The original source for the idea of Jane Austen as a moralist came from a 1966 work by philosopher Peter Smith of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In it, Smith argues that Austen is intentionally exploring the abstract moral nouns her titles reflect and that even her other novels, like Emma and Mansfield Park, explore moral abstractions, like influence versus interference in Emma. Thus he extrapolates the conclusion that Austen was intentionally a moralist. He contends this though she may not have vaunted her position by claiming such an elevated title for herself and though she may not have included moralization in her advice about novelizing in letters to nieces and nephews.
In this energetic work, Smith's central arguments for Austen as a moralist are (1) what she says and (2) what she does not say. His central support is the influence of Aristotle and Shaftesbury--either by direct or indirect influence (studied and read or indirectly acquired)--on Austen's moral aesthetic.
What Austen says is that characters have qualities of "mind." This is defined by Smith as more than memory or cognitive construct. It is defined as a quality of moral aesthetics, an aesthetic found to have prominent place in Shaftesbury's writing. Some examples pointed out of Austen's reference to "mind" are: "delicacy of mind" and "bursts of mind" (Smith). Examples of this in Pride and Prejudice are:
presence of mind
superiority of mind
liberal-minded, just, sincere,
turn of our minds
narrow-minded, silly man;
delicacy of mind
absence of mind
her mind improved
serenity of a mind at ease
state of mind
illiberal mind (Pride and Prejudice)
What Austen does not say is that characters have mono or dual characteristics the way "Calvanistic" moralist writers who preceded Austen did (e.g., Johnson, Goldsmith and Hume (Smith)). In other words, Austen does not describe her characters by a single quality, like garrulous, nor by dualistic comparison of good versus bad characteristics, such as mean versus generous or virtuous versus immoral. She describes her characters in an Aristotelian model by comparative degrees wherein one is nicer compared to another or one is more sensible compared to another (Smith).
Smith posits that (1) since Austen wrote from a "deep interest" in questions of a serious nature, "about human nature and human conduct" according to an Aristotelian model, she is therefore a moralist; (2) since she wrote in moral aesthetic agreement with the moralist Shaftesbury, who discusses qualities of "mind," there was informed intention in her moralizations.
One textual example of these moralizations is a comparison between Darcy's good will and Wickham's good will. Darcy's good will toward Elizabeth and her family regarding Kitty is sincere and genuine with no self-serving motives. Wickham's good will toward Elizabeth is nothing but self-serving manipulation. Darcy's actions on Elizabeth's behalf are "genuine good will," while Wickham's actions are "power [and] conceit" (Smith). As a moralist, Austen draws this moral picture on her "bit" of "ivory," "two inches wide."
"I have no right to give my opinion," said Wickham, "as to his being agreeable or otherwise. I am not qualified to form one. I have known him too long and too well to be a fair judge. It is impossible for me to be impartial." (Pride and Prejudice)