John Gay and the Birth of Utilitarianism

Utilitas 30 (1):86-106 (2018)
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This article concerns John Gay’s 1731 essay ‘Preliminary Dissertation Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue or Morality’. Gay undertakes two tasks here, the first of which is to supply a criterion of virtue. I argue that he is the first modern philosopher to claim that universal happiness is the aim of moral action. In other words: Gay is the first utilitarian. His second task is to explain the source of moral motivation. He draws upon the principles of association to argue (a) that we develop benevolent motives by associating the idea of our happiness with that of others and (b) that we come to approve of benevolence by recognizing that our happiness is inextricably connected with the general happiness. While some scholars have taken an interest in Gay’s essay, a sustained treatment of its contents does not exist, despite its acknowledged influence on Hume, Hartley, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill.



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Getty Lustila
Northeastern University