Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 2

Systems Which Make Reason the Principle of Approbation

by Adam Smith Icon
5 minutes  • 1001 words
Table of contents

Hobbes’ Doctrine

8 Hobbes’ doctrine is that:

  • a state of nature is a state of war
  • before civil government was created, there could be no peaceful society

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.

9 Hobbes’ goal 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 offended Theologians and also all sound moralists. It supposed=

  • that there was no natural distinction between right and wrong, and
  • that these distinctions=
    • were mutable and changeable, and
    • depended on the civil magistrate’s mere arbitrary will.

Therefore, his account of things was attacked from all quarters.

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 human laws.

11 Dr. Cudworth justly observed that laws 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 cannot be the source of the distinction of right and wrong since it means that the ideas of right and wrong existed beforehand.

12 The mind had a notion of those distinctions from reason, before law was created. Reason pointed out the difference between right and wrong in the same way it did for truth and falsehood.

When Mr. Hobbes started this controversy, reason was thought the only source for the ideas of right and wrong. It became the popular doctrine that the essence of virtue and vice consisted in their conformity or disagreement with reason. This idea was more easily received at a time when=

  • the abstract science of human nature was young, and
  • before the distinct powers of the human mind had been carefully examined.

13 It is true in some respects that virtue consists in conformity to reason. Reason may very justly be the source and principle of morality. It is by reason that we discover:

  • those general rules of justice which should regulate our actions, and
  • those vague ideas of what is prudent, decent, generous or noble.

We carry these ideas constantly with us and 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 many cases what pleases or displeases our moral faculties. By induction from this experience, we establish those general rules. But induction is always regarded as one of the operations of reason. Therefore, we derive all those general maxims and ideas from reason.

Our judgments would be extremely uncertain if they all depended on immediate feelings which are liable to so many variations. Therefore, our most solid judgments with regard to right and wrong are regulated by ideas derived from an induction of reason. Virtue may very properly be said to be a conformity to reason.

14 Reason is 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 initial perceptions of right and wrong can be derived from reason. Reason cannot be the basis for=

  • these first perceptions, nor
  • all other trials which lead to general rules

These first perceptions are based on the immediate sense and feeling. We form the general rules of morality by finding in many instances that=

  • one tenor of conduct constantly pleases in a certain way,
  • another tenor of conduct constantly displeases.

But reason cannot render any object agreeable or disagreeable to the mind for its own sake. Reason might show that this object is the means of obtaining some other object which is pleasing or displeasing. In this way, reason can render it agreeable or disagreeable for the sake of something else. But feeling is still the thing that renders an object as agreeable or disagreeable, not reason. Thus, it is still the immediate sense and feeling which reconciles us to virtue and alienates us from vice.

15 Pleasure and pain are the great objects of desire and aversion. But these are distinguished by feeling and not by reason. Therefore, if virtue is desirable and vice detestable for their own sakes, then it is our immediate sense and feeling, not our reason, which originally distinguishes those qualities.

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.

Any controversy in this can only be imputed 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 moral philosophy. A man of virtue hates to abandon even a single phrase in moral philosophy that he has been used to.

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