Common Sense and Common Language in Thomas Reid’s Ethical Theory

The Monist 61 (2):299-310 (1978)
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Contemporary commentators on the history of ethics have devoted little attention to the ethical theory of Thomas Reid. The main reason for this neglect concerns the perspective from which they are very likely to view his theory. Roughly, this perspective is as follows. Eighteenth century ethics tends to be viewed as consisting mainly in the prolonged dispute concerning the nature of the moral faculty. In identifying Reid’s part in this dispute it should be noted that his Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, his major work on ethics, was published in 1788. It was therefore preceded by the works of such early rational intuitionists as Cudworth, Clarke, Balguy, and Wollaston and by the criticisms directed against them by such defenders of the moral sense position as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume. Moreover, it was preceded by the intuitionistic counterattack directed against the latter by Richard Price, a near contemporary of Reid, who has often been described as the greatest of the intuitionists and whose prominence is such that his ethical theory has tended to eclipse that of Reid. The result is that there are in Reid a large number of pages devoted to restatements of an intuitionistic position which a contemporary reader has already encountered in earlier writers and which he is therefore likely to find rather boring. Even those who have maintained correctly that Reid is the founder of the Scottish school of common sense and that his ethical theory is to be seen in the context of his defense of common sense have added little to this perspective, since, generally speaking, they have found no significant differences between his ethical theory as seen in this context and intuitionism. Viewed from this perspective, Reid’s ethics might well be deserving of neglect and of the comment made by Alasdair MacIntyre that “the successors of Hume and Adam Smith in Scottish philosophy have little to say to us. Thomas Reid was a rationalist in the spirit of Price.”



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