

  • Through inattention, however, these sentiments were long regarded as originally flowing from reason.
  • Dr. Hutcheson was the first to precisely distinguish how all moral distinctions:
    • may arise from reason, and
    • are founded on immediate sense and feeling.
  • He has explained this so fully and unanswerably in his illustrations on the moral sense.
    • If any controversy is still kept up about this subject, I can impute it only to:
      • inattention to what he has written, or
      • a superstitious attachment to certain forms of expression.
        • This is a weakness very common among the learned, especially in subjects so deeply interesting as moral philosophy.
        • A man of virtue hates to abandon even the propriety of a single phrase in moral philosophy which he has been accustomed to.

Words: 1,285

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