The theory that Jane Austen can be read as a moralist was put forth in The Oxford Review by Peter Smith, Ph.D., of Cambridge University, in 1966. He posits that there is ample evidence in her language and conceptualizations of how to evaluate a person's worth confirming Jane Austen's direct or indirect exposure to then contemporary moralists. He notes that there is a particular tie to the writings and theory of Shaftesbury who is notably different from other moralists for his deviation away from binary terms, like Good-Bad, and substitution of trait terms, like principles and fancies and prejudices and taste.
These, Smith convincingly notes, are the same terms with which Austen describes her characters who are not binary opposites of each other but who have degrees and shades of trait qualities. Austen, like Shaftesbury, does not describe nor consider qualities in terms of Aristotelian binaries. Therefore, Smith posits Jane Austen as an informed moralist of her time.
Almost never does she use either the bi-polar ethical
vocabulary or the corresponding bi-polar psychological vocabulary of the Black–White ethic. ... Instead we get an ample, variegated and many-dimensional vocabulary. Her descriptions of people mention their tempers, habits, dispositions, moods, inclinations, impulses, sentiments, feelings.... (Smith, "Jane Austen and the Moralists")
The opposing theory, that Austen cannot be read as a moralist, posits a weaker position that moralists are so by choice and have the intention of putting forth moral doctrine and persuading audiences to adopting moral positions. The argument is that since Austen was a novelist who intended to paint society as she knew it in strikingly realistic images, and since her education was bound by society's limitations upon women relating to institutions of higher learning, she could not be said to have intended to persuade to moral positions, thus she could not be said to be a moralist.