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Interest in what has been called a ‘moral sense’ originated in the late 17th century, as part of a philosophical debate about humans’ moral nature. Participants in the debate agreed on rejecting four views of human morality commonly held at the time. They found (1) the Cambridge Platonists’ moral rationalism and (2) Gershom Carmichael’s (and others’) natural law theories of morality too remote from actual processes of moral judgment and decision making; (3) they rejected Thomas Hobbes’ psychological egoism as excessively reductive; and (4) they found moral relativism objectionable on normative grounds, since they were committed to the defence of moral universalism. The article provides an overview over the history of moral sense theories. It briefly presents the versions developed by Thomas Burnet, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Butler, and Henry Home Lord Kames, and then provides a brief account of the moral theories by David Hume and Adam Smith who, while adherents of moral sentimentalism, rejected the assumption of a moral sense.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the eighteenth century's sharpest critics of commercial society and of the socio-economic inequalities it imposed on its members. Since he saw humans as naturally provided with freedom and equality, he denied the possibility of their flourishing under conditions of dependency, domination and servility. We know – from Adam Smith's Letter to the Edinburgh Review (Letter: 242–54) – that Smith had read Rousseau's 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and the Foundations of Inequality among Men. Indeed, Smith owed the inspiration for some of his harshest criticisms of the physical, social and moral impact of commercial society on its members in general, and on the labourers at the lower end of society in particular, to Rousseau (Rasmussen 2008: 51–90; Neuhouser 2013; 2014). Not only was he sensitive to the misery of the poor; like Rousseau, he objected to the socio-economic inequalities of commercial society on moral grounds. Morality carries a commitment to the equality of all people and is thus at odds with socio-economic inequalities, inequalities furthermore that do not originate in naturally given differences between humans.
Neither Rousseau nor Smith argued in favour of a commercial revolution aimed at a radically egalitarian redistribution of wealth. Rousseau developed a utopian political solution to the problem of socio-economic inequality in the shape of a state based on a social contract. Smith did not endorse this solution. He suggested a more pragmatic way of alleviating the lot of the poor, relying on a cost-benefit analysis of the socio-economic effects of commercial society. Smith was convinced that no single human being could flourish (morally or otherwise) without a certain degree of material wealth and that commercial society produced more wealth than any other kind of society. So although the wealth that commercial society produces comes at a price – namely, substantive socio-economic inequalities – in the light of the economic alternative of an agricultural society (not to mention a society of hunter-gatherers or shepherds) and the poverty that it would impose on the vast majority of its members, this price is worth paying: ‘it may be true … that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant,
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