A Fountain-Head Of English Ethics -- By: George F. Magoun

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 044:173 (Jan 1887)
Article: A Fountain-Head Of English Ethics
Author: George F. Magoun


A Fountain-Head Of English Ethics

Rev. George F. Magoun

If the object of these articles were purely historical, it would be necessary to give an adequate account, at least, of the moral teachings of Hobbes, and of Bishop Cumberland’s arguments against his views. It is the object, instead, to show what ethical teachings began in England with Cumberland—to re-open an obstructed fountain-head long covered with overgrowth and rubbish, whose streams have still been flowing down in winding and hidden ways to our own times.1 Partly historical, however, the treatment of the subject will still be, in showing the indebtedness of great names in ethics and of schools of ethical thinkers, to the forgotten and acute Bishop of Peterborough. The influence of his ideas did not end with those already named (p. 528, Vol. XLIII.), who came within three quarters of a century from his day.

Thus far only the more general positions of Cumberland have been considered: his psychology at large, so far as he had any; his overlooking the sensibilities proper and the will as distinguished from them—as was common down

to our own day;2 his denying intuitive ideas under the name of “innate” and admitting them in another form; his missing the true original idea of right; his confounding conscience with a foretokening of evil consequences to follow some of our acts; his limiting obligation to the relation between acts and consequences under law; the supremacy of the idea of natural good in all his moralizing, with a seeming enthronement of this idea in the place of the intuitions, and especially of the idea of right; and his understanding of law as simply that which requires of a moral agent the doing of what will result in natural good. Ethics thus becomes the rule for obtaining happiness, and methods of ethics, methods for obtaining happiness, unless, by some happy inconsistency, something more than happiness is included within the meaning of “good.” It has not been worth while to trace the relation of these views to those of later moralists, as it will be to trace those of other views of his yet to be set forth.

Bishop Cumberland was the first of English-speaking moralists to teach that virtue or rectitude consists in general or universal benevolence. For this, his name is worthy of perpetual remembrance among philosophers. Such is the connection of President Edwards’s name with this theory that, if not expressly named as the author of it, he is virtually considered so, at least this side the sea. But Edwards was seventy-one years younger than Cumberland. He was born fifteen years bef...

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