Reid, Thomas (1710–1796)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB059-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

7. Moral judgment, rights and right bearers

As via the external senses we have both the original conceptions of the various qualities of bodies and the original judgment that this body is hard, so via our moral faculty we have the conceptions of right and wrong and the original judgment that this conduct is right and that conduct wrong. If moral approbation were simply expression of feeling and did not involve moral judgment, then quite ordinary sentences would have either no meaning or one inconsistent with all rules of grammar and rhetoric in all languages throughout all the ages (1788: V.vii).

Reid offers examples of first principles of morals (1788: V. iv and III.iii.6). The latter examples include the maxim that we ought not to do to another what we should think wrong if done to us in like circumstances. Clearly application of the maxim presupposes some basis for distinguishing right from wrong. Happily other examples such as ‘no human being is born for themselves only’ contain the basis of many more particular familiar moral directives.

Reid does not claim that all persons must perceive the truth of their first principles of morals. The immature may not reach the moral starting points of the mature. Just as we may rely upon the clear and distinct testimony of our eyes concerning the colours and shapes of the bodies around us, so we may rely upon the clear and unbiased testimony of our moral faculty with regard to what we ought to do. But testimony is not invariably satisfactory. Reid (1788: III.iii.6) claims that someone who in a cool moment does not accept the maxim about not doing to another what is unacceptable to us does not possess a moral outlook. He also claims that one can be misled by prejudice and bad example (III.iii.8). Consider someone brought up to pursue injury with unrelenting malice. If they have the virtues of clemency, generosity and forgiveness laid before them, and are in a suitably calm and fair frame of mind, they can come to see, Reid believes, that it is more noble to subdue vengeance than to destroy an enemy. Finally, since the exercise of moral judgment depends on how actions are classified, we cannot expect moral judgments to coincide among people who classify them differently. Reid recognizes the first point when he remarks that our first moral conceptions are probably acquired by attending coolly to the conduct of others, and by observing what moves our approval or our indignation.

The need for moral instruction justifies systematic presentations of morals. Such presentations are not accounts of the structure of the powers of our mind by which we have our moral conceptions and make moral assessments. Reid prefers a presentation in terms of rights – a system of Natural Jurisprudence (1788: V.iii). Whereas a ‘right action’ is an action conformable to our duty, a ‘right’ is a technical term from law and covers all that a person may lawfully do, all that they may lawfully possess and use, and all that they may lawfully claim of any other person.

A system of the rights of persons can be as adequate a presentation of morals as a system of their duties. What I have a liberty right to do, it is everyone’s duty not to hinder me from doing. What is my property right, no one ought to take from me; or to molest me in the use and enjoyment of it. And what I have a right to demand of any one it is their duty to perform.

However it may be my duty to do a kindness to a person who has no claim of right to it. Here Reid resorts to the notion of an imperfect right. They are not owed the kindness, but it would be a wrong act on the part of the agent not to do them the kindness. Again, if my neighbour possesses a horse which he has stolen, as long as I am ignorant of the theft it is my duty to treat the horse as I would any lawful possession of theirs. Reid seems inclined to allow that the thief has a claim to the stolen goods while the theft is unknown, calling the right ‘external’. But while I indisputably have the duty not to take the horse until the theft is known, the thief’s claim is groundless all along.

Reid is clear that the right of liberty extends to what I am obliged to do, to refraining from all unlawful actions and to all actions that are indifferent. The rights of liberty and property are perfect – their violation is an injury. Some claim, citing competitive sports, that Reid should not say (see 1788: V.iii) that it is the duty of all persons not to hinder me from doing what I have the liberty right to do. Clearly, if I parry and thereby thwart your thrust, I have not violated your right to thrust.

Reid holds that, although perfect, the right of property is subject to limitations and restrictions. Thus the right of an innocent individual to the necessities of life is superior to that which the rich individual has to their honestly acquired riches. Reid argues that the Utopian order of society, in which there is no private property, offers the least temptation to bad conduct (see Duty; Rights).

If someone has a limb cut off they are still the same person (1785: III.iv). The limb is no part of that person with a right to a part of their estate. My personal identity implies the continued existence of that indivisible thing which I call myself. Is it immaterial? Reid says that the changes which in common language are consistent with bodily identity differ merely in number and degree from those that are thought to undermine it; whereas personal identity does not admit of degree. Yet he allows that the testimony of witnesses to the identity of a person is commonly grounded on the same factors as our judgments of bodily identity. Nor does he think that the sole means of establishing that there is a permanent self which has a claim to all its thoughts and actions is its memory. Persons are the immediate objects of love or resentment. They are, in that respect, as far from being immediately present to the mind as other external objects.

However, Reid also argues that when I say, I see, I hear, I feel, I remember, this implies that it is one and the same self that performs all these operations. If the faculty of seeing were in the eye, that of hearing in the ear, and so on, the thinking principle, which I call myself, would be not one but many. And Kames is asked in a letter of 1775 (see Reid 1895), whether, given that we say with Joseph Priestley that mental powers are the result of brain structure, several intelligent beings formed out of Reid’s brain and having its structure will all be Reid (see Persons)?

Citing this article:
Gallie, Roger. Moral judgment, rights and right bearers. Reid, Thomas (1710–1796), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB059-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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