Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury

The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper III) (1671 – 1713) was an English philosopher and a grandson of the First Earl of Shaftesbury. He significantly influenced eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European thought, particularly in the areas of moral philosophy and religion. In the early stages of his life, Shaftesbury was educated by John Locke, and studied the Greek and Roman classics.


Shaftesbury occupies a somewhat paradoxical place in early modern philosophy. On one hand, he studied under and was influenced by the great British empiricist John Locke, and would himself be a significant influence on the later British empiricists (most notably, David Hume). On the other hand, much of Shaftesbury's thought is rooted in a conception of the universe that had its (often quite rationalist) sources in ancient Greece. Perhaps most illustrative of the result of these influences is Shaftesbury's view of moral truths: while moral truths are only discoverable by a non-rational, quasi-sensory capacity, those truths nevertheless concern thoroughly objective features of a rationally governed universe. The first part of this view is widely regarded as the first instance of the important 'moral sense' tradition in moral philosophy, while the second is generally seen as a less significant contribution. Nevertheless, Shaftesbury's work is marked throughout by wit and a keen sense of argument that has ensured continued scholarly interest.


Shaftesbury was born in 1671. His grandfather (the first Earl) had supported and served under Oliver Cromwell and, later, the Whig party. Shaftesbury was primarily raised by his grandfather, and would become a member of the Whig party during his own political career.

The first Earl employed John Locke, who acted as a physician in the Cooper household, to educate his grandson. Shaftesbury was greatly influenced by Locke, and later made a trip to Locke during his exile in Holland. Yet this influence was not always in the form of acceptance of ideas—indeed, Shaftesbury saw much of his philosophy as aimed against Locke's. In his education, Shaftesbury was swayed by arguments from ancient Stoicism and Platonic rationalism, which were often at odds with Locke's particular variety of empiricism and moral egoism.

Asthma (worsened by London's smog) forced Shaftesbury to end his political career at the age of 30, which in turn marked the starting point of his philosophically most significant decade. Beginning with the Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit of 1699, Shaftesbury published a series of works in a variety of styles, chiefly focusing on ethics, aesthetics, politics and theology. In 1711 he collected those works into a single volume entitled Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Two years later, his respiratory problems overcame came him. After his death, two further volumes of his work were published.

Shaftesbury's work was highly influential throughout the eighteenth century, helping shape the ethical thought of Hume and [Immanuel Kant]].


Shaftesbury's philosophy stems from a surprising variety of sources: Plato, the Stoics, the Cambridge Platonists, and John Locke. In many ways more a rationalist than an empiricist, Shaftesbury is nevertheless marked as one of the founders of the (typically empiricist) view that our moral concepts and judgments are based on sentiment and feeling, as opposed to reason or rational intuition. While therefore being an innovative thinker, his overarching view of the universe, with its focus on harmony and insistence on the human-independence of beauty and goodness, harkens back to the vision laid out over two millennia earlier in Plato's Republic.

The Harmonious Universe

While Shaftesbury's chief object of inquiry, following Locke, is the nature of humans and the human mind, he insists that humans can only be understood with respect to their role in the larger systems of which they are a part. To reinforce this, he asks his readers to consider how well someone would fare in understanding the nature of a watch if he were unaware of its role as an instrument to measure time. Such a person might well understand the basic mechanical relations between the gears, springs and hands, yet would have lack any real sense of why the various parts were related as they were or why the watch as a whole existed in the first place. The analogy is meant to suggest that there is something fundamentally misguided in thinking that human beings could be understood without taking their purpose into account.

Shaftesbury saw the universe as a harmonious system composed of sub-systems. The human species counts as one such sub-system, and each individual human is in turn a sub-system of the species. The goodness of any particular entity or sub-system is a function of how well it contributes to the larger systems of which it is a part. In other words, Shaftesbury's vision of the universe is thoroughly teleological (i.e. concerned with the purposes of entities).

Given this general outlook, it is unsurprising that Shaftesbury was a proponent of the so-called “Argument from Design,” which infers the existence of an intelligent and powerful creator from the harmonious, complex and apparently purposive nature of the universe. Yet Shaftesbury presents the argument in a somewhat unusual light by comparing the systematicity of the universe with the systematicity of the succession of ideas in our minds. Our ideas do not follow one another haphazardly—rather, their occurrence is (often) in accordance with logical principles. This order is explained by the fact that the mind is governed by a rational force (the mind's intelligence). If this explanation appears apt, Shaftesbury concludes, then an exactly parallel argument should be accepted for the existence of some intelligent, governing force in the universe.

Moral Sentiment and Virtue

Shaftesbury saw the goodness of any entity or act as based in that thing’s contribution to its overall system, so that all creatures are capable of good actions. Yet he insists that something further is required for a creature's action to be virtuous: it must be done from a motive of goodness (a claim that would later be central to Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy).

Shaftesbury further concluded that our ability to recognize this motive requires the existence of a certain mental power that is not reducible to the faculty of reason or normal sense perception—a so-called 'moral sense.' This ability is manifested when we reflect on our actions, and the actions of others. Only thereby do we attain a sense of right and wrong. Such a view straightforwardly allows the possibility of creatures who have just as much ability to reason as we do, have the same sensory perceptions as we do, and share most of our desires, yet who altogether lack any conception of right, wrong, virtue or vice.

The view that our beliefs in moral qualities has a different source from our beliefs in mathematics and logic (for which our source is reason) and in sensory objects (for which our source is the senses) became one of the important doctrines in eighteenth-century ethical theory—most famously, in the moral writings of David Hume. Unlike nearly all later moral sense theorists, however, Shaftesbury did not go on to conclude that moral properties are somehow less real than other properties. In fact, he held that, in the God-governed universe, there were genuine moral properties and, thereby, facts about right and wrong. Interestingly, Shaftesbury held the same view for aesthetic properties.

To this extent, Shaftesbury's views echo those of the ancient Stoics, whose works he knew. The Stoics held that there were genuine moral facts, but that our apprehension of those facts was (at least initially) not based in reason. Yet the Stoics held that these facts could, with maturity, be grasped by reason, and lacked any clear counterpart to Shaftesbury's faculty of moral sense.

Attack on Hedonism

Hedonism is the philosophical position that, at root, the basic good to be sought is pleasure, and the basic bad is pain. Shaftesbury was strongly opposed this position. Some of his opposition stemmed naturally out of his views concerning motives and virtue, yet he also mounted powerful attacks that are independent of those views. These attacks are reminiscent of arguments reaching back at least as far as Plato, yet Shaftesbury gave them very precise formulations.

Against hedonism, Shaftesbury first notes that we do not always regard people who possess pleasure as possessing any real good. Someone might well derive tremendous pleasure from eating sweet things, yet we do not necessarily judge that such a person has attained anything good, no matter how intense his pleasure. Shaftesbury imagines that the hedonist might respond by reformulating her position so as to only countenance certain kinds of pleasures. The problem with such a response, he argues, is that it is effectively abandoning hedonism; whatever it is that distinguishes the good pleasures from those that are not good is itself the good, not the pleasure itself.


Primary Sources

  • Klein, Lawrence E. (ed.). 1999. Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rand, Benjamin (ed.). 1914. Second Characters or the Language of Forms by the Right Honourable Anthony, Early of Shaftesbury. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprint edition, 1969. New York: Greenwood Press.
  • Rand, Benjamin (ed.). 1900. The Life, Unpublished Letters and Philosophical Regimen of Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1900. Reprint edition, 1994. London: Thoemmes Continuum.

Secondary Sources

  • Grean, Stanley. 1967. Shaftesbury's Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
  • Voitle, Robert. 1984. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury 1671-1713. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana University Press.
  • Yaffe, Gideon. 2002. "The Earl of Shaftesbury." In A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy. Edited by Steven Nadler. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 425-436.

External links

All links retrieved April 4, 2016.

General Philosophy Sources


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