22 May, 2020 • • 43.4HistoryPhilosophy

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For What?

Gabriel Roberts

Roger Crisp
Sacrifice Regained
Oxford University Press

What is the relationship between reasons for action which are grounded in our own interests and those which are grounded in the interests of others? Do reasons of one kind always overrule reasons of the other? If reasons grounded in our own interests always take precedence, is it possible to be moral at all?

Following the nineteenth-century philosopher Henry Sidgwick, Roger Crisp takes these to be the central questions of normative ethics and, again following Sidgwick, he turns to the long eighteenth century for enlightenment. On one side of the debate, Crisp places those like Hobbes who believed that humans can only be motivated by self-interest. To them, even apparent acts of altruism are really aimed at making the agent feel good or at securing advantages in the life to come. On the other side, Crisp places those like Hume who believed that humans can be motivated by reasons which are grounded in the interests of others. Only on this latter view, which Crisp supports, can self-interest be sacrificed for morality—the sacrifice evoked in Crisp’s title.

Matters are complicated, however, by an entanglement of two related questions. The first is whether reasons for action which are grounded in self-interest—what Crisp calls S-reasons—are the only kind of reason for action, or whether there are also reasons grounded exclusively in the interests of others—what Crisp calls M-reasons. After all, if there are only S-reasons, then the sacrifice imagined by Crisp must be impossible. The second question, which arises only if there are both S-reasons and M-reasons, is whether M-reasons require us to act impartially, giving no more weight to one person’s interests than to another’s. This is important because it affects whether Crisp’s sacrifice must be total, or whether some accommodation can be reached between an agent’s interests and the interests of others, as well as whether an agent may sacrifice their own interests for the interests of a particular group—their loved ones, say, or their colleagues—rather than the interests of everyone.

Theorists like Hobbes might answer the first question by arguing that there are only S-reasons. This does not mean that agents are necessarily selfish, as some of Hobbes’ contemporaries thought it did, since an agent might pursue their self-interest by acting for the benefit of others. Indeed, at the limit, the only difference between a benevolent agent motivated by S-reasons and another agent motivated by M-reasons might be the ultimate grounding of their actions. To Hobbes’ critics, however, such as Richard Cumberland, the view that there are only S-reasons, even given this point, was wholly unacceptable. These critics insisted on the existence of reasons which require agents to act impartially regardless of their own interest. Benevolence, although it might happen to involve securing one’s own well-being or the salvation of one’s soul, was independently required by the dictates of reason.

Noble as that may sound, however, many of the writers whom Crisp analyses—among them, Henry More, John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, Lord Shaftesbury, Joseph Butler, Frances Hutcheson, Samuel Clarke, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, and Jeremy Bentham—found it remarkably difficult to swallow. Looking to antiquity for inspiration, they discovered that many of their classical forebears had believed that virtuous behaviour was conducive to happiness. Yet on this view, there could be no sacrifice of the kind imagined by Cumberland, since virtuous behaviour would tend to secure happiness for the virtuous. Pursuing this line of argument, Butler, for instance, concluded that M-reasons existed, and even that they could overrule S-reasons, but conceded that the chance of an agent ever having to sacrifice self-interest for morality was, as Crisp puts it, ‘made less likely by virtue’s (ultimately hedonistic) contribution to the agent’s well-being’. Likewise, when looking to Christianity, Crisp’s subjects found things even more vexed because belief in a future state of rewards and punishments seemed to obviate the possibility of self-interest being sacrificed for morality. For Reid and many of his contemporaries, for instance, ‘the afterlife ensure[d] a necessary overlap between duty and self-interest’. Christian morality, in other words, could be taken as a set of instructions partly about how to look after one’s well-being in the (very) long term. With Hume, Crisp believes, this changed. With the abandonment of the afterlife, sacrifice could finally be regained. Ironically, though, it must be said that the passages which Crisp cites by Hume himself seem to suggest not the view that M-reasons can overrule S-reasons, but rather that there are cases in which agents perform virtuous actions to their own disadvantage simply because they have gotten wrong what their S-reasons really support.


Crisp is confident that the reader will share his passion for these problems, but he could have said more about why they should. In the first place, the question of whether all actions are necessarily self-interested might be thought to be ultimately empty, since if it is accepted that all actions are self-interested, then the same distinction which we may wish to draw between self-interested and non-self-interested actions may recur in the form of a distinction between more and less self-interested actions. There is still a considerable difference between the soldier who sacrifices herself so that her squadron may live and the soldier who runs from the bullets, even if there is a sense in which both act self-interestedly. On the other hand, if at least some actions can be motivated by M-reasons, then questions may arise about the relationship between those reasons and the wider interests of agents whose actions can be motivated by them. In particular, if it is claimed that only actions motivated by M-reasons are moral and that caring about the outcomes of one’s actions constitutes a kind of self-interest, then it may seem to follow that only actions which have nothing to do with what an agent cares about can be moral. But this kicks against the common-sense idea that being moral consists, at least in part, in caring about the right things. Just as someone who acts in self-interested but benevolent ways can be praiseworthy, someone who does the right thing just because it is right and not because they care about the outcome may fall short of the morally ideal. More radically, one might even think that the whole idea of someone’s being motivated by a reason which bears no relation to what they are anyway disposed to care about is incoherent, so that the whole apparatus of M-reasons and S-reasons breaks down. Addressing some of these issues early on might have helped Crisp to persuade the reader that the problems which he addresses are consequential, rather than mere logical puzzles.

A related problem is that Crisp says relatively little about why these problems mattered to his subjects. For many of them, the relationship between self-interest and morality was important because it was widely believed that morality was a set of duties owed by humans to God and that whether they performed these duties would affect the fate of their soul in the hereafter. Hence, mistakenly believing that one could act morally by pursuing self-interest could have disastrous consequences. But Crisp says little about this. The same is true of the relationship between natural and revealed religion. Yet for many of Crisp’s subjects, one of the reasons why the relationship between self-interest and morality was so important was that if one could deduce what was required by morality simply by consulting one’s self-interest, then this would undermine the status of the scriptures as a unique source of information about what humans needed to do to save their souls. Shaftesbury, for instance, was seen by some of his contemporaries to approach a position akin to deism by decoupling morality from revelation, but this receives scarcely a mention from Crisp.

These omissions are partly a consequence of the narrowly philosophical approach that Crisp adopts throughout the book. Each chapter is devoted to a different thinker and begins with a summary of their life and works. There follows a close, lucid, and often technically demanding analysis of their thinking, focusing solely on their published works. Little attempt is made to historicise the interpretations offered by grounding them in the views of contemporary writers or to reconstruct the intellectual world in which the subjects were writing. The works covered are treated as contributions to an ongoing, transhistorical debate which modern readers can dip into in hope of elucidating their own concerns, with only a little clarification of obscure terminology to help them. In the case of Shaftesbury, for instance, the reader is told that he was educated by Locke and inspired as much by classical as by Christian thought, and references are made throughout the exposition of the Characteristics to Epictetus and Epicurus, but they get little sense of the circumstances in which he was writing or the frame of reference in which his works were received. They learn little, if anything, for instance, about Shaftesbury’s anticlericalism or the way in which his morality was intended to steer a middle course between the religious extremes of enthusiasm and superstition. It is all about as far from Cambridge-school intellectual history as one can get.

Perhaps most interestingly, there is no attempt to consider what Crisp’s subjects might have been trying to achieve by writing what they wrote, beyond furthering philosophical understanding, and this leads to some curious results. Mandeville, for instance, despite being known for his complex ironies and multi-layered satirical purposes, receives very similar analysis to far more literal and ingenuous writers like More. Consequently, he emerges from Crisp’s analysis as recognising ‘external M-reasons, grounded in divine command, to love and actively to serve God […] in opposition to bodily desires’. Yet this is quite at odds with the view of many contemporary and modern readers, who have taken Mandeville to argue that indulging frowned-upon bodily desires can unexpectedly serve the common good. What is important about this is that it suggests that, in omitting to discuss the context in which his subjects were writing, Crisp may not only have neglected areas that readers would have benefitted from reading about, but may also have fallen short of his own objective of giving a correct interpretation of the philosophical content of their works.

Of course, if Crisp’s real objective is to elucidate some long-running philosophical debates, then perhaps his success should be measured according to how much light he sheds on the questions at issue, rather than the accuracy of his historical claims. The difficulty, however, is in knowing what Crisp’s aims are. He might argue that he had two independent objectives, one of revivifying contemporary philosophy by recovering ideas from centuries past and another of arguing for a certain reading of British thought in the eighteenth century. But if this is right, then it would raise a question about why the approach to the history was not more historical in character. Alternatively, Crisp might argue that he had a single objective of elucidating the relation between self-interest and morality by examining eighteenth-century thinking about it. This, at least, might explain the approach to the historical materials, since it might seem that only those aspects of the eighteenth-century debate which can be of value to modern philosophy have been analysed. But this, too, would raise a question about why more is not said about modern philosophy. Crisp writes in the conclusion that he hopes to have shown how much the British moralists whom he has covered have to contribute to contemporary debates about the relationship between S-reasons and M-reasons. But so little reference is made to these debates that it is difficult to take this seriously as a justification for what has gone before. At the very least, it seems unlikely that readers without a very thorough grounding in recent analytical moral philosophy will be able to see what implications Crisp’s conclusions have for contemporary thinking, and, as a result, they may end up not enlightened but perplexed.


Gabriel Roberts teaches English at a secondary school in London. He is a former editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.