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02 May

Sentimentalism: Moral Theory from the Celtic Fringe

With the exception of Shaftesbury, none of the moralists we have been examining was English. In fact, the English are in as short supply among this group as they are in the ranks of so-called English literary modernism. Almost all of the thinkers we have been discussing stemmed from the Gaelic margins of the metropolitan nation, a fact that may not be insignificant. Gaels like Burke, Hume, Hutcheson, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson, along with figures like Goldsmith, Steele, Brooke and Sterne who were born in Ireland or of part-Gaelic provenance, were no doubt more inclined to the cult of sentiment and benevolence than their Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. This is not because Gaels are genetically more genial than the English, but because Scotland and Ireland both had powerful traditions of clan- or community-based allegiances.

It is true that kinship structures, binding customs, unwritten obligations and so-called moral economy had long been under siege in both nations from a colonially imposed system of contractual relations and possessive individualism. But aspects of this traditional way of life survived precariously alongside more modem institutions, and in the political militancy of
small tenants, crofters and labourers could offer such modernity some ferocious resistance throughout the Age of Reason.

From Terry Eagleton (2008) Trouble with Strangers, p. 77.

The first section of this book explores Sentimentalism, also known as Moral Sense Theory. Moral sentimentalists argue against the theory that human motivation is based on self-interest but also deny that morality can be derived from pure reason. Instead they hold the position that morality and altruism are based in sentiment: in the feelings human beings have for one another and their concern for each others welfare.

Of the names Eagleton mentions, Burke, Hutcheson, Goldsmith, Steele,Brooke and Sterne are Irish-born (all links to the Irish Compendium of Biography, 1878). How happy the Scottish philosophers Hume, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson would be to be called “Gaels”, I am not entirely sure.

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