The third earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, was the leading opponent of Stuart absolutism, chief organizer of the Whig political movement, and John Locke’s patron and collaborator. The third earl was the grandson of the first earl, who held the position of Lord Chancellor under Charles II until having fallen from favor when he was implicated in Monmouth’s Rebellion. The third earl thus came from a family noted for its opposition to tyranny.

One of Locke’s tasks was to supervise the education of the young Shaftesbury, who was fluent in Greek and Latin by age 11. Although Shaftesbury shared the political views of his grandfather (known as Real, or Radical, Whiggism) and served for a number of years in Parliament, his first loves were philosophy and literature. Rather than writing formal treatises in philosophy, Shaftesbury preferred personal essays of the sort that had been popularized by Montaigne. Five lengthy essays, which cover a wide variety of subjects, including moral and social philosophy, were published in 1711 under the title, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.

Shaftesbury’s Characteristics was one of the most influential works of the 18th century. Its theory of a moral sense would influence Bishop Butler, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and other liberal thinkers, and its defense of freedom of speech, religious toleration, and personal liberty made it a key work of the early Enlightenment.

From a libertarian perspective, perhaps the Shaftesbury’s most significant contribution was the emphasis he placed on the natural sociability of human beings and the natural harmony of interests among individuals in society. Although a severe critic of Thomas Hobbes’s psychological egoism, which reduced all motives to selfish desires, Shaftesbury maintained that the pursuit of rational self‐​interest (which he called self‐​love) is not only compatible with the public good, but absolutely essential to it. As Henry Sidgwick wrote in Outlines of the History of Ethics (1886), Shaftesbury initiated a line of thought that seeks to demonstrate a harmony between man’s “social affections” and his “reflective self‐​regard.” According to Sidgwick, “no moralist before Shaftesbury had made this the cardinal point in his system.” In light of these conclusions regarding the harmony of interests that marked most social interaction, Shaftesbury may be viewed as the pioneer of a tradition that culminated, decades later, in Adam Smith’s famous theory of the “invisible hand.”

Further Readings

Hume, David. Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. J. B. Schneewind, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983.

Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of. Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Lawrence Eliot Klein, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

George H. Smith
Originally published