A Certain Sense of Right and Wrong

There is a certain sense of right and wrong placed by nature in the minds of men […] We know by conscience that this moral sense is in us, and it would be vain to try and demonstrate it by argument; it is analogous to the intuitive perception of truth which is the basis of all knowledge, or to the sense of taste by which we distinguish foods; and just as we should have no notion of truth or falsehood if this intuitive sense of truth were taken away, nor any notion of flavours without this sense of taste, so, if this sense of right and wrong; of honourable and shameful, were removed, these words would have no force or meaning. This sense is so natural, so constant and uniform, that it can be stifled by no prejudices and extinguished by no passions; its sacred judgement can be corrupted by no bribes; it lives in the most wicked men, to whom virtue is so pleasing they involuntarily admire their betters.

Abbé Luke Hooke, Religionis naturalis et moralis philosophæ principia, methodo scholastica digesta (Paris, 1752-54), Vol I, pp. 482-3. Quoted in English in R. R. Palmer (2015) Catholics and Unbelievers in 18th Century France, Princeton University Press, pp. 40-1 (originally published 1961).

As Palmer points out, this moral doctrine was adhered to by many philosophes. “If Hooke’s statement inclines to the new philosophy, it is because he compares the perception of right to a sensation, thus revealing the influence of the school of Locke, and because he puts great trust in the power of conscience, thus approaching the school of Rousseau” (p. 41).

Readers of this blog may also note a resemblance to the moral theory of Hutcheson. Both Hutcheson and Hooke sought to locate morality in the person rather than in the church. Morality was not imposed from outside, but an integral part of the human person.

Dublin-born Luke Hooke (1714-96) lived most of his life in Paris. “The Principia, often mistaken for mere apology, actually sought to build bridges between traditional theology and the new science. It abandoned the scholastic system of presentation and attempted to integrate Newton into its theological system” (Thomas O’Connor (2004) “Hooke, Luke Joseph (1714-96)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (eprint)).

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