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Moral Beauty and Moral Taste From Shaftesbury to Hume


My dissertation is a historical study which attempts to recover the classical synthesis of aesthetics and ethics as expressed in the concepts of moral beauty and moral taste. I begin by observing how the ancients saw goodness and beauty as one concept such that moral goodness was conceived as an intrinsically attractive ideal. Next I show how, at the start of the modern era, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke shifted the basis of moral motivation from internal attractiveness to the external constraints of law, thus eliminating moral beauty from their accounts. I then trace the emergence of the modern moral taste view in the Cambridge Platonists (viz., Benjamin Whichcote, Henry More, and Ralph Cudworth) and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and argue that Francis Hutcheson's moral sense theory diverged from this tradition in important ways. Here I draw a distinction within early modern sentimentalist views between moral taste theories (which build motivation into moral judgment) and moral sense theories (which do not). Finally I show that David Hume followed Shaftesbury's moral taste theory more closely than he followed Hutcheson's moral sense theory. I conclude that Hume's account is superior to Hutcheson's insofar as the analogy with aesthetic taste emphasizes the importance of tradition, community, and intersubjective conversation whereas the analogy with sense perception appeals only to an ahistorical essentialism. Moreover Hume's account is superior to Shaftesbury's insofar as Hume's version of the moral taste doctrine is based on a naturalized account of moral beauty which does not rely on natural teleology and is therefore more accessible to us today than ancient Greek accounts.

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