Third Earl of Shaftesbury

by Anthony Ashley Cooper

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Shaftesbury’s education was placed in the hands of the philosopher John Locke by the boy’s grandfather, the First Earl of Shaftesbury. He was fluent in classical Latin and Greek in his early youth, as well as in modern French; in his later youth, he spent three years on the European Continent and became thoroughly familiar there with art and music. His later writings, in fact, are of equal importance in both aesthetic and moral philosophy. In Shaftesbury’s time, English moral philosophy was heavily influenced by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who maintained that human nature is essentially selfish and that unless they are coerced by society, people will not cooperate to act decently. In direct contradiction of Hobbes, Shaftesbury maintained that the very existence of society demonstrates a predisposition for moral cooperation—the “moral sense” that he was the first to name. Because it was bound up with society, the moral sense found its greatest virtue in pursuing the public interest. Shaftesbury also believed that morality and religion were separable, which enhanced the status of the moral sense as an innate human attribute. Shaftesbury’s views directly influenced the British philosophers Francis Hutcheson and David Hume.

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