Reasoning about morality: The empirical turn in Early-Modern moral philosophy from Hobbes to Rousseau

Willem Adriaan Verhoeven

Research output: ThesisThesis fully internal (DIV)

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This thesis investigates the accounts of human understanding proposed by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the Abbé de Condillac, Claude-Adrien Helvétius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and explores the consequences of their epistemologies for their theories of morality and natural law. In response to the ethical question how humans may determine the morality of their conduct by means of reason, the five thinkers we will investigate draw normative conclusions from a descriptive account of human nature. We will thus see that their descriptive account of the role of both the passions and reason in the determination of our actions provides the basis for a normative account of moral judgment. For the five thinkers we will investigate, reason is thus not merely the ability to produce knowledge by comparing disparate ideas, but also a faculty involved in practical deliberation, which not only allows us to determine whether our actions are prudent, but ultimately also whether they are moral. Accordingly, their account of human understanding not only constitutes their epistemology, but is also an integral part of their moral philosophy. As the epistemology of these five thinkers is clearly empirical in outlook, this thesis will thus document the impact of the empirical turn on early-modern moral philosophy. This enquiry will provide grounds to reconsider some prevailing scholarly opinions on the relation between reason and the passions in early-modern moral philosophy. In addition, our discussion will aim to clarify the relation between facts and values in the theories of several early-modern thinkers predating Hume. Finally, this thesis will trace the development of early-modern consequentialist accounts of normative judgment towards more explicit formulations of utilitarianism, and discuss the objections of one of the most important early-modern opponents of consequentialism – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Groningen
  • Nauta, Lodi, Supervisor
  • de Dijn, A.M.R., Supervisor, External person
Award date3-Sept-2020
Place of Publication[Groningen]
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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