"How Do We Know What's Right?" by Richard Price

Richard Price. Engraving by T. Holloway after a painting by Benjamin West. (Wikipedia)

About the author…

Richard Price (1723—1791), born in Wales, served as a chaplain in several Unitarian congregations, including Newington Green. His writings are influential not only in philosophy but also in mathematics, religion, finance, and politics. Price's political pamphlets offered such strong support for the American colonies that the Continental Congress invited his advice on state financing. He formed strong friendships with such diverse personalities as Mary Wollstonecraft, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly (discoverer of oxygen), Thomas Bayes (innovator in probability theory) and David Hume. Interestingly, many of these friendships were initiated and fueled by his constructive criticisms of their works.

About the work…

In his Review of the Principal Questions in Morals,[1] Richard Price argues that moral principles, just like the principles of geometry, are universally, necessarily, and eternally true. He believes ideas of right and wrong originate in the understanding; indeed, Price anticipates not only Kant's recognition of the origin of ideas of judgment and comparison—whereby reason discriminates among moral ideas, and reason alone is a sufficient basis for action, but also W. D. Ross's deontological ethics or rational intuitionism—whereby morality is objective, and this objectivity is evaluative knowledge not empirically confirmable.

Price concludes ideas of right and wrong are simple ideas intuitively discriminated by the understanding since they cannot be defined more simply or even defined in different terms. For him, right and wrong are objective properties of actions, and as characteristics of actions, right and wrong are not subjectively dependent upon sensations arising from the nature of our minds. Just as rightness and wrongness are characteristics of behavior, so also mass and solidity are characteristics of natural objects. In both cases, these kinds of facts are not known through observation but rather by means of reason as one aspect of the faculty of the human understanding. Through introspection, Price concludes the source of the moral ideas of right and wrong is an intuition of the nature of things. In this manner, we can objectively perceive what is right and wrong in the world. Hence, Price rejects ethical naturalism, the view that ethical terms are ultimately definable in the empirical terms of the natural sciences. In this, he anticipates G. E. Moore's discussion of the naturalistic fallacy in Principia Ethica that ethical concepts must be defined in terms of nonnatural properties.

Finally, Price opposes the divine command theory that actions are right only for the reason of God's commanding them. Price argues if the divine command theory were true, then we would have to conclude there would be no reason for God to command what He does.

Ideas of Interest from Review of the Principal Questions of Morals

  1. Why doesn't Price think that it is possible for a particular faculty of sense to examine, compare and evaluate sensations?

  2. How does Price distinguish the faculty of sense from the faculty of understanding? Explain Price's use of the terms "sense" and "understanding."

  3. On what basis does Price conclude that our ideas of right and wrong are simple ideas? What is the naturalistic fallacy? How does his argument avoid the naturalistic fallacy?

  4. Explain and give an example of what Price means when he writes, "[T]he understanding is a power of immediate perception, which gives rise to new original ideas." How does Price define intuition? Next, explain why Price believes some of our ideas do not originate entirely from the faculties of sense or understanding.

  5. According to Price, what is the source of the mistake of concluding that our ideas of right and wrong are ideas of sense? Why is this mistake such a serious error? According to Price, what is the role of emotion in the making of ethical judgments?

  6. Price points out sensations are distinct from their causes. In this regard, what is the analogy Price draws between the origin of our ethical ideas and the origin of the the secondary qualities of physical objects?

  7. Explain what this conclusion drawn by Price means: "[N]othing is more common than for men to mistake their own sensations for the properties of the objects producing them, or to apply, to the object itself, what they find always accompanying it, whenever observed." Explain the mistake in terms of the concepts of primary and secondary ideas.

  8. What are Price's three arguments against Hume's claim that "[A]ll our ideas are either impressions or copies of impressions": the first, a reductio ad absurdum, the second, a common sense inquiry into the kinds of impressions, and the third, right and wrong as the necessary nature of some actions.

  9. According to Price, upon what basis can the principles of ethics be absolutely founded? What is his argument that the creation of law or the making of a promise is not an exception to the doctrine of ethical absolutism?

  10. How does Price seek to prove that the source of ethical principles is not God, or even civil authority? According to Price, why can't the will of God determine what is good or bad for human conduct?



Richard Price, Review of the Principal Questions of Morals 3rd. ed. (London: T. Cadell in the Strand, 1787), 8-79 passim.