Dissertation On The Progress Of Ethical Philosophy Quotes

James Mackintosh

"Men Are Never So Good Or So Bad As Their Opinions"

Context: Sir James Mackintosh was a Scottish historian and philosophical writer with an impressive record of service to his country. Educated at Aberdeen and Edinburgh, he studied medicine and took his degree in 1787. Shortly thereafter he published Vindiciae Gallicae, a reply to Burke's writings on the French Revolution. He then left medicine for law, being called to the bar in 1795. Brilliant lectures and work as defense counsel won him fame; in 1804 he was knighted and received a government post in India. After an honorable career in that country he returned to England and served twice in Parliament, was professor of law at Haileybury College, and held other positions in the government. His writings include a history of England up to the reign of Elizabeth I and an unfinished work on the Revolution of 1688. His other works include a life of Sir Thomas More, written for Lardner's Cyclopaedia and his Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy, for the Britannica. When the seventh edition of the Encyclopeadia Britannica was projected, it was decided that the first volume should be a general history of the arts and sciences–a record of progress. A number of dissertations on various fields had already been published as supplements, and would now be included. Mackintosh was asked to write on ethical philosophy, a subject of great interest to him. The seventh edition of the Britannica was published from 1830 to 1842; Mackintosh's dissertation was published as an independent work in 1836. In his review of Jeremy Betham, Mackintosh tries to strike a balance between the violent partisans and rabid detractors, pointing out the philosopher's real contributions. Mackintosh feels that too often social and ethical philosophers fail to allow for emotional considerations; to him the principle of utility as a standard of action is both a mechanical device and a cynical or hypocritical one.

. . . It was said of Andrew Fletcher, "he would lose his life to serve his country, but would not do a base thing to save it." Let those preachers of utility who suppose that such a man sacrifices ends to means, consider whether the scorn of baseness be not akin to the contempt of danger, and whether a nation composed of such men would not be invincible. But theoretical principles are counteracted by a thousand causes, which confine their mischief as well as circumscribe their benefits. Men are never so good or so bad as their opinions. All that can be with reason apprehended is, that they may always produce some part of their natural evil, and that the mischief will be greatest among the many who seek excuses for these passions. Aristippus found in the Socratic representation of the union of virtue and happiness a pretext for sensuality; and many Epicureans became voluptuaries in spite of the example of their master; easily dropping by degrees the limitations by which he guarded his doctrines. In proportion as a man accustoms himself to be influenced by the utility of particular acts, without regard to rules, he approaches to the casuistry of the Jesuits, and to the practical maxims of Caesar Borgia.