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By David Boucher

A concise advent to the information and writings of the British Idealists.


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This would appear to be a mundane observation on moral experience. Thus, for Idealists, hedonism and utilitarianism could clash with ordinary morality. Morality may include pleasure, but it was not the end of moral action. Pleasure may supervene on morality, but was not coincidental with it. Further, utility did not tell us how to act. To think of pleasure as a motive was to confuse a “motive” (the object before the mind) with a “psychical stimulus” (which is not an object before the mind). Finally, one of the key critical concerns of Idealism with utilitarianism was that it tended to view society in the same odd dogmatic manner, namely, as an aggregate of separate isolated atoms.

Furthermore, Spencer was held accountable for importing conceptions and fashionable analogies drawn from anywhere, except experience of the phenomena to be explained. 71 Idealists gave little credence to the Lamarckian principle of inherited characters, while at the same time stressing a strong, but not exclusive, environmental influence upon human personality. The theory of inherited characters seemed to Idealists, such as David Ritchie, surplus to requirements. There are no instances of heredity that could be explained by the theory of inherited characters which could not be explained by other means, such as natural selection, habit, training and imitation.

The emergence of morality did not begin until the cosmic process had been checked, starting with a concern for the opinions of others, developing into shame and sympathy. Feelings of approval and disapproval generated moral rules. On their acquisition we gradually became accustomed to thinking about conduct in terms of them. This was what Huxley called the artificial personality, or conscience, which countered the natural character of man. W. R. Sorley summarizes the position admirably: ‘The cosmic order has nothing to say to the moral order, except that, somehow or other, it has given it birth; the moral order has nothing to say to the cosmic order, except that it is certainly bad.

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