Does being virtuous make you happy? In Sacrifice Regained: Morality and Self-Interest in British Moral Philosophy from Hobbes to Bentham, (PDF), Roger Crisp explores the answers to this ancient question offered by the so-called ‘British Moralists’, from Thomas Hobbes, around 1650, for the next two hundred years, until Jeremy Bentham. This involves clarifying their views on happiness (self-interest, or well-being) and on virtue (or morality), in order to bring out the association of each to the other. Themes ran through many of these writers: psychological egoism, evaluative hedonism, and – after Hobbes – the acceptance of self-standing moral reasons. But there are exceptions, and even those taking the standard views endorse them for very different reasons and express them in various ways. As the ancients tended to believe that virtue and happiness largely coincide, so these modern authors are encouraged to accept posthumous reward and punishment.
Both positions sit uneasily with the common-sense idea that a person can truly surrender their own good for the sake of morality or for others. Roger Crisp shows that David Hume – a hedonist whose ethics made no appeal to the afterlife – was the first major British moralist to allow for, indeed to recommend, such self-sacrifice. Morality and well-being of course remain central to modern ethics, and Crisp shows how much there is to learn from this remarkable group of philosophers.
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