a history of conscience in 18th century British thought – introduction

When we call Bernard Mandeville an “eighteenth-century Thomas Hobbes”, we draw a comparison which reaches beyond superficial similarities. Obviously, both created turmoil in their times and came to define the boundaries of decent and permissible philosophical debate, by the very act of overstepping them. For historians they still serve this purpose; besides the charm and fascination which their works in themselves afford the modern reader, it is as a mirror-point for their contemporary critics, that they offer a special view on the history of ideas of early modern Britain. To take the comparison further, however, we can point to the contents of the respective debates they triggered as well. Mention of the “selfish system of ethics” and its horrors by eighteenth-century thinkers may be read as a reference to both Hobbes and Mandeville. But whereas for Hobbes the overall argument is clear – his defense of absolutist government, which for that matter (its unsatisfactory theoretical foundation aside), only retro-actively found its universal condemnation, the case is different for Mandeville.
Mandeville drew a picture of human society in which every individual was motivated to gratify his selfish passions solely. Far from viewing this as a danger to its survival, however, he regarded it as society’s basis. We can see how Mandeville’s position increasingly lost prescriptive (Christian) character and took on the form of descriptive science. The very title of the work which stands at the apex of this development, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, suggests the basis of this change. The change did not pertain to the field of values, which did not see a fundamental debate within its perimeter. The problems taken on rather regarded the relation between these values and man; if and how he could achieve them, whether man’s nature guaranteed their achievement, or maybe rendered it impossible. The discussion centered on the nature of man’s sentiments, his affections, his passions.
Strictly speaking, the questions I will address pertain to psycho-ethics, that is to the psychological processes involved in human action, and especially in moral action. Moral philosophy’s specific task of defining values and setting goals falls outside the scope of psycho-ethics. This was also a task largely neglected by the eighteenth-century British moralists, who were apparently satisfied with the answers their predecessors provided them with. As regards psycho-ethics, however, inquiry abounded. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding had given a powerful impetus to this phenomenon by introducing the epistemological terminology required for discussions of this sort. On the other hand, Locke posed a challenge to the epistemological foundation and status of values; if there was no such thing as innate ideas, and cognition was dependent on volition, what would happen to morality? Locke kept accountable the existence of immoral behavior, but the absolute, universal and eternal value of moral behavior seemed to suffer, since he did away with its inevitability qua objective, intuitive truth. The fact that he referred to the Gospel for moral guidance, and that his moral discipline revolved around hope of future rewards and fear of future punishments made his case only less appealing to his contemporaries.
Whereas Locke’s challenge to moral philosophy lay in his voluntarism, what was perceived to be the greatest threat to morality was Hobbes’ materialist and determinist theories. His extremely dark and cynical view of man did have the inevitable quality of a complete system of human behavior. It was an immoral system, however, which explained any action as the self-centered reaction of the individual to outside stimuli. So these two writers were seen as the greatest threat to morality; Locke for his undermining of its epistemological basis, and Hobbes for his description of man as an utterly evil, material creature. The two were, of course, opposites. They had completely different views of man, creation, and its Creator. Views on this regard, describing the fundamental relationship between man, his fellows, his environment, and God, largely determined the answers philosophers gave to ethical and psycho-ethical questions. Hardly ever, though, did these metaphysical value-judgments exceed the theoretical status of assumptions. Often these views were theologically informed, since it was religion which addressed questions of this sort, amounting to the largest abstractions, pertaining to (and to some degree also founded on) the most minute details of human life.
Bernard Mandeville was a satirist, not a moralist, but his writings do play a role of importance in the history of moral philosophy. He rendered more acute the threat of Hobbes’ selfish system. His debunking of people’s moral pretensions was good-humored, sure enough, but also fearfully close to home. After Mandeville, moralists undertook to save man and morality. First of all, the suggestion was made that man was no way as one-sidedly selfish as Hobbes and Mandeville had made him out to be. Second, however, was the epistemological program, which wanted to evade Locke’s voluntarism. The irony is, though, that this pursuit, often clothed in Newtonian aspirations and analogies, came to depend on the psychological and psycho-ethical theories of those who were condemned as latter-day Epicureans: Hobbes and Mandeville.
The first of the writers associated with this project was Shaftesbury, the paradoxical product of Locke’s teachings. Then it was Francis Hutcheson, who elaborated and systematized Shaftesbury’s ideas, and brought them to Scotland, where problems of this kind were taken up by philosophers like Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and Adam Smith. Moral philosophy had come a long way from its foundation on the Christian idea of man’s metaphysical duality, his split in mind and body. According to this theory, the meaning of man’s life on earth was derived from this split. To master the temptations of the flesh and to follow the directives of the spirit was his purpose. In this respect, in its relation to ethics, the Christian worldview was functional. I will try to show how Bernard Mandeville blew up this duality to such, absolute, proportions, that the tie between the respective realms, heaven and earth, with its pendants flesh and spirit in man, was severed and that thus the functionality of their juxtaposition was lost. This tie I propose to be conscience, issuing directives, which were left to the will to be either obeyed or disobeyed.
Mandeville questioned the motivational power of conscience and did away with it in its Christian meaning. Only the passions, the affections, could force man to act. Mandeville got inspiration for these ideas, I will argue, from the Jansenist tradition. The moral philosophers, however, who challenged Mandeville’s theories did not aim to retrieve the Christian moral terminology from its tight place – for instance by drawing on the far more orthodox, rationalist thought of the Cambridge Platonists -, but attacked Mandeville on the point of his negative appraisal of man’s nature. Man was declared to be a benevolent being, while the Mandevillian terminology was adopted and put to different use. His conceptual tools came in handy for the Scots who were striving to formulate the Law of man’s moral gravity. I will try to show, that Mandeville can be regarded as crucial in the movement towards a non-volitional moral philosophy. Christian man, struggling to resist temptation, was replaced by a man to whom morality came more naturally, induced by his sentiments and his social surroundings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s