Moral philosophy in the eighteenth century was principally concerned with three issues. First, was “the selfish hypothesis,” which maintained that all declarations of public interest were ultimately expressions of private interest. Second, was the explanation and justification of moral judgment. And third, was the character of moral virtue.
The selfish hypothesis, though largely a minority view, was defended equally by proponents of Mechanism (Thomas Hobbes, Bernard Mandeville) and Jansenism (Pierre Nicole). The mechanists considered man to be a machine, one whose parts functioned “every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follows from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.” (Descartes, Treatise of Man, 108) The Jansenists took man to be inherently depraved; marked by original sin and destined, save the grace of God, for an eternity of hellfire. Despite fundamental disagreements between the Mechanists and Jansenists though, both groups congregated on a common view of human nature: one where man consists solely of an amalgam of passions that provoke and govern him without his control. The most forceful of these passions is self-love, which serves as the chief motivation for all human action. (Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: And Other Writings, 36) Man’s principal commitment to his own self-love undercuts genuine other-regarding action and stymies the opportunity for moral virtue.
David Hume and Adam Smith repudiated this thesis. Hume referred to the self hypothesis as one that proceeded from “nothing but the most depraved disposition.” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 247) For Hume, the fact that a good amount of people act selfishly a good amount of the time fails to ground the claim that such people always acted selfishly (much less the charge that all mankind act in this way!) Man’s selfishness admits of degrees, something that is obvious to our “common sense and our most unprejudiced notions.” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 250) In Hume’s estimation, only philosophers—with their love of simplicity in principle—could affirm such an absurd view of human nature as the selfish hypothesis. Likewise, Smith claimed that “how selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him.” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Penguin Classics), 1) For Smith, all human beings are naturally ‘in-tune’ with one another through the faculty of sympathy; which, acting as a mirror for others, allows us to take part in their suffering and joy. The ability to sympathize with our fellows is not a virtue (in the traditional sense). Instead, the faculty of sympathy is a constitutive part of human agency: devoid of sympathy, we are not human. Smith and Hume recognize that sympathy is most naturally felt for our family and friends. Nonetheless, they equally affirm that man’s moral sense has developed and expanded through the progress of history; a process that will continue to be realized through his continual interaction with the others, the world, and himself.
Getty Lustila, Georgia State University
Coming Soon: Parts II and III