Henry Fielding and the language of morals: An Experiment in Contextual Reading
2012-01-06T13:08:33Z (GMT) by
This historical study attempts a thorough revision of some current assumptions about Fielding's moral 'philosophy'. It endorses the orthodox view that Latitudinarian Anglicanism was a decisive influence, but questions whether the Anglican moralists can usefully be described as exponents of 'benevolism' - their sermons are distinguished most notably by an overriding concern with the inculcation of prudence, and by persistent hortatory appeals to self-interest. 'Prudentialism' is arguably a better term for Latitudinarian ethics, and indeed for that dimension of Fielding's work which is attributable to Anglican influence - above all, the reiterated emphasis on the coincidence of virtue and interest. The Latitudinarian connexion is important. But there were other formative influences, including the 'negative' influence of philosophies with which Fielding disagreed, such as ethical rationalism and psychological egoism. The moral 'philosophy' of Tom Jones is not a rigid conceptual structure: it is a dynamic, and sometimes polemical, response to contemporary ethical debate. This study therefore analyzes Fielding's moral vocabulary by relating it to various other contemporary moral vocabularies. Making constant, detailed reference to chosen contextual sources, it explores Fielding's views on a range of 'live' moral and moral-psychological issues: on the functions of prudence and the grounds of prudential obligation; on the relations between prudential obligation and other moral duties; on benevolence, self-love, and 'disinterestedness'; on the relative status of 'private' and 'public' virtues; on the moral functions of reason and the passions; and on the psychology of moral judgment. This study suggests that Fielding's writings embody a complex and uneasy synthesis of two historically divergent ethical traditions: in his didactic emphasis on interest and his concern with the enlightenment of self-love, Fielding is a literary heir of Anglican prudentialism; in his esteem for the 'heart', he can be seen as an ally of the newer 'sentimental' school of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson and Hume.