The rise of sentimentalist ethics: Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury


Ashley Cooper was not just a character on Lost, he was a well respected, very influential philosopher, often known by his title, Third Earl of Shaftesbury.

The core of Shaftesbury’s philosophy is the belief that a person generally disposed to harm and never to help, a bad person, cannot be considered good just because he finds some reason to behave. For a person to truly be good she must be earnest in her desire to contribute to the world around her. Not for selfish reasons, but for objective reasons.

For Shaftesbury earnestness is measurable by the level of immediate emotion directed purposefully toward doing good and against evil. That means that a bad person isn’t just a person who never helps, or never helps from affection, but who lacks the right emotion; a bad person lacks “force enough to carry him directly towards good and bear him out against evil”. For the positive formulation – the truly good only earnestly mean to do good – to follow Shaftesbury will have to give a clear account of what the emotions are, and which are good and bad. Some of his assumptions are going to get in the way of that, but first a word on Good and Bad.

Good and Bad 

A natural temper is only good if all the emotions are “suited to the public good or good of the species”. A person who lacks a “requisite passion” or has one that is “contrary to the main end” of the natural temper, is in some sense “corrupt”. He means this so strictly that selfishness, even if it creates good, is an “ill affection”. Every good is a public good.

Real actions, or at least interesting ones

Shaftesbury has a unique take on what counts as a real act, as opposed to something more like a reflex. He starts out by asking what we’re supposed to think about a person who has an epileptic fit on one hand, or on the other a person who remains seated, hands tied, and doesn’t steal a sack full of money left in front of them. In both cases, the person is clearly not acting of their own volition, their intentions are irrelevant or masked; the person can’t help but act the way they do.

He thinks that these situations are analogous to absentmindedly walking down the street, or even absentmindedly helping an elderly person across the street. They all lack moral worth because they don’t reflect or reveal any thing about your true volitions. Only acting from the emotions does. Only emotionally based actions reveal what you really want. For the same reason, chastising someone for an ‘unaffected’ act is pointless.

This is novel and counter-intuitive. Even people who think emotion-based actions are chosen to some degree or another would probably stop short of saying that all emotion-based actions are chosen, and only such actions ‘count’.

Still, the basic point here has the ring of truth to it: you simply don’t call a creature who is naturally gentle ‘bad’ because of  a “breach of temper”, because such creatures usually return to their normal disposition. And it seems sorta fair to suggest that what is really ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ in a creature is what comes from its “natural temper”. The complication is that if a temperament is natural in a strong way, in what way is behavior stemming from it chosen?

Shaftesbury is pretty committed to the idea that emotional actions flow out of us by our natural temperament, that they are unmediated and don’t correspond to our conscious judgments. Yet he also seems to think they are not examples of a lack of volition or intention. They are instead our pure, wholly unfiltered intention. How does he square these seemingly incompatible ideas?

Unraveling the confusion

He has an explanation, and its implications for ethics are profound. The basic idea is that “natural behavior” done “earnestly” is the proper type of behavior to judge a person on, so you can only be correctly considered good if her “natural temper or the bent of her affections, primarily and immediately” leads her to good and against bad. But is there any room for choice, judgment, or cognition in being a good person?

If not, then holding an ethical theory such as utilitarianism, Aristotelianism, or Kantianism, which greatly value conscious judgment, would be self-deception. There’s not really any room for thinking as a guide to your own morality, or that of others, if ‘natural’ reaction is the key to goodness.

It seems that Shaftesbury’s thought is that an observer of an agent’s actions must be able to analyze why that person was motivated to act in the way they did, regardless of what the agent himself ‘knew’ or ‘could explain’ about their motivation. Reflecting about motives is not needed to be moral but to determine whether a person is moral, whether a person deserves praise or blame. On this account, for you to be good a third party must be able to see that you’re acting out of a benevolent character and for no ulterior, considered motive.

It strikes me as odd to think that an action we can’t “choose” is representative of our character, our true selves. But Shaftesbury didn’t made this up out of whole cloth. It follows pretty directly after Descartes’ jumbling of the power of the soul with respect to the body.  And beyond Descartes himself, the Cartesian philosophy’s influence in standardizing the mechanistic view of the body as the view from which to begin theorizing about metaphysics and morals is hard to overstate. The Cartesian philosophy butchered the job of explaining how the soul could have any power over what the body does.

The Cartesian philosophy’s failure to explain at the same time how the soul/mind could effect behavior and how the body itself could effect mentality of any kind practically forced thinkers to ask anew how in the world it could be that we know what is the right thing to do and how we actually come to do the right thing.

With Shaftesbury, we’re reaping the first fruit of that goal. Let’s continue in the next post.

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