"A Controversy Started of Late": Rationalism and Sentimentalism in 18th Century Metaethics

Project leader

Funding source

Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (RJ)

Project Details

Start date: 01/01/2014
End date: 31/12/2016
Funding: 2153000 SEK


How can we determine what is morally right and wrong? This is one of the central questions in metaethics, the discipline that studies the nature of morality and moral judgement. An historically important dividing-line is that between rationalist and sentimentalist theories. According to the rationalists, moral judgements originate in reason. There are necessary moral truths that we can grasp through a priori reflection. According to sentimentalists, moral judgements originate in sentiments and reason plays a subordinate role. Moral truths are determined by our sentiments and not grasped through reason. This debate burgeoned among British philosophers in the 18th century. David Hume described it in 1751 as "a controversy started of late". This project focuses on three rationalists--John Balguy, Richard Price, and Thomas Reid--and three sentimentalists--Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith. The controversy between rationalism and sentimentalism has since been partly overshadowed by other related debates in metaethics but it has recently been partly revived. The project aims to present the controversy as the continuous dialectical exchange it in fact was; to assess the arguments on both sides in order to explore what they can contribute to contemporary metaethics; and to explore whether contemporary metaethics can enhance our understanding of the historical debate. In these ways the project seeks to contribute both to the history of philosophy and to modern metaethics.

Last updated on 2017-24-03 at 12:57