Category Archives: Rene Descartes

Problems with Shaftesbury’s analogies between the five senses and ‘moral sense’


People don’t want to think that we are simply brutes, educated or trained only by treats and beatings. We like to think our minds have a lot to do with the process. Even during the original heyday of mechanistic philosophy, most 17th and 18th century thinkers argued that there was a real role, a fundamental role, for the soul and the mind to play in our daily lives, our education, and our choices in behavior.

Moral Sense Theory, often called Sentimentalism fit perfectly in that climate. It allows a person to check off both the ‘mechanistic’ box and the ‘soul serves a serious purpose’ box. Because its fundamental proposition is that the soul has a sense that is able to tell, immediately – without consciously analyzing or judging – right from wrong. Just like hearing allows us to process audible data immediately. And so this moral sense is effectively the motor of the body, the instigator of actions, because it is tied to pleasure and pain.

Cooper clarifies Cartesianism

Shaftesbury’s Moral Sense Theory does a huge service to Cartesian-inspired philosophy. It helps us see how a machine body coupled with a weakened ‘soul-mind’ could work together in practice. Though the soul is mostly unnecessary day-to-day because the body can handle itself very well, and though the emotions don’t “answer to” the soul, the soul does have sort of an ability, a sense, that works like the body’s senses: it is responsive to pleasurable and painful stimuli, and thus can effect physical responses and behavior much like the screech of a car wreck or a beautiful song can.

But it also clarifies something else about the Cartesian philosophy for us: Moral Sense Theory and Cartesianism share the same fundamental confusion as to whether emotions are judgments or not. Though it might seem clear that on Shaftesbury’s theory emotions are not judgments, he also makes a decent case for why they are. (This of course would undermine his moral sense theory.

Objects of emotion

Think about your favorite painting, or an Instagram picture you think is beautiful. When you look at something like that, you respond to a number of variables, such as color, proportion, and motion. You take all that in and it you are struck with the appreciation of beauty. Do you feel it is beautiful? Do you judge it beautiful? Whatever it is, it seems to happen immediately. Shaftesbury thinks these types of attributes don’t only immediately show the beauty (or ugliness) of objects to us – we are struck by it – but they do so necessarily. And he thinks there is a very close analog between seeing the beauty of that Instagram and capturing the motives, the nuances of another person’s behavior in a particular context. So we should and do see good and bad behavior necessarily and immediately.

That’s because the mind has its own sort of “eyes and ears” to perform the same sort of function, but relative to other minds. It watches and judges actions by seeing their proportion, by “scanning each sentiment or thought.”

So it is that if we a stranger helping a fragile old man to cross the street, we immediately appreciate that she did it out of benevolence and a good character. Though someone perhaps more cynical than Shaftesbury might advise you to turn your head before you see the young aide pick the old man’s pocket, Shaftesbury is convinced that the moral sense is excellent at feeling the “soft and harsh, the agreeable and disagreeable, in the affections” and perceives “foul and fair” harmony in actions just as it does in music.

The problem is that Shaftesbury finds it impossible to remain coherent and consistent in this view.

Understanding Shaftesbury’s problem

Just like Descartes, Shaftesbury thinks that the mind is under constant bombardment from “forms and images” notably for us, including the “moral and intellectual kind”. These forms or objects press on the mind the same way images of bodies, colors and sounds press on our senses. They press so hard that our sentiments, our heart, simply cannot remain neutral regarding these “pictures of manners” that the mind “imagines to itself.”

These moral forms, pictures of manners come not just from what our senses show us, but even the things that happen in our body when he have emotions and the emotions themselves. All these things, even our own being aware of ourselves having these thoughts, are objects that our mind and moral sense can ‘observe’ are objects of emotions.

All this passes the sniff test; I would agree that not only what I see with my eyes and hear with my ears lead me to have emotions and make judgments about good or bad behavior, but also my thinking about the things I see and how they make me feel cause me to have emotions and make judgments on behavior too. But it doesn’t really work the way Shaftesbury wants it to and Cartesian-type thinkers need it to.

The problems come out when we think about the analogy between you admiring your favorite painting or picture and you observing a person behaving in a moral situation. Think about; even when you are ‘observing’ the behavior of a mind you know well, a friend, a partner, do we really ‘immediately’ and ‘necessarily’ see the good or evil in what they do the way we see the beauty or ugliness in a picture or painting? What about when observing a stranger, an unknown person, acting in a context, in circumstances we don’t know or understand?

Any act can appear ‘proportionate’ or ‘morally beautiful’ when taken out of context, when motives are not transparent. But we don’t assign moral praise or blame in matters of right and wrong based on the outside appearance of things, without taking motives and contexts into consideration. In fact, even a person’s literal good looks can be magnified or diminished by a “better look” at the person overall.

Shaftesbury is convinced that the inclinations, passions and behavior of every person gets represented correctly, immediately in the mind of the observer, forcing the heart into a “trial or exercise” where it must choose between positive or negative emotional reactions, it must have a positive emotional reaction to what is right and just, and have a negative reaction to what is bad.

I think we’ve given a lot of reason to think something more than just ‘observation’ is going on in Shaftesbury’s moral sense. I think he’s allowing judgment in without crediting it. But let’s pick up next time with this ‘trial of the heart’ analogy and wrap up Shaftesbury.

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.