Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L116-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 30, 2022, from

5. Moral psychology

Moral development towards principled action depends on adequate development of the appropriate faculties, namely imagination, passion and reason, whose joint function is to reveal the true end of human life. Human beings come into the world endowed with appetite and the capacity to develop these higher faculties, though capacities vary with sensibility and development may be impeded by mistaken upbringing. Appetite, whose function is to preserve the body, proposes merely sensual, achievable objects of desire; imagination proposes ideal objects which make possible desire for something beyond the physically attainable. Such desires spring from the passions (fear, anger, love and so on), whose function is to elevate the mind. Sensibility (nervous sensitivity) is, or is linked to, capacity for imagination and passion.

Reason is developed by reflecting on efforts, especially frustrated efforts, to satisfy the passions and appetites. The reason which recognizes the function of the appetites, and tempers their satisfaction accordingly, is prudence; temperately satisfied appetite is earthly or animal happiness. The reason which recognizes the function of the passions, whose natural outcome is discontent, identifies the true end of human life, namely moral perfection or likeness to God; it produces virtue by transforming passionate desire into desire for perfection as the only object which can satisfy it. Attainment of perfection is true human happiness, which is impossible in this life.

Since the development of virtue depends on reason’s interaction with the appetites and passions, virtue is not served by premature or inappropriate attempts to curb or stifle these. Rather, social conventions and education which restrict the activities and aspirations of women prevent the development of both reason and virtue, thereby justifying and reinforcing conventional gender roles. Conventional female education, by encouraging attention to sensory attractions, and instilling outward propriety instead of virtue, discourages development of the higher functions of imagination and passion, thus depriving an already weakened reason of opportunities to acquire knowledge of the true end of human life, and hence adult virtue.

Citing this article:
Zaw, Susan Khin. Moral psychology. Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L116-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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