Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, "An Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit," in Characteristicks (1714)

Having begun the Inquiry by bringing into question the link between "religion" and (moral) "virtue," Shaftesbury begins to explore the workings of the organ he calls the "moral sense." He establishes it as a sense by making the claim that the expectation of punishment for offenses or injuries is universal:

Of this even the wickedest Creature living must have a Sense. So that if there be any further meaning in this Sense of Right and Wrong; if in reality there be any Sense of this kind ... it must consist in real Antipathy or Aversion to Injustice or Wrong, and in a real Affection or Love towards Equity and Right, for its own sake, and on the account of its own natural Beauty and Worth. (42)

After this preparation, Shaftesbury is ready to argue that the operation of the moral sense occurs independently of any exercise of speculative reason. In particular, any idea connection between morality and having the notion of a God in mind comes under attack:

That it is possible for a creature capable of using Reflection, to have a Liking of Dislike of moral Actions, and consequently a Sense of Right and Wrong, before such time as he may have any settled Notion of a God, is what will hardly be question'd: it being a thing not expected that a creature such as Man, arising from his Childhood slowly and gradually, to several degrees of Reason and Reflection, shou'd, at the very first, be taken up with those Speculations, or more refin'd sort of Reflections, about the Subject of God's Existence.

Let us suppose a Creature, who wanting Reason, and being unable to reflect, has, notwithstanding, many good Qualities and Affections; as Love to his Kind, Courage, Gratitude, or Pity. 'Tis certain that if you give to this Creature a reflecting Faculty, it will at the same instant approve of Gratitude, Kindness, and Pity; be taken with any shew or representation of the social Passion, and think nothing more amiable than this, or more odious than the contrary. And this is to be capable of Virtue, and to have a Sense of Right and Wrong.

Before the time, therefore, that a Creature can have any plain or positive Notion one way or other, concerning the Subject of a God, he may be suppos'd to have an Apprehension or Sense of Right and Wrong, and be possess'd of Virtue and Vice in different Degrees. ... (53-4)

The exclusion here of the moral impulse from the spheres of religion and even reason may help to make possible the link between the body and "the social Passion," so important to the tradition of sensibility.

Related terms:

dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography