Sunday, June 11, 2006

Thomas Reid's Theory of the Formation of Morals was non-Scientific

I have been asked by a student why I was so harsh on Thomas Reid in my earlier post and could I explain why he does not deserve to be included among the luminaries of the Scottsh Enlightenment.

These are interesting questions and my brief answer is offered below (I did say that 'List' articles are only matters of opinion, which is why I do not offer them myself - your list is as good as mine, probably better):

Adam Smith’s explanations and the theory supporting them of how moral sentiments are formed were able to maintain their credibility when moral science steps outside 18th-century Europe to explain the process of moral formation in societies devoid of the habits, institutions and, indeed, religious experiences, with which he and his readers were familiar.

If religious precepts and pulpit exhortations are not enough in societies that share them (a view expressed by Albert O. Hirschman, in his 1977 book, The Passions and the Interests: political arguments for capitalism before its triumph, (p 15), Princeton University Press), how were morals formed in societies that did not share the precepts of British Churches, or were entirely ignorant of them, including those of other societies throughout prehistory, let alone classical Greece and Rome prior to Constantine?

This question remains a telling blow against the alternative so-called ‘common sense’ theory of Thomas Reid (1710-96) that he advanced against Smith’s 'Theory of Moral Sentiments', which was a theory of moral formation for all societies in all ages. In short it was a scientific theory because testable and not a parochial theory like Reid's, relevant to one time and place only ,and therefore failed its first test.

On this ground the inclusion of Thomas Reid in Julian Baggini’s list of major Scottish contributors to the Enlightenment must be suspect. Reid represented a step backwards to pre-Enlightenment philosophies of morality based on revealed truths of the Christian religion, and this hardly qualifies him to the stature Baggini accords him.


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