Thursday, June 01, 2006

Whewell on the Moral Faculty

A persuasion that moral good is something different from, and superior to, mere pleasure, is requisite to give our preference of it that tone of enthusiasm and affection which belongs to virtuous feeling. To approve a rule as right, is different from liking it as profitable; to admire an act of virtuous self-devotion as we are capable of admiring, is a feeling so different from the apprehension of any usefulness the act may have, that the comparison of the two things is altogether incongruous. The moral faculty converts our perception of the quality of actions into an affection of the strongest kind; nor can we be satisfied with any account of our moral sentiments which excludes this feature in the process. Thus, as we hold the affections to be motives of an order superior to the desires which have reference to ourselves only, we maintain the moral faculty, the conscience, the affection towards duty, to be a principle of action of an order superior both to the duties and to the other affections. Without the acknowledgment of this subordination, the language and feelings of men when they compare the claims of personal pleasure, of social affection, and of duty, are altogether unintelligible and absurd.

William Whewell in Sir James Mackintosh, On the Progress of Ethical Philosophy, chiefly during the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, William Whewell, ed., Fourth edition, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1872) xxxv-xxxvi. Whewell has in mind the hedonistic utilitarianisms of Paley and Bentham, which is why he emphasizes both the need for something more than pleasure and the need for something more than utility. I was happy to come across this in the library today. Because it is in an editorial preface, it's the sort of thing that might easily be overlooked even by people who study Whewell's moral philosophy (not that there are many people doing that anyway). In any case, it means that I won't overlook it if I write a paper on the subject, as I've been thinking of doing.

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