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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

William Wollaston (1659-1724)

In writing about the 18th-century British moralists, there is a certain point of controversy that comes up again and again in their writings, and which will therefore be next to impossible for me to avoid. In some ways, the topic was controversial because it was rather vague and ill-defined. I suspect that in my effort to explain it clearly and succinctly for the non-expert, I too will fall into that trap. But here goes…

Stated at its most vague, the question that exercised the British moralists so much was this: Does morality have its source in reason, or in sentiment? Those who believed the former came to be called moral rationalists, while those who believed the latter were called moral sentimentalists. The terminology is somewhat unfortunate, because it is very easy to find sentimentalist ideas in rationalist writers, and vice versa.

In any event, the debate seems muddled. I believe a large part of the reason for this is that when we talk about morality’s source lying in either reason or sentiment, we can mean any of at least four things by “source of morality”:

     1.    The source of moral knowledge.
     2.    The source of moral motivation.
     3.    The source of moral obligation.
     4.    The source of moral judgments.

Our answer to the vague question of morality’s source may change depending on which of these we’re talking about. For example, if we’re talking about moral knowledge, it would be natural to see this as based in reason. However, if we’re talking about motivation, then we might — à la Hume — believe that reason is of itself inert and cannot move us to action without the motive force of the passions. We might know our duty, but performing it is a different matter. Dr. Johnson expressed the knowledge/action gap rather eloquently when he wrote that

“It very commonly happens that speculation has no influence on conduct. Just conclusions, and cogent arguments, formed by laborious study, and diligent enquiry, are often reposited in the treasuries of memory, as gold in the miser’s chest, useless alike to others and himself. As some are not richer for the extent of their possessions, others are not wiser for the multitude of their ideas.” (Rambler No. 98)

It’s even trickier when we talk about moral judgments. For example, one might conceive of judgment as a matter of arriving at a conclusion from premises through a process of ratiocination; in which case it would be natural to see judgment as connected with knowledge, and by extension, with reason (even while accepting that reason may err). However, if one conceives of judgment as unmediated assent to a proposition, akin to intuition, then there may be room here for sentiment to play a role.

One anecdote neatly illustrates this confusion of concepts. In the first edition of John Brown’s (1715-1766) Essays on the Characteristics of the Earl of Shaftesbury (1751), the title of the second essay was “On the Obligations of Man to Virtue”. In the same year, a second edition of the book was printed, in which the essay’s title had been changed to “On the Motives to Virtue”. In every other respect, the essay remained unchanged. Now, obligations and motives are very different things. One can be obligated without being motivated, and vice versa. One can be both obligated and motivated, even though one’s motivation may come from venal and very immoral reasons. The change of title suggests that much of the core of what the British moralists were arguing about was not very clear even to themselves. It was, however, a muddle that proved very fruitful in new ideas. This weakness was, paradoxically, advantageous for discourse on morals in 18th-century Britain.

Putting aside for the moment the various confusions that often caused rationalists and sentimentalists to talk past one another, let us turn to our next British Moralist.

William Wollaston (1659-1724) was a thinker who, as we will see, fell into the rationalist camp. Of the man himself, there is little to say. He was born into a not-very-wealthy branch of an old family. He attended Cambridge, after which he was a schoolmaster for a time. Subsequently he took holy orders and became a curate, a lowly position in the Anglican Church. He toiled away in this relative obscurity until, at the age of 29, he inherited the estate of a wealthy uncle. From that time, he took up the — in my opinion perfect — life of an independent scholar-gentleman. He married and had children. In 1722 he privately published the book for which he achieved his allotted degree of fame, The Religion of Nature Delineated. In 1724 it was released publicly, and in the same year, Wollaston died.

Though almost unread now, The Religion of Nature Delineated (hereinafter referred to as RND) was extraordinarily popular in the 18th century, going through 22 editions by 1800. Benjamin Franklin was in London working for Wollaston’s publisher, Samuel Palmer, when he typeset an edition of the book in 1726.

Broadly speaking, RND was a rather idiosyncratic attempt to provide a theory of morals without relying upon revealed religion. For our purposes, the meat of the book is really contained in its first 20 pages or so. Wollaston develops the foundations of his theory in a series of propositions, the first of which is, “That act, which may be denominated morally good or evil, must be the act of a being capable of distinguishing, choosing, and acting for himself: or more briefly, of an intelligent and free agent” (p. 7). Already, we see one sense in which his theory is rationalist, since he is essentially saying that only an intelligent agent is capable of performing actions that may be denominated right or wrong, because only such an agent is capable of distinguishing moral truth. And only a free agent is capable of choosing to act based on that distinction.

So far there is nothing particularly new or controversial. In the next proposition, he expresses what he basically means by truth: “Those propositions are true, which express things as they are: or, truth is the conformity of those words or signs, by which things are exprest, to the things themselves” (p. 8). Put in the technical language of current philosophy, Wollaston adheres to an old school correspondence theory of truth, which essentially holds a proposition to be true which corresponds with the facts it expresses. Again, nothing particularly new or remarkable about this claim, certainly not by the standards of the time, anyway.

It is his third proposition that is really at the core of what made Wollaston’s theory distinctive. He asserts that “A true proposition may be denied, or things may be denied to be what they are by deeds, as well as by express words or another proposition” (p. 8). Our actions may be characterized as signs or propositions that assert facts or states of affairs. To put it in the terms of modern logic, an action can have a truth-value, in the same way that a spoken or written proposition may be true or false.

So, for example, by appropriating your laptop without your permission, my action affirms a certain state of affairs, namely that the laptop belongs to me rather than to you. Since this is not the case, I have in effect affirmed something that is false. That is what makes the action immoral, according to Wollaston.

Furthermore, just as with a stated proposition, an action affirms something that is true or false regardless of whether the agent knows it: “The truth or falsehood of [an] affirmation doth not depend upon the affirmer’s knowledge or ignorance: because there is a certain sense affixt to the words, which must either agree or disagree to that, concerning which the affirmation is made. The case is the very same still, if into the place of words, be substituted actions” (p. 9). So, whether I knew the laptop was yours or mistakenly believed it to be mine, my action would be wrong — or false — regardless.

Not only may truths be expressed in deeds as well as in words, but deeds can be even more expressive than words. To illustrate, Wollaston used the biblical story of Isaac and Abimelech. Isaac went to dwell among the Philistines with his wife, Rebekah. In order to keep her safe (don’t ask), he passed her off as his sister. But the jig was up when King Abimelech looked out a window and saw Isaac “sporting” with Rebekah. Wollaston continues,

"In the Jewish history we read, that when Abimelek saw Isaac sporting with Rebekah, and taking conjugal liberties, he presently knew her to be Isaac’s wife; and if she had not been his wife, the case had been as in the preceding instance. If it be objected, that she might have been his mistress or a harlot; I answer, that so she might have been, tho Isaac had told him by words that she was his wife. And it is sufficient for my purpose, and to make acts capable of contradicting truth, if they may be allowd to express things as plainly and determinately as words can. Certainly Abimelek gave greater credit to that information which passed through his eye, than to that which he received by the ear; and to what Isaac did, than to what he said. For Isaac had told him, that she was not his wife, but his sister." (p. 11)

When given the choice between believing the spoken affirmation “Rebekah is the sister of Isaac” or the action-affirmation “Rebekah is the wife of Isaac”, Abimelech believed the latter. In other words, not only do actions speak like words; they sometimes speak louder than words.

Here is a summary outline of Wollaston’s rationalist theory of morals:

     1. There are eternal moral truths. 
     2. Actions may affirm or deny these truths. 
     3. When our actions affirm these truths, they are good. 
     4. When our actions deny these truths, or affirm their opposite, they are bad. 
     5. Such actions are good or bad regardless of whether or not the agent intends to affirm or deny these truths. 

Much of the rest of RND is spent in demonstrating our rights and duties and how these are conformable to these claims.

(As a matter of fact, this is a pattern one finds in most of the works of the British moralists: a theory is laid out, sometimes relatively quickly, and then rights and duties are derived from the theory. This last latter part is often the least interesting, since the various writers rarely disagree fundamentally on what these rights and duties are. In fact, it is remarkable that such lively debates in moral philosophy could take place when, on what really matters — conduct, — they were in violent agreement. 18th-century Britain was after all still a society with a large set of shared moral values.)

Some Objections to Wollaston’s Theory.

Given the above admittedly oversimplified outline of Wollaston’s theories, a few objections may immediately come to mind.

First, Wollaston seems to essentially reduce moral obligation to the obligation to tell the truth (or avoid falsehood) in our words and deeds. But reducing all moral obligations to this single one means that we still have this one obligation that remains ungrounded. We have a duty to always tell the truth, but why? And remember, Wollaston’s aim was to explain morality without reliance on revealed religion, so he can’t simply say “Because God wills it”.

I think John Brown, who was mentioned earlier, was pointing to the same problem when he wrote that “’Virtue, saith this learned Writer [Wollaston], consists in a Conformity of our Actions with Truth; in treating every thing as being what it is.’ Well: be it so. Yet the Question still recurs, what is moral Truth? And this demands a Definition no less than Virtue, which was the Thing to be defined” (pp. 119-120). In other words, for Wollaston, “moral truth” seems to play the same role as “virtue”. So saying that we have a duty to conform our actions to moral truth is the same as to say that we have a duty to be virtuous, which is not very enlightening. For one thing, how do we know what is morally true/virtuous? For another, what makes it true/virtuous? Wollaston evades the really important questions.

Second, Wollaston seems to reduce all moral wrong to falsehood, as if vices were mistakes in math or logic. But isn’t there a fundamental difference in kind between morals wrongs and, say, errors in arithmetic?

A third possible objection stems from this perennial philosophical question: What, if any, is the relationship between the True, the Good, and the Beautiful? Shaftesbury had taken much heat from his critics for (supposedly) trying to reduce the Good to the Beautiful, and promoting what some later writers (e.g. Valihora) would call an “aesthetic theory of morality”. One can see how someone holding an aesthetic theory of morality might fall naturally into the sentimentalist camp: if moral good is a form of beauty, and if beauty is rather felt than thought, then morality becomes largely a matter of feeling. But is the Good reducible to the Beautiful? And can sentiment produce reliable moral judgments without the interposition of rational thought? No, said Shaftesbury’s critics. (In truth, this is merely a cartoonish oversimplification of Shaftesbury.)

If the reduction of the Good to the Beautiful is the original sin of the sentimentalists, then perhaps the reduction of the Good to the True is the original sin of rationalists such as Wollaston. Is the Good reducible to the True? If so, why do we not get worked up about arithmetical error in the same way we get worked up about moral error (our second objection, above)? Although we may theorize about it, morality is fundamentally practical, and not merely theoretical.

Fourth, Wollaston seems to make out all forms of immorality to be akin to acts of lying or of ignorance, of denying what is true or of affirming what is false, whether intentionally or mistakenly. But isn’t the moral wrongness of telling a lie different in both kind and degree from, say, the wrongness of murder? More on this below…

Clarke’s Objections to Wollaston.

The year after RND was published and Wollaston died, a 63-page pamphlet appeared entitled An Examination of the Notion of Moral Good and Evil, Advanced in a late Book entitled, the Religion of Nature delineated (1725). Its author was an obscure grammar school teacher named John Clarke (1687-1734). Despite his rather turgid prose style, it turns out that Mr. Clarke was an able and perceptive critic of Wollaston. I will offer below some of his objections, which supplement the ones we have already considered.

First, Clarke notes a fallacy in Wollaston’s claims that our actions may affirm or deny truths:

"I desire the Reader to take notice, that Affirming and Denying are Actions, which in strict Propriety of Language are only applicable to Agents; so that Actions, whether Words or Deeds, can not be properly said to affirm or deny any thing; the Agent only can be properly said to affirm or deny Truth by his Actions, whether Words or Deeds…. Thus for Instance, a Person that should pronounce, in the hearing of others, Words in the Greek Tongue, which he understands not, equivalent to this Proposition in English, There is no God, could not be said to deny the being of God." (pp. 6-9, misnumbered)

Put another way, Wollaston writes as if words and deeds are disembodied and free-floating entities with an independent truth-value of their own. The agent is just the occasion from which they issue, and when they are false, the agent has “done” something morally culpable, regardless of what was going on in his head when the said entities issued forth.

Clarke, on the other hand, is saying that whatever immorality there is in in one’s action, it must come from the agent’s understanding of what he is doing. If I babble a bunch of foreign words I do not understand, I cannot be said to have told a lie, since I haven’t really “told” anything. Whereas, Wollaston’s theory makes no allowance for such a case, and must treat a man as immoral who says something untrue, even unintentionally, or even if he is incapable of understanding what he has said. I would further add, that in the case of deeds, the same absurdity would seem to hold: if I am coerced into doing an immoral deed, I must be just as culpable as if I did it voluntarily, as far as Wollaston is concerned. Accepting that actions can be said to deny or affirm propositions independently of the intentions of the agent, as Wollaston seems to do, is to ascribe the same moral culpability to someone who does not intend to deny truth as to one who does (p. 12). In other words, it fails to distinguish between a lie and an error.

Clarke also notes that many of the worst kinds of immoral actions do not seem to involve any denial of truth or affirmation of falsehood at all. Indeed, using the example of a highwayman demanding money at gunpoint (p. 11), Clarke says that the demand, backed by threat of violence, is neither a denial of the true proposition that the money belongs to the victim, nor an affirmation of the false proposition that the money rightfully belongs to the highwayman. Quite the opposite, in fact. The violence of his act speaks volumes about whom the money really belongs to. And in any case, be cannot be said to be affirming or denying any proposition. He is simply making a coercive threat; he is not trying to convince the victim that his money is not his own.

We might go further here than Clarke. We might say that, even if the highwayman were affirming a proposition, it might be the proposition “I will shoot you if you don’t give me your money”. Assuming that the highwayman intends to carry through on his threat, then on Wollaston’s theory, the highwayman is behaving virtuously in affirming what is true!

When we talk of actions as affirming or denying propositions, Clarke notes that there is always the problem of interpretation, of figuring out precisely which proposition is being affirmed or denied. Deeds, like words, may be misinterpreted. Clarke argues that in many cases deeds may lack the eloquence of words:

"Does a Man break a Bargain? this is, according to Mr. Wollaston, denying the Truth by Action, denying there was any Bargain: Tho’ if another might take the same Freedom, or pretend to the like Skill for the finding out the Sense and Meaning of Actions, he would be apt to think it perhaps not a Denial of the Bargain, as tho’ there had been none, but of the Obligation only to keep it. Another Critic in Actions would perhaps find it out to be a Denial of neither, but an affirmation rather of this Proposition, that the Breach of the Bargain was a likely means to rook his Chapman of some Money…" (p. 13)

There is an indeterminacy of meaning to words and deeds.

Finally, to the list of objections to Wollaston’s theory, we can add the following humorous reductio ad absurdum from Clarke. If, as Wollaston claims, virtue lies in always affirming truth in our words and deeds, then “it will then be a glorious Exercise for a Man to spend his Time in thrumming over such worthy and weighty Propositions as these, A Man’s no Horse, a Horse no Cow, a Cow no Bull, nor a Bull an Ass” (p. 19). The most reliable road to moral sainthood would, then, seem to be to spend several hours a day sitting in an armchair and rattling off as many true propositions as come to mind.

Although Wollaston’s book sold extremely well, his theory cannot be said to have had many professed adherents. The general opinion seems to have been that the theory was ingenious but utterly wrong. In retrospect, like Hobbes before him, Wollaston’s most lasting contribution to 18th-century moral theory came from the various refutations it spawned.


BROWN, John. Essays on the Characteristics. London: C. Davis, 1751 (facsimile, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1969).

CLARKE, John. An Examination of the Notion of Moral Good and Evil, Advanced in a late Book entitled, the Religion of Nature delineated. London: A. Bettesworth, 1725.

VALIHORA, Karen. Austen’s Oughts: Moral Judgment after Locke and Shaftesbury. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2010.

WOLLASTON, William. The Religion of Nature Delineated. London: Samuel Palmer, 1724 (facsimile, Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1974).