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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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An Age of Transition: From Hobbes to Kant. The
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries constitute a rev-
olutionary period not merely on the social scene, with
new classes moving into political power, but also on
the intellectual scene, with the philosophies of the old
order breaking up, and even the defenses of the older
ways taking new and sophisticated form. The intellec-
tual leaven is furnished by the growth of physical
science, but it casts its hopes far beyond—in physiol-
ogy, in psychology and economics, in political theory,
and in the reinterpretation of morality.

In ethics, Hobbes expresses a shift to the extreme;
he becomes the specter that haunts moral theory.
Teleology is gone: the world and man are well-
organized phenomena of matter-in-motion operating
under causal laws. Reason is no immediate grasping
of ultimate truth by the intellect but, though pro-
foundly mathematical, a manipulator of names; yet the
beginnings of an inductive theory, in the sense of the
lessons of experience, are also to be found. That which
men desire they call good, that from which they seek
to flee they call bad. The internal detail is complex,
but the overall effect is undoubted; the good is com-
pletely naturalized in terms of individual desire. The
natural is the original state of man, with the unlimited
egoism of desire. The system of right is reduced to the
principles of human relations that will furnish the
peace, law, and order needed for men to pursue their
aims. These are called natural laws, in the sense that
they are what a reasoning man drawing on the lessons
of experience will recognize as essential for social
order. In the state of nature a man has a right to
anything he can take and hold.

The Continental ethical counterpart to Hobbes, in
some respects, is Spinoza. Here too, good was given
a naturalistic form as the object of appetite; teleology
is refuted and a deterministic pattern set in which all
that happens flows with mathematical necessity from
the ultimate character of nature. But Spinoza's impact
is considerably softened by several features. The whole
of reality is also interpreted as God. The highest good
is found in the exercise of reason, and the right is
primarily oriented to removing obstacles for its har-
monious development. Human virtue is turned from
a predatory orientation to a self-conquest: as one comes
to understand the necessity in one's actions, the insight
transforms the turbulent emotions into clear ideas. The
active mastery replacing passive reception in such
transformation constitutes human freedom and the
highest good is attained in the intuitive grasp of
totality. Political freedom and nobler human relations
flow from a Spinozistic as against a Hobbesian neces-
sity. Thus although the immediate reception of Spinoza
was hostile, as in the case of Hobbes, in the long run
he stands out sharply as the propounder of an exalted

Three trends, marked in Hobbes, set the direction
for much of the moral theory that followed. First, the
secular character of the inquiry became dominant. In
Hobbes, religion has its place mainly as a sanction. In
Bentham's formulation, by the end of the eighteenth
century, it is only religious belief that operates as a
sanction; the truth of religion is unnecessary. Yet the
absence of religious argumentation in the inner in-
quiries of ethics does not remove it from the outer
background. Just as Newton does not look for an evo-
lution of matter because he assumes the physical world
set up by God, so the assumption that man's nature
on which ethics depends will not be transformed, that
a permanent moral order can be found, is either di-
rectly dependent on religious presuppositions or else
the intellectual residue of the traditional outlook. Sec-
ond, the natural state of man, whether seen as histori-
cally prior or as an analytic device for understanding
original components in his makeup, is cast in individ-


ualistic terms. It is not a system of inherent human
relations, but somehow a set of properties of the indi-
vidual. Even when Locke questions the amorality of
Hobbes' state of nature, the moral rights that Locke
describes—the natural rights of life, liberty, and
property—stand out more as individual rights than as
divine prescriptions for an ordered society.

In the third place, the locus of controversy about
the good and the right is displaced from the social
forum to the inner psychology of the individual. To
refute Hobbesian egoism is to show that the individual
has authentic inner sentiments of a social or other-
oriented nature. Bishop Butler's strategy of refutation
is both complex and sophisticated. He first shifts the
concept of the good from the object of the individual's
appetites or passions to a rational self-love, quite dis-
tinct from the passions, which seeks to maximize the
harmonious achievement of the desires, since obviously
desires are in conflict and can lead one away from one's
good. This enables him to establish a concept of right
in the regulative authority of self-love over the pas-
sions. Further introspection reveals benevolence,
whether as a distinct principle or as an other-regarding
sentiment. Still further lies conscience, whose authority
is introspectively established, as was that of self-love,
over the passions.

It remains but to reconcile conscience and self-love
by the claim that their voices will in fact be found
in accord, and that apparent discrepancies will be
found to be simply dissident passions. In Hume and
in Adam Smith the operation of sympathy as a natural
principle is defended as against Hobbes' attempted
reduction of compassion to an imaginative feeling of
one's own suffering if one were in the particular plight
that has overtaken the other. In general, the good,
while still conceived as what satisfies human desire,
is neatly parceled into the self-regarding and the
other-regarding. This reflects the dominant growth of
an individualism in the social institutions and the moral
acceptability of an acquisitive worldly mode of life.
The self-regarding is no longer equated with the im-
moral; it is, if not excessive, established as a proper
part of the moral. The focus for right falls increasingly
on the problem of reconciling the conflict of individual
goods. Hume stresses the instrumental character of
conceptions of justice, and from Butler to Adam Smith
there is the assurance that the unseen hand of Provi-
dence will guarantee that each man's pursuit of his
own good will produce an effect of enhancement on
others' good. But it takes different shades. Sometimes
the individual is being reassured that an enlightened
egoism will turn out for the best. Sometimes, however,
he is being prompted to directly virtuous action and
assured it will turn out for his own good too. Only
occasionally, as in the maverick outlook of Mandeville,
do we find an array of empirical argument that if men
really practiced the virtues it would yield public pov-
erty and consequently private misfortune, and that
public welfare rests on private vices!

Indeed, a considerable part of eighteenth-century
ethical theorizing is cast not in terms of the right and
the good, but in terms of virtue and vice, and our
appreciative responses to others' character. In this
whole movement, the moral good becomes primarily
the good man, as contrasted with simply the natural
goods of desire and satisfaction. Major epistemological
controversies in morals take the form of finding the
basis of moral judgment in reason or in sentiment.

The emerging utilitarianism of the latter part of the
eighteenth century inherits the framework of the good
defined in individual terms and the right in terms of
social utility. In Bentham, the goal-seeking framework
is wholly triumphant. Every man by psychological
constitution seeks pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
A community is simply a mass of individuals. The
community problem is to achieve the greatest happi-
ness of the greatest number. “Good” means either
pleasure or the objects which are sources of pleasure.
“Right” and “ought” are terms that have a meaning
only with respect to courses of conduct productive of
the greatest pleasure and avoidance of pain.

Both notions in utilitarianism have a more compli-
cated character than appears at first. Pleasure as the
single goal, extracted from any and every object of
striving, begins to serve as a standard of measurement
rather than as a goal. The orientation of the theory
is to measurement; the good is the maximum pleasure
attainable in a given situation. What is desired consti-
tutes only an initial datum for the measurement; an
appeal simply to the fact of desire is arbitrary, and
Bentham attacks the principle of sympathy and
antipathy—deciding by likes and dislikes—as capri-
cious. The basic orientation to the good becomes intel-
ligible in the light of the historical context. Increas-
ingly, in Bentham's lifetime, the industrial revolution
is under way, a policy of laissez-faire and material
progress is coming to the center, an expansive this-
worldly libertarian outlook is seen as the key to
progress. The stress comes to be on consciousness of
aims in order to reform institutions that stand in the

The traditional notion of the right now appears in
several ways. There is first the basic social interest in
institutional forms which require analysis so that they
may become vehicles for the forward energies of men
rather than obstacles. The right is therefore the system
of institutions to serve this purpose. There is, second,
the equalitarian assumption—everyone counts as one


in the reckoning of the pleasures and pains. Much of
the theoretical problem in the relation of the right and
the good in utilitarianism comes to take the form of
controversy as to whether this equalitarian principle is
derivable within the theory or is an outside assumption
imported into the system—for example, whether a
commitment to maximizing pleasure can be shown to
involve maximizing its distribution. There is, in the
third place, the practical question of reconciling indi-
vidual motivations to make them aim at the greatest
general happiness. Bentham, like Adam Smith, relies
to some extent on a natural identity of interest among
men (in economics and the theory of virtue), but sup-
plements it with an artificial identification of interests
by use of sanctions (in politics and law). And finally,
there is the question of justice and the human senti-
ments that center about it—whether these do not con-
tain some irreducible idea of right and wrong.

This last problem, like many of the others, is most
analytically considered by J. S. Mill. Although he is
entirely a nineteenth-century figure, responding to
fresh problems after the changes in England that follow
the Reform Bill of 1832 and the emergence of the labor
movement, his treatment of justice is relevant here.
In Chapter 5 of his Utilitarianism he distinguishes
sharply between the actual sentiments men have and
what is moral in them, and he elaborately examines
the wholly utilitarian character of justice. In brief, he
traces the root ideas of ought and of merit to the
convictions that punishment and censure, and reward,
will be conducive to the general welfare. As for justice,
it refers basically to principles of distribution in all
fields, of gains and burdens. And while men have held
to all sorts of such principles, the question of which
to employ in what field is a matter of utilitarian reck-
oning. Men's moral sentiments constitute no contrary
evidence, for they are built up in social life out of
rudimentary reactions such as the desire for retaliation,
and contain no inner justifying principle. It is the more
important human institutions that build up the more
peremptory sentiments. In general, Mill is more con-
scious than Bentham of the way in which association
develops attitudes and sentiments so as even to bring
changes in the nature of man. At the end he is quite
far removed from psychological hedonism in his theory
of virtue as becoming a part of happiness rather than
simply an instrument to it.

If Mill went as far as seems possible in reducing the
concept of right to utility in the framework of the
good, Kant had already in the latter part of the eight-
eenth century posed the opposite reduction, and in a
form that has come increasingly to dominate contem-
porary ethics. Kant is quite ready to surrender the
theory of motivation to hedonism. But men's inclina
tions, their affections, the rules for achieving happiness,
are not questions of morality. They tell us what is the
case, and what to do if we wish to pursue certain ends.
They do not tell us what we ought to do. The basic
moral concept is that of duty. Its commands are abso-
lute or categorical, not hypothetical. This he takes to
be clear in the ordinary moral consciousness; our re-
spect is directed toward the man who conscientiously
obeys the moral law in spite of suffering and contrary
inclinations. Kant's conceptual framework is briefly
this: man is a rational being, morality presupposes
freedom (a postulate incapable of rational or empirical
proof but required for morality), freedom is self-
determination by law willed for the community of all
rational beings. Hence the test for the morality of a
proposed maxim is whether one would consistently will
it as a law for all men. Morality thus is not determined
by inclination or external command (even by divine
command). As Kant says, it is autonomous, not heter-
onomous. A wholly moral being will follow the moral
law without inner conflict; this is a holy will. But men
live in two worlds, that of inclination as well as that
of freedom. Hence obligation is the sense of duty
curbing inclination. This is reason being practical.
Virtue lies in the continuous effort to follow the ought.
The good lies in happiness coming together with vir-
tue; unmerited happiness is not a good. Thus both
virtue and the good have been brought into defining
relation with obligation.

Kant's moral theory, in effect, provides a method
for generating or testing moral rules by universaliza-
tion. It also puts the individual as a rational being in
the very center, recognizing him as of infinite worth:
every man is to be treated as an end, not merely as
a means.

Kant is quite explicit about his aim. He is expounding
a morality that is a priori and alleged to be free from
any empirical taint. It is not the consequences of action
in existence but its rational character which determines
its moral worth. Man stands out from nature and its
processes as utterly unique. But his uniqueness is found
not in aspiration, not in apprehension of beauty, not
in his use of rationality to develop the instruments of
human control and the pursuit of aims. It lies in the
sense of duty.