The Darwinian Heritage and Sociobiology

By Johan M. G. Van Der Dennen; David Smillie et al. | Go to book overview

18
Darwin and the Eighteenth-Century British Moral Tradition

Michael Bradie

Charles Darwin's treatment of morality is a reflection of and response to concerns that emerge in Francis Hutcheson and other eighteenth-century British moralists concerning the reconciliation of self-interest and benevolence. In essence Darwin can be construed as providing an evolutionary answer to a problem posed by Hutcheson: "[I]t is true indeed, that the actions we approve in others, are generally imagin'd to tend to the natural good of Mankind, or that of some Parts of it. But whence this secret chain between each person and Mankind? How is my interest connected with the most distant parts of it?" ( Hutcheson, 1969, vol. 2, p. 111).


THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY LEGACY IN BRITISH MORAL PHILOSOPHY

Two problems form the core of the eighteenth-century discussions on moral motivation. The first, "Why be moral?" is really two questions, "Why are we moral?" and "Should we be moral, and if so, why?" The first, descriptive question is one of moral motivation. That we should be moral and that being moral involved acting to promote the common good were presupposed by these writers. As to why we should be moral, although the eighteenth-century British moralists rejected a radical Hobbesian position, more often than not they wound up defending a version of the view that we should be moral because it is in our self-interest (properly understood) to do so.

The second problem, then, was how to reconcile self-interest and benevolence (which in the nineteenth century became the problem of reconciling self-interest

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