Carl H. Flygt

    February 2007  

Consider the following two definitions:  

(1) An action is ethical if and only if it has a rational/moral motive;  

(2) An action is ethical if and only if it has a rational/moral motive and it depends on virtuous affections or sentiments.  

Call (1) the rationalist theory of ethical behavior and (2) the sentimentalist theory. Which is more plausible?   Imagine a man who, for reasons of prejudice, detests people of a particular race, call it XYZ. Imagine this man discovers an XYZ infant abandoned and left to die in a garbage dumpster. Reasoning that conscience will not allow him to turn his back, he picks up the infant despite his distaste and deposits it with the local Social Services agency. His action is ethical but not particularly virtuous. In carrying out his duty he experiences none of the natural affections of kindness, concern, pity or succor that the sentimentalist theory proposes are essential for his ethical act. In fact, his sentiments are only those of contempt and disgust as goes through the motions of fulfilling his obligation.  

Sentimentalism appears to be based on confusions of characterological means and rational ends. The ends of ethical actions are rational, not characterological. For Shaftesbury, the overarching end of ethical behavior is the harmony of the social or biological system in which the individual is embedded. Harmony in a system is a rational, universalist idea, and probably an inbuilt category of the human mind. But virtuous or evil sentiments are by-products of this primary category of goodness or harmony, and not on par with it. They are characterological means installed by nature to reinforce the primacy of the ends of rational judgment. That affections and sentiments can as readily be evil as they can be good shows they are secondary ethical forces, by-products of the primary and unipolar impulse of a rational and self-interested mind confronting and taking actions in the face of the universalist expectations of God or society.  

Shaftesbury of course was concerned to refute Hobbes, who argued that ethical behavior is purely an extension of the motives of self interest through a social contract. Shaftesbury's idea is that there is an innate and natural interest in the good of the whole, and that the positive affections are evidence for and even expressions of this innate and universal interest. He goes on to give reasons for thinking that the sentiments of self interest are really sentiments of the general good. But this analysis of virtuous sentiment does not show that reason is insufficient to motivate ethical behavior, or that reason is not the underlying cause of the virtuous sentiments. It only shows that reason is powerful enough to assume different shapes. Reason, i.e. pure universalizing thought, is the prime cause of all ethical sentiments and all affections, and the ends of reason are the prime causes of ethical behavior.  


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Introduction by C.B. MacPherson. New York: Panguin, 1985.   Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl. An Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit, in Characteristics of men, Manners, opinions, Times, vol II. Liberty Fund, online library,