Moral Sense

One of the many schools of philosophy I had to study on my way to the PhD in philosophy was the “Moral Sense” school of philosophy in Scotland. Preeminent in the eighteenth century, it was headed by Francis Hutcheson and included such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith. And, by the way, many people who read Adam Smith and regard him as the father of free enterprise capitalism forget (or never knew) that his roots were in the Moral Sense school that taught the rudimentary truth that all humans are born with an inherent moral sense that tunes them in to their fellow humans. This moral sense was supposed to restrain human greed that was otherwise let loose in a capitalist system. When, for example, we see another person do something courageous or generous we naturally approve, even feel pleasure. And we do not accumulate wealth in the face of the fact that a great many of our fellow humans are starving and have no place to call home. This sense often takes the form of a lively conscience, but in any event it leads us toward virtuous actions (since we want to imitate those virtuous acts we see around us) and away from vice.

I only found out recently in reading Gary Wills’ excellent book on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson was also a member of the moral sense school of philosophy. Jefferson was taught by a student of Hutcheson by the name of William Small who worked with Jefferson at William and Mary College for four years and later became a close friend and frequent correspondent. In fact, there were many scholars and teachers on the faculties of several American colleges (especially Princeton) who had ties to Scotland and the moral sense school of thought. James Madison, who went to Princeton, was also greatly influenced by that school of thought which was dominant while he was there.

When Jefferson states  in the Declaration that “All men are created equal” he is drawing on the moral sense school. This is because men (and women) are equal in having a moral sense even though they might be unequal in strength or intelligence. Jefferson even included slaves and Native Americans in his pronouncement.

This lends the lie — so often heard — that Jefferson was a hypocrite in talking about the equality of all humans while refusing to free his slaves. But, despite the fact that he knew it was morally indefensible, he spent a great many hours defending the maintenance of slaves on economic grounds; so many of the plantation owners were land rich and cash poor. Freeing the slaves, Jefferson thought, would ruin him financially and would also leave the slaves with nowhere to go and no hope for survival. Moreover, Virginia had a law that required that freed slaves must be provided with a means of making a living. In any event, he worked hard to oppose the continued importation slaves to this continent. This may sound like a rationalization, but Jefferson was deeply convinced that even in their lowly state as property of others his slaves, like all slaves in the South and elsewhere, were equal to him and his well-educated fiends. He was not enlightened enough, sad to say, to admit that they were also just as intelligent as his well-educated friends, but this can be explained (though not justified) by the fact that the slaves were generally not in a position to shine intellectually. It also ignores the obvious fact that many of his white friends, like mine, are not all that bright.

In any event, the original Declaration of Independence is full of claims about the brotherhood of all people (including his English “brethren” who failed to put pressure on the Parliament in order to prevent the Revolution); he saw these claims as simply a way of drawing attention to the fact that those in the Colonies were equal to their British cousins. But much of what Jefferson wrote in this regard was struck out by the Congress who weakened the document and made it seem as though the author was a thorough Lockean individualist — Locke having taught that we all begin as individuals in a state of nature and, driven by self-interest, agree to live in common under civil law in order to protect our property. Jefferson was convinced that humans need to be together in order to become fully human. Jefferson was therefore not a Lockean and while many (including myself) have insisted he was there are solid grounds for insisting that the moral sense school had a profound influence on Jefferson and John Locke very little — though Jefferson had high regard for Locke’s scientific principles.

In the end, Jefferson really did think that all men are equal and he spent much of his time defending that view and trying to act on his beliefs. He’s received some bad press lately from the PC police, but much of that is misguided.


I once heard it said that history is one of the subjects you study after you know everything else. Well, I don’t know everything else — and not as much history as I would like. But I do find myself captivated by studies in-depth of the goings-on many years ago — especially during the founding of this nation. As a consequence, I have been reading a good bit of American history of late.

One of the better books I have come across is Gary Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. I have not finished the book yet, but I have already learned some things I did not know.

I did not know, for example, that Samuel Adams (cousin of John) was a bit of a sleeze-ball. He would fit in nicely with today’s politicians since he liked to slink about and make deals behind closed doors. He kept a very low profile, not making speeches or drawing attention to himself while he plotted with like-minded radicals to help bring about independence from England. (One must wonder about his motivation.) He also apparently manipulated his cousin and John was only too happy to comply as he saw Samuel through rose-colored glasses. But he did get things done. Like the Boston Tea Party.

There is not much known about the folks involved in that event, but there is fairly sound evidence that Sam Adams was one of the major players — if not the one who initiated the event in which ninety thousand pounds of tea was thrown into the Boston harbor to protest the tea tax. No sooner was the event completed then Samuel  “went immediately to work spreading his version of the incident” (as he himself admitted later). This is what he did: he spread word — including “false facts” (as we now call them) and huge exaggerations — coining the term “massacre” later on to describe the shooting of “several” people in Boston. Both Sam and John were frustrated that the other colonies were not paying close attention to what was going on in Boston and Sam saw it as his job to spread the word — true or not.  He was Machiavellian to the core, committed to the notion that the end justifies the means.

I was also surprised to hear that the various colonies were completely separate and distinct political entities — each with its own charter with the King and even separate constitutions — not to say coinage in many cases. In fact, they thought of themselves as separate countries — like those in Europe. Separate and distinct. John Adams said they spoke different languages and each colony had its own culture. When it was time for representatives of the thirteen colonies to meet in Philadelphia for a second time they appeared, but there was still an undercurrent of distrust. After all, these men were planning the separation from the most powerful country on earth and they would be regarded as traitors, or at the very least rebels (which is what the English called them). They worried that among them there would be spies who would go to the authorities and reveal who was involved and what their plans were.  They were risking their lives and had to find ways to trust people who were in every sense of the word foreign to them.  So deep was the distrust of one colony for another during the first Continental Congress that one delegate from New York told John Adams:

“If England were to cast us adrift, we should instantly go to civil wars among ourselves to determine which colony should govern all the rest.”

It is one of the wonders of the eighteenth century that those thirteen colonies were able to cooperate enough to fight against the much more powerful England, not to say fight successfully. This was a fight they would not have won, of course, without the assistance of France who supplied them with gun powder, weapons, and eventually naval power. The French hated the English and were only too happy to help anyone who was willing take them on! But, still, England at the time ruled the world.

In the end, despite the distrust and perhaps with the help of the machinations of people like Samuel Adams, the colonists did cooperate because they realized that compromise was essential to their cause. The Southern states would not hear any talk about abolition of slavery and the North was peopled by hundreds of abolitionists and generally tended to think they were superior to all the other colonies. But they were willing to compromise, to come together in a common cause and unite such disparate elements into one union — which Lincoln later struggled desperately to hold together.

How alike we are as individuals; the descendants of Samuel Adams can be found slinking about Washington D.C. today — even occupying positions of great power. And yet we have forgotten how to compromise, to cooperate with one another in order to bring about what is best for the nation and its people.