The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

Fielding and the Moralists


The Object of Morality, p.17


Cf. Erich Framm: Man For Himself, ch.IV section
1. Despite its limitations, Fromm’s discussion,
and the book as a whole, are a useful application of psychological ideas to philosophical
ethics, and far more valuable than most recent
moral philosophY,in the analytical tradition.


I have in mind such works as G. R. Grice’s The
Grounds of Moral Judgement, D. A. J. Richards’

A Theory of Reasons for Action, and J. Rawls’

A Theory of Justice. Though these are, in vary-

what follows, a gross and critically misleading

In general, then, I shall be pursuing the line
of defence of Fielding already pioneered by Empson
in his essay on Tom Jones 2 • Empson sees that Tom
Jones is, among other things, a structure of
implicit argument, and that the beauty and power of
the novel have much in common with the beauty and
power of the more sustained and formally satisfying
monuments of philosophy:

••. ,the feeling that he [Fielding] is providing
a case is what gives Tom Jones its radiance,
making it immensely better, I think, than the
other two novels … it builds up like Euclid.

Modern critics seem unable to feel this,
apparently because it is forbidden by their
aesthetic principles, even when Fielding tells
them he is doing it; whereas Dr. Johnson and Sir
John Hawkins, for example, took it seriously at
once, and complained bitterly that the book had
an immoral purpose. 3

ing degrees, more impressive than anything in
the ‘Language of Morals’ vein, I still feel that
they are open to my general criticisms of the


Marx and Engels: The German Ideology, Lawrence
& Wishart, p.267.


J. S. Mill: Essays on Bentham and Coleridge,
Chatto & Windus.


These revealing examples occur oh page 90 of

But even Ernpson, though he sees that Fielding is
defending a central doctrine, feels that that doctrine
‘retains the shimmering mystery of a mirage’, and
later on after stating the doctrine (I think wrongly)
mutters uncomfortably, ‘A modern philosopher might
answer that this makes no logical difference,.4
Fielding, it seems, needs an advocate among the
philosophers, and that is the modest office which I
shall try to execute in this essay.

The Object of Morality.


The Object of Morality, p.26
The Sexual Revolution, pp.6-7

fielding and
Ihe _o.-alisls



Bernard Harrison

Those who believe that morality is the primary
concern of the novel have been almost unanimous in
dismissing Fielding as a serious novelist.

I think
this is a pity, since I find Fielding’s treatment of
moral questions, and ,particularly of questions
about the nature of morality itself, sufficiently
powerful for his work to have something to offer,
not only to the critic and the common reader, but to
the professional philosopher.

Amongst literary men, and not without same
reason, the words ‘professional philosopher’ not
uncommonly produce a sinking of the heart.

I should therefore begin by disclaiming the intention
of dealing with Fielding as the prudent and judicious
gravel contractor deals with the verdant meadow or
the pastoral hillside.

I do not propose, that is,
to strip away everything of literary interest in his
work in order to arrive at some gritty but useful
substance of philosophical generalisation which lies
beneath. My concern is with the question, how ought
Fielding to be read?

I want to suggest that one reason why a writer
in one sense so straightforward has so often been
read with astonishing obtuseness is to be found in
the relative insensitivity of readers to the rather
impressive vein of philosophical dialectic which
underlies the entire fabric of Fielding’s writings,
but which is easy to miss, precisely because it is
so well and completely integrated into them. To
miss the power of Fielding’s philosophical position
is to miss half the occasional force and all of the
cumulative force of the systematic patterns of irony
which this position dominates and directs; it is to
miss the essential mode of Fielding’s concern with
the interaction of character and conduct; and, in
general, to remain ignorant or misguided on the
question of what sort of novel Fielding is, or ought
to be, trying to write. To regard Fielding, in the
dismissive words of a recent critic, as ‘a competent
amateur in philosophy’ is, as I shall try to show in

One kind of case against Fielding, put baldly, runs
like this. A novel by Fielding is a parade of
puppets, each clearly labelled by the author at the
outset as vicious or virtuous, and allowed no
subsequent moral development. This, it is argued,
is grossly so in Jonathan Wild, a recent editionS of
which is garnished with woodcuts so remarkably wooden
as to testify mutely to the plausibility of this
critical response to the novel. But similar charges
can be brought against Tom Jones.

Fielding indeed
wishes us to believe in Book XVII that Tom ~as
learned from his experiences; that he has
reflection on his past follies, acquired a discretion and prudence very uncommon in one of his lively
parts.’ But these changes lie beyond the events of
the novel, in which they manifest themselves, if at
all, only by the passing remorse and embarrassment
which T~ displays at his’first meeting with Sophia
after his release from Newgate. Beyond this there
is only what is politely called the picaresque: that
jolly, remorseless procession of Thwackums and
Squares, Westons and Partridges, making, to borrow
‘Savonarola’ Brown’s stage- direction, remarks
highly characteristic of themselves.

There is no developnent of charac’ter in Fielding,
the argument proceeds, because Fielding’s characters
are not allowed to interact in a fully imagined
world. The action proceeds in a toy world of comic
convention, presided over by a comic Providence in
the person of an ubiquitously intrusive authornarrator who supplies interminable didactic moral
commentary, stage-manages the plot by liberal
helpings of shameless coincidence, and sees that
calamity never goes beyond a joke. In this world
character and action fall apart, for action is
arranged merely to display predetermined traits of
character, and any doubts which action might cast
upon the preordained lineaments of particular
characters are simply, dismissed, by appeal, either
directly, or by means of irony, to the judgement
of the privileged narrator.

A case of this sort has been ‘persuasively put
by Frank Kerrnode 6 • Kermode, like Coleridge,
chooses, as a locus of the divorce between
character and conduct in Fielding, the episode in
Tom Jones in which the young Blifil releases the pet
bird which Torn had given to Sophia. Tom tries to
coax the bird from a tree and falls into the canal;
Sophia weeps; Blifil defends himself on grounds of a
humanitarian pity for the bird, but blames himself


on the grounds that, as nobody else had noticed,
the bird has in fact just been captured by a hawk.

The incident gives occasion for a yrand casuistical
debate between Thwackum and Square: Allworthy takes
Bilfil’s plea of humanitarianism as worthy of
serious consideration in balancing it against other
aspects of his action; Western dismisses it out of
hand as an impudent and hyp’ocri tical fraud. All of
the important questions about Fielding as a novelist
arise and can be discussed, it seems to me, in
connexion with this one incident.

Kermode’s argument is that Fielding’s dismissal
of Bilfil as a villain rests upon the arbitrary
attribution to Bilfil, by an exercise of Narrator’s
License, of motives which do not square with the
·moral tenor of his recorded actions, just as in other
contexts, the convention of the underlying goodness
of Tom’s character is maintained in the face of
behaviour which is anything but virtuous by similar
techniques of suggestion and express assurance.

Fielding, in other words, does not seriously confront
those problems of the coherency of character and
conduct which it is of the essence of the serious
novel to solve, because he relies at crucial points
on directly suggesting to the reader, using methods
which work only on the assumption that novelist and
reader share the same moral assumptions (that both
possess a Good Heart), what sort of people his
characters are. ~eing and doing ought to be inseparable in the novel; in Fielding they are not.

The short answer to this, I think, is that
Fielding gives us abundant grounds in Bilfil’s
recorded behaviour on this occasion to justify us in
thinking him a scoundrel.

It is perfectly true, as
Kermode says, that the fact that releasing a caged
bird is, in some sense, in itself, or prima facie, a
humanitarian act, has for Fielding no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether Blifil is a
scoundrel. But this is because, for Fielding, the
interest and complexity of character lies in the
processes of thought and feeling by which the original impulses of a good or bad heart become tranST
lated into a moral ‘surface’ of publicly visible
conduct. For Fielding there are always two descriptions of any given action: on the one hand the
description which we apply to it when we do not
know or do not care who in particular did it, and
hence know nothing of the particular pattern of
-inclinations and motives into which it fits as part
of the who·le conduct of a particular individual; the
public aspect of the action, as it were; and, on the
other hand, its private aspect: the aspect which it
comes to wear when we come to know the inner geography
of the mind and sensibility from which it issued.

Fielding’s concern as a novelist is, to my mind,
almost wholly with the exploration of the terrain
which lies between the private and the public aspects
of action. Hence the appropriateness of Coleridge’s
comment upon the releasing of Sophia’s bird: ‘If I
want a servant or mechanic, I wish to know what he
does:- but of a friend, I must know what he is. And
in no writer is the momentous distinction so finely
brought forward as by Fielding. We do not care what
Blifil does; – the deed as separate from the agent
may be good or ill; but Blifil is a villain; and we
feel him to be so from the very moment he, the boy
Blifil, restores Sophia’s poor captive bird to its
native and rightful liberty. ,7
The important question here, however, is surely:

Why do we ‘feel him to be so’? Moral ‘intuition’ is
never the inexplicable flash of enlightenment that
it is sometimes made out to be: people’s moral
apprehensions, unless they are mere automatic responses and not ‘apprehensions’ at all, have a
foundation, and spring from features of the moral
situation under judgement: in this case features of
Fielding’s narrative.

We ‘feel him to be so’ primarily, I suppose,
because his humanitarianism is suspiciously limited
“n its objects. He says he feels for the bird what
his subsequent utterance makes it quite clear that
he does not feel for Sophia in her loss.

Master Blifil answered, ‘Indeed, uncle, I am


very sorry for what I have done; I have been
unhappily the occasion of it all. I had Miss
Sophia’s bird in my hand, and thinking the poor
creature languished for liberty, I own I could
not forbear giving it what it desired; for I
always thought there was something very cruel
in confining anything. It seemed to be against
the law of nature, by which everything has a
right to liberty; nay it is even unchristian,
for it is not doing what we would be done by;
and if I had imagined Miss Sophia would have
been so much concerned at it, I am sure I never
would have done it; nay if I had known what
would have happened to the bird itself: for
when Master Jones, who climbed up that tree
after it, fell into the water, the bird took a
second flight and presently a nasty hawk
carried it away.’

This speech from whichever way one looks at it;
as a piece of tongue-in-cheek writing by Fielding
at Blifil’s expense, or as a piece of inadvertent
self-revelation by Blifil, is a little masterpiece,
in which successive comic ironies are nested like
Chinese boxes.

For the first few phrases, up to
‘desired’ Blifil’s words sound like a genuine
apology for an act genuinely performed on a sudden
impulse of pity for a caged creature. But just
when, on this interpretation, the speech should stop,
it mysteriously continues; more, it turns into a
brief sermon; a sermon, moreover, which combines
in beautiful balance Shaftesburian pieties about
the Law of Nature and the Right to Liberty manifestly intended as a gesture to Square and an
equally well-turned nod to Thwackum in the shape of
a swift exercise in self-justification by derivation
from the Golden Rule buttressed by the sombre Gothic
edifice of the word ‘unchristian’. We then reach the
astonishing claim: ‘but if I had imagined Miss Sophia
would have been so much concerned at it I am sure I
never would have done it •.. ‘ This is altogether too
much of a good thing. Someone sensitive enough to
have been genuinely moved to release the bird by a
sudden impulse of distress at its confinement would
surely have been moved a moment later, by aQ equally
pressing impulse of distress for the bereaved Sophia,
and thus moved to make some apology, perhaps even a
tearful apology, for having acted hastily, on
impulse, in a genuinely morally complex situation.

Not only do we find Blifil, far from being affected
in any such way, sufficiently in command of himself
to compose extempore sermons on the theme of our duty
to obey the Natural Law of Reason, we find him
claiming that he did not foresee the possibility of
Sophia’s distress. Now at this point his whole claim
to whatever latitude is due to the impulsively
generous falls apart. A genuinely impulsively
generous person might claim that the flood of pity
had prevented him from recollecting, what, had he
stopped and reflected for a moment, he would have
known well enough (i.e. that Sophia would be distressed) but simple ignorance of Sophia’s likely
reaction is Simply not consonant with the character
which Blifil is trying to simulate. And when we
proceed from this point in the speech to the final
disclosure of Tommy’s fate in the hawk’s talons,
all trace of plausibility has fallen away from the
sham. For now it is not merely that Blifil is
stumbling in the portrayal of certain features of
the surface behaviour of a character whose real
inward springs are altogether obscure to him; rather
his own real character is as it were, now commencing
to well up through the cracks in the portrayal. Not
so much shame as distress would make the genuinely
impulsively generous soul conceal Tommy’s fate for
as long as possible; Sophia’s renewed sobs would be
too much to bear. But Master Blifil’s sweet treble
pipe soars bravely on: he is enjoying himself.

So much for a first-order account of what is
going on in this one speech: I would not have risked
boring the reader with such painstaking detail if it
were not evident from published criticism that a very
great deal of the detail of Fielding’s writing – and
his skill as miniaturist is not only considerable

but theoretically essential to his role as philosopher
and moralist – is going over the heads, or past the
ears, or many of his readers. But I want now to
take a more abstract view of what’is going on in the
speech. What Fielding is doing in this speech is
reminding his readers of what genuine impulsive
generosity is like: of how it manifests itself in
the fine detail of conduct and utterance. He does
this through the agency of a character who has no
grasp of the interior nature of impulsive generosity
and who hence produces, in his attempt to simulate
the overt behaviour of an impulsively generous person,
a sort of logical parody, or pastiche, or impulsively
generous behaviour. Because we recognise this as a
parody we are forced, in the process of noticing the
precise points of disparity between it and the real
thing, to remember in some detail what sort of thing
it is that enables us, in concrete situations, to
distinguish between impulsive generosity and coldblooded caprice.

We ordinarily make such distinctions without
thinking much about how we make them.

It is this
which gives plausibility to Kermode’s suggestion
that Fielding is merely asserting, or insinuating,
Blifil’s badness, without proper regard to his
recorded actions. The judgement is so natural, in
fact, that if we skim over the passage rapidly our
ordinary powers of moral discrimination carry us,
as Fielding on one level intends, t~ an awareness
of Blifil’s deceit which has the force and involuntariness of perception.

It is only when we read more
carefully that we are forced into an awareness of
the internal logical structure of judgement which
underlies Coleridge’s ‘we feel him to be so’; and,
by the very same token, into a knowledge of the
structure of Blifil’s feelings and motives. But on
this level character and conduct form a seamless
unity: it is Blifil’s own words which display the
real character of his action.

Fielding’s technique of compelling us to
recollect the force of ordinary moral concepts and
distinctions, by confronting us with logical parodies
of those concepts and distinctions, seems to me to be
of considerable philosophical interest.

It might be
thought to be primarily an anti-reductionist technique: its prime targets being Mandeville and Hobbes.

But, although this would be quite true, it would be
truer to say that it is an anti-philosophical
technique, for Fielding uses it as much against the
more bien-pensant forms of philosophical generalisation·about morals (Shaftesbury’s, for example) as
against egoism.

In all cases his intent is to
recall us from shallow and over-simplified philosophical schematisations to a full consciousness of
conceptual distinctions which we are quite capable
of making in everyday life although we seldom bother
to inspect or to analyse them, and whose complexities
go far beyond the persuasive generalities to be
found in the works of philosophical moralists.

Wittgenstein says somewhere that the task of
philosophy is to ‘assemble reminders’ of the full
richness of our everyday conceptual scheme; and I
think this phrase is not inappropriate to Fielding’s
practice as a novelist. Confronted by the spectre
of the sort of theorist who tells us that generosity
is really (a refined form of) selfishness, Fielding’s
response, at one level, is by means of the sort of
ironic and logically parodic writing which we have
been considering, to rub his readers’ noses in the
concrete realities which give force and point to
distinctions over which theory is normally very
content to ride roughshod.

Failure to understand the significance of the
greater part of the detail of Fielding’s writings as
a contribution to a kind of anti-reductionist phenomenology of morals: a restoration of the fabric of
conventional distinctions which underlie, and determine (not, I wish to say, the truth or falsity, but)
the sense of any judgement about a moral matter, no
matter how crude or how sophisticated such a judgement may itself be, lies, it seems to be, at the
back of a recurrent failure to understand the nature
of the moral polarities which dominate Tom Jones.

As presented by hostile critics, the polar opposites
of a native warm-heartedness which confers upon the
possessor a faculty of moral intuition which leads
his moral judgements infallibly into conformity with
the instincts of Plain Tory Englishmen; and Vice,
construed as the absence of the right sort of heart,
a defect leading inevitably to Whiggery, canting
hypocrisy and a calculating temper.

No reader of the
novel, however, can miss the fact that Tom’s actions
are frequently thoughtless and foolhardy, that all
the calamities of the’ novel issue, at least in part,
from this thoughtlessness, and that Fielding frequently censures Tom’s imprudence (Tom Jones has,
indeed, at times been read as a secular sermon in
praise of prudence); that Fielding on many occasions
assures us that perfect goodness or badness are
never found in that Human Nature which i<t is his aim
to imitate; that Allworthy is at times presented in
a light in which 'bloody old fool' is the most
charitable verdict on his conduct, that Fielding is
perfectly well aware of this, and so on and so forl'

If he wishes to maintain his thesis about the
nature of the moral polarities in the novel, the
critic is thus forced to bring a general chcrge
either of incompetence or of moral evasiveness
against Fielding.

Either Fielding cannot construct
coherent characters, or else, compelled by the
demands of plot and realism to construct character”
far too coherent to stand as plausible representati ‘S
of the cardboard moral categories which he wishes tl
to represent, he is forced to paper over their
occasional turpitudes by idle and implausible
assurances of their fundamental goodness of heart.

This is misreading raised to the status of art.

The polar opposites of the moral life in Tom JOllC:::

are not Vice and Virtue but, on the one hand, the
mind which is open to the full emotional force of
moral claims, and suffers for it, because it understands the full logical force of the conceptual
vocabulary in which moral claims are couched; and
on the other hand, the mind for which moral claims
can no longer be felt with undiminished force because
a self-indulgent and self-deceiving casuistry has
supplanted the very conceptual vocabulary of morality
with some less sharply demanding because less complex
and more comfortably theoretical set of notions.

Tom is, in othe~ ‘words, not the type of the good
man, but the type – if we must speak in terms of
types at all, of the man who knows what morality is,
and hence is liable to feel the full force of moral
claims upon him. These claims are not simple: they
are co ri flicting and hard to resolve. The power of
the novel lies, indeed, in its depiction of Tom’s
painful and chastened awareness of this complexity,
through a world largely governed by subtle or violent
self-interest, populated by characters who have in
various ways reached an accommodation with life by
constructing a false eidolon of morality under some
such title as Honour, Reason, Religion, Reputation;
at the cost of some degree of moral self-blinding,
‘Prudence’, where’the word is used by Fielding without irony, means both the knowledge of moral
complexity and the knowledge of the possibility of
such eidola: a knowledge which Allworthy, for
eXample, conspicuously lacks, and the lack of which
makes his goodness frequently ineffectual in cases
where, as in the upbringing of Jones, or in the
condemnation of Jenny, it must employ others as
agents or as sources of information.

But what is that morality to whose claims Tom
is open? What right, in other words, has Fielding,
or we, to speak as though morality were something
fundamentally single and constant, rather than the
variable product of social convention? Is not the
whole weight of moral philosophy – or at least
English moral philosophy in the sceptical and
empiricist tradition which traces its ancestry to
Hume and which has enjoyed an unbroken run of
academic popularity for the past forty years solidly against such a view? At this point we must
hear Fielding as moral philosopher.

I shall approach
what Empson calls Fielding’s ‘central doctrine’ by
way of a consideration of his relationship, on the


one hand to the egoism of writers like Hobbes or
Mandeville, and on the other hand to the conventional
anti-egoism dominant in respectable philosophical
and literary circles in Fielding’s day. This
latter, which I find ultimately a rather depressing
bundle of half-insights and not-quite-avowed
concessions, I shall refer to as ‘Standard
Benevolism’ •

Egoism is Lhe theory that everyone is selfish all the
time. A thesis of such absolute generality cannot be
seriously represented as flowing from observation
and experience. Only considerations of logic, or of
the very meaning of terms, possess sufficient
universality to be advanced in support of it, and
the egoist has, of course, just such a conceptual
argument up his sleeve. This argument runs as follows.

To say that somebody did something, X, of his own free
will just means that it pleased him to do it; but
this is to say that he did X for the sake of the
pleasure it gave him to do it, and this makes his
action in doing X a selfish or egoistic action
which deserves no moral praise. Mandeville at one
point states this argument like this:

… in the choice of things men must [my
italics] be determined by the perception
they have of happiness; and ••. no person
can commit or set about an action •.• which

at that present time seems not best to him. 8

It is, of course, open to the. critic to object
that this argument cannot really prove what it seems
to prove, since unselfish action is a matter of
common daily observation. The egoist has no final
argument against this objection. What he can and
does do, however, is to take each example of apparently unselfish action which the anti-egoist
produces and to suggest some plausible ulterior
motive which robs the alleged unselfish act of its
moral significance. Thus selfless bravery in a
soldier ‘is really’ (i.e. is sometimes, and cannot
be demonstrated not to be in any particular case by
the anti-egoist: so cannot be demonstrated not to
be always) vainglory and pride in ‘honour’, i.e.

reputation; the love that a mother shows in rescuing
her child from a blazing barn ‘is really’ fear for
her own possible loss of the pleasures of the child’s
society; modesty in a woman ‘is really’ fear lest
the scabrous reality of her inner thoughts should be
at any time visible in her face or in her behaviour,
and so on and so forth. Detailed particular
debunkings of this type, together with the coincident
demonstration that ‘vice’ is necessary to the prosperity of a great nation, are what fills up the
greater part of The Fable of the Bees. Such
argument is profoundly inconclusive, but it is
worrying, and on the positive side it allows room
for a good deal of quite acute social and psychological observation.

We can thus distinguish in most defenses of the
egoist position a general thesis about the meanings
of words, or, more fashionably, about ‘the nature of
our conceptual scheme’, and a particular thesis,
about the disparity between real and apparent
(assumed) motivation in a host of particular cases.

So much is commonplace in the philosophical discussion of egoism. It seems to me however that egoism,
as it has traditionally been developed, assumes
without defending it (at least, I have never come
across an explicit defense of it, perhaps because
it is a thesis which has the force of an obvious
truism to the sort of mind which leans naturally to
egoism) a third thesis, which might perhaps be
stated as follows. To say of a man that he acted
Virtuously, and to say of him that he enjoyed the
a~~, or the results of acting, are mutually incompatible descriptions, so that if one is true of a man
the other cannot be, and vice versa. Thus, if a
man can be shown to have enjoyed doing a certain
action, or to have enjoyed the results of that
action, he has a fortiori been shown not to have


performed a virtuous act, or, to use a later
vocabulary, not to have acted as a moral agent,
even though his act in itself might be considered

morally. right in the circumstances.

I shall call this the underlying thesis of
egoism. It is, of course, not a thesis which only
egOists accept. I do not know precisely when such
a doctrine entered Western thought about morals, but
it is pretty clearly a doctrine inspired by a
Protestant emphasis upon faith and inner grace
rather than upon the performance of empty, because
external, works, Once we make the contrast between
the external act and the inner consciousness of the
actor the central distinction of morality, the
attempt to define morality necessarily becomes the
attempt to specify the conditions of a truly
‘authentic’ or uncorrupt consciousness underlying
the surface of (often merely conventional) moral
behaviour. It seems obvious that such a consciousness cannot be selfish: therefore it looks as though
we can define it by excluding from its description
all motives to which any taint of selfishness
adheres, and this seems to entail that a man who
enjoys doing something cannot, or cannot only, be
doing it out of moral virtuousness.

I do not want to suggest that this is a silly
or self-evidently preposterous train of ideas. On
the contrary, I think it is one of those fundamental
dispositions of thought which, because of their very
seriousness and apparent profundity, have a perennial
attraction for us and as it were, lie in wait, ready
to be stumbled upon by anyone who begins to think

But I think that it is in the end a false trail.

First, it is not at all clear that, when we have
finished excluding from our description of a moral
consciousness every motive which could be construed
as selfish, we shall have anything left at all.

This is·, of course, precisely Mandeville’s
point. If morality utterly excludes interest then
no-one is ever moral, since to act at all implies an
interest of some sort, however feeble, in acting.

A related difficulty occurs in any deontological
theory of morals, for example Kant’s. Kant’s moral
theory is, indeed the culminating articulatiori in
the Eighteenth Century of the liberal, individualist,
protestant tradition to which I referred above, and
of which Mandeville was also, in his way, a minor
luminary. Kant held a view which is related to,
although it is more subtle than, what I have called
the underlying thesis of egoism. He held that an
act cannot be moral (cannot correspond to an
authentic moral consciousness, that is) unless it is
done purely out of reverence for the Moral Law, which
Kant identifies with the Categorical Imperative.

The Categorical Imperative is, or is meant by Kant
to be, a purely formal prinCiple, which makes no
reference to any state of affairs in the world which
is to be brought about by actions undertaken in
obedience to it. In its simplest form: “Act so that
the maxim of your action could become a universal law
valid for all rational beings”, it instructs the
virtuous man merely to do nothing save what any
other rational being could equally well will to be
done in the same circumstances. It does not, that
is, direct him to act so as to achieve any concrete
ideal state of the world, such as the. Maximisation
of Happiness or the Perfection of the Human Race,
and even the references to other human beings which
it contains is contentless except in relation to
the Categorical Imperative itself: a ‘rational
being’, that is, is simply any being capable of
exhibiting Practical Reason, or in other w~rds
capable of understanding and acting upon the
Categorical Imperative.

The difficulty Kant encounters at the end of the
is, now,
that of explaining why anyone should be moved to
action by such an extraordinarily abstract prinCiple
as the Categorical Imperative. He has no answer,
except to say that it must be so, since the
Categorical Imperative embodies the logical form of

Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

our ordinary moral intuition at its most profound
and authentic. But what is here a difficulty for
Kant seems to me to be exactly the same insight as
the one Mandeville br.andishes triumphantly as a
conclusion: the insight that a morality which is
altogether freed from reference to concrete goals of
action leaves us no way of explaining how morality
can ever be taken by human beings as a ground for

If we are hypnotised by the distinctfon between
the empty pomp of outward world and true inward
virtue (I don’t, as I said before, want to say that
this is a silly or pointless distinction, but only
that there are many distinctions and that much error
stems from attaching a profound importance to some
while neglecting others) our thinking may lead us up
yet another garden path. We may feel that relationships between men must be discounted in any
description of an authentic moral consciousness.

A truly moral man will do what is right whatever
relationships he stands in to others: he will not
unjustly favour a brother, or a wife, or a patron
and so on. This is, as far as it goes, quite a sound
thought: it is because of this element of republican
Roman Virtue in the liberal, protestant mind that
there is, as the Sikh said to Dom Moraes 9 , no
nepotism in Manchester. The trouble is that when
erected into a theoretical principle it leads to
the view that morality cannot, at the most fundamental
level have anything to do with relationships between
men.: that morali ty, in effect springs from within the
individual breast, so that the concept of morality
would be in principle as accessible say, to a
Robinson Crusoe marooned on his island from birth,
as to an ordinary man in society. The oddity of such
a view is evident if we reflect on the difficulty of
giving an adequate definition of love or trust,
surely fundamental moral notions if any are,
mentioning only one man: but such things are
generally forgotten when the mind sets out on its
philosophical travels.

I can perhaps show what I mean by a further
reference to Kant. The Categorical Imperative
satisfies the demand that the fundamental principle
of morality should be independent of human relationships. Armed with fidelity to it, a rational being
can generate from it a knowledge of right and wrong
in any circumstances without any consideration of his
relationships to other men, except in their capacity
as ·abstract, interchangeable rational beings, each
of whom possesses the same total personal independence
and moral autonomy conferred upon him by Reason, in
the shape of the Categorical Imperative itself.

have found this in the past, and to some extent still
find it, a noble and even majestic conception: only
I do not any longer think it has much to do with the
ultimate springs of morality. The point at which my
doubts enter is to be found in Kant’s defence of the
doctrine that only acts done solely out of reverence
for the Moral Law can be regarded as moral, or
virtuous, acts.

Kant defends his doctrine by referring particular
examples of action to the moral intuition of his
readers, and it seems to me that the sort of moral
response which these examples must receive, if this
mode of argument is to yield the result that Kant
desires, is one which expresses the Protestant distrust of moral feelings springing from human
relationship to which we referred above. Thus Kant
wishes us to grant/ for example, that a butcher who
gives fair weight deserves no credit for doing so if
he has done so only to keep on good terms with his
customers. At first sight this argument often
strikes one as profound and impressive: a moral
scalpel slicing to the heart of things. But: I

If we respond here as Kant wishes us tOt
we shall not only be denying moral significance to
the mere external act of giving fair weight; we
shall be denying moral significance as well to the
fabric of human relationships in which the butcher
stands to his customers.

For suppose the butcher’s reasons for giving
fair weight are that he is fond of his customers, has

known and trusted them for years, grew up with them,
plays darts in the local with them, and so on. And
suppose now, that this fabric of relationships
deteriorates badly for some reason, say because of a
poison pen campaign or racial tension or something of
the sort, and that as a result of this the butcher
begins now and again to cheat his customers as a way
of paying off grudges.

If we follow Kant we shall
have to say that since the butcher’s moral impulses
have not proved independent of changes in his
personal relationships with the people around him,
they were never moral impulses in the first place:

the butcher was never a moral agent (never possessed
a Good, or Rational, Will) but was just a sociable
decent man.

But this too is false to moral intuition. Commonsense makes us want to say at this point that the
butcher was being moral when he former~y gave fair
weight; that his being moral precisely consisted in
his doing this out of fondness for and sympathy with
his neighbours; that the fact that fondness and
sympathy are inherently enjoyable states of mind to
be in in no way logically impedes us from saying that
the butcher, being formerly in them and acting
accordingly, was then a moral, or Virtuous, man;
and equally that the butcher’s subsequent dishonesty
in no way impugns the moral credentials of his former
virtue: rather, it is just that love and trust have
left the neighbourhood, taking, scarcely surprisingly,
morality with them.

The moral intuition which expresses itself in
this way is not the protestant moral intuition to
which Kant’s examples appeal, but an older one, and,
as I would wish to argue, one which is closer to the
central tradition of Christian orthodoxy.

It is
also the case, I think, that in entering the mode
of moral thinking from which such judgements spring
we have entered the moral climate of Fielding’s
novels: to this I shall return in a moment.

Distrust of the moral credentials of the feelings
which arise from personal relationship has a further
consequence: it tempts us to forget the distinction
between feelings, or needs, which are essentially
moral in their nature, even though they may on
occasion be perverted into vices – I am thinking
of things like the need to be on a footing of trust
or afrection with at least some people, the need to
do work which is, at least in prinCiple, of some
value to others, the love of company and conversation, the desire not to be surrounded by unhappy
people (an obvious candidate for perversion, this
last) – and appetites. An appetite is a desire for
some fulfilment which can be fully specified without
making any reference to the conscious states of
other people. Examples would be the need for warmth,
food, or for what, in a parodic definition of ‘love’

on the model of Hobbist or Mandevillean definitions
of the passions, Fielding feelingly describes as
‘a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh’.

There is, perhaps significantly, no general term for
desires of the opposite class in English: let us
call them ‘human needs’.

One of Fielding’s great virtues as a moralist
is that he is constantly aware of the distinction
between appetites and human needs, and of the
importance of this distinction to morals.

In Mandeville’s mind, by contrast, all sense of
the distinction has vanished: human beings are
bundles of voracious appetites and nothing more.

I think this is connected with Mandeville’s underlying puritanism.

It is easy to slip from thinking
that a truly moral consciousness would be above
being moved by its feelings to the idea that all
feelings are equally expressions of self-indulgence
and finally to the idea that all feelings are
appetites. The belief that enjoyment and virtue
are polar opposites helps the transition, but is
not essential to it.

What I have been trying to show so” far is that
Mandevillean egoism as a philosophical position results
from pushing to their extreme logical limits certain
tendencies in a generally liberal, protestan~,
individualist moral outlook which can express them-


selves in much more conventionally acceptable forms,
and which, for example, underlie certain fundamental
moves in the thinking of even as unimpeachable a
moral eminence as Kant. We might expect, then, to
find some equivocation in the rejection of Mandeville
by the philosophical writers – with the exception of
Butler, relatively minor – who made up the English
intellectual establishment in Fielding’s day, and
we should be right. Leslie Stephen, discussing
Deism 10 , remarks that as the century progressed the
orthodox divines who attacked Deism became insensibly
more and more imbued with its spirit. Something of
the same sort is true of egoism: the anti-egoist
Butler ends by finding it hard to distinguish the
behaviour of the intelligently selfish man from that
of the moral,man guided by conscience. I want now
to examine this equivocation mainly by. reference to
Butler’s attack on egoism – and then to try to show
how much more radical and intelligent Fielding’s
rejection of Mandeville was than that of the
philosophical writers of his day.


Butler’s attack on egoism goes, in one way, to the
heart of the matter. Butler draws the distinction
between the two sorts of argument for egoism which
we discussed earlier, and attacks the apparently
conclusive one, drawn from the meaning of the term
‘action’ or ‘voluntary action’, on the ground that
it works only by courtesy of an equivocation. To say
that it pleases me to do something is merely to say
that I do that thing willingly: it is not to say
that there exists some concrete psychological state
characterisable as the pleasure for the sake of which
I do it. This particular egoist argument fails,
that is, because it makes an illegitimate transition
from ‘it pleases John to do x’ (John is willing to
do x) and ‘John does x for the sake of pleasure’.

The-end for which an ~ction is performed, Butler
argues, is always distinguishable from the
willingness of the actor to perform it: we cannot,
that is, just treat his willingness to make that end
his own as if it were a further end to which his
ostensible end is only a means.

By this simple but shrewd and absolutely sound
move Butler has shown that it is not logically inconceivable that men should have as ends of action
things other than states of the actor’s own body or
mind. He then proceeds to argue that there is no
way of showing that as a matter of empirical fact
no-one ever wills the good of another, and a great
deal of empirical evidence that people often do act
quite unselfishly. He attacks with vigour and
success egoist definitions of the passions which
seJm to offer us a method of debunking en masse
whole categories of action by showing that they
impose arbitrary distortions upon the description of
motivation and that these distortions lead to actual
contradictions if we attempt to take them seriously
and apply them systematically-to the explanation of
behaviour. 11
When Butler comes to make positive use of this
demonstration (1 think his arguments merit this
description) of the falsity of egoism, however, the
results are curiously weak and unsatisfying. He
distinguishes between ‘particular passions’ on the
one hand, and on the other hand two ordering principles, conscience and self-interest, whose function
is to direct our choice between our particular
passions: to tell us which particular passions to
indulge out of the motley collection which elamour
for satisfaction at any given time. The particular
passions include both those which refer essentially
to others, such as the need for affection, trust,
commendation and so on.

Butler has very little to say, oddly enough,
about conscience. The main effort of his philosophy
from this point on is to show that self-interest is
consistent with virtue, and not, as Mandeville would
have us believe, essentially opposed to it. His
arguments take the form of showing that self-interests


– the desire to satisfy as many as possible of my
particular passions – will lead me to choose on the
whole to satisfy other-regarding passions rather
than self-regarding passions: to choose love,
friendship and domestic affection rather than
revenge, lust and the love of cruelty, for example.

His conclusion is that the actions of wisely selfinterested man will be in most and perhaps all cases
indistinguishable from that of the ‘!=-ruly virtuous man.

This is familiar ground. We have entered, in
fact, the drab landscape of conventional Augustan
moral piety. Like Shaftesbury, or Pope, Butler
appeals to the notion of a natural order which links
self-interest and virtue indissolubly together. For
Shaftesbury, indeed, the very notion of goodness is
equated with the notion of homaeostasis – of what
conduces to the stability of some system: ‘we cannot
say of any being that it is wholly and absolutely
ill, unless we can positively show ‘and ascertain
that what we call ill is nowhere good besides, in
any other system, or with respect to any other order
Or economy whatsoever. ,12 As the century progresses,
this conviction of the relativity of goodness to the
stability of the universal order becomes, as a
theodicy, the idea that God’s goodness is saved in
the face of pain and evil by the necessity of these
things to the universal order. As a theory of morals
it becomes the idea that to be moral is, as it were,
to go with the grain of the universe, where the human
nature of the actor himself is conceived as an
element of the great system, in intimate interconnection with other elements. In Shaftesbury this
conviction appears as the idea that reason, the
perception of order, the perception of moral rightness and the perception of beauty are intrinsically
connected faculties; in Butler as in the Essay on
Man it appears as the idea that self-interest and
morality are linked, or even the same thing as one
another. As Pope says, speaking of Nature:

Wise is her present, she connects in this
His greatest virtue with his greatest bliss
At once his own bright prospect to be blest
And strongest motive to assist the rest
Self love thus pushed to social, to divine
Gives thee to make thy neighbour’s lrlessing thine.

It is this outlook that I want to call Standard
Benevolism. Standard Benevolists speak of the
philosophical enterprise upon which they are engaged
as that of ‘showing that morality is consistent with
self-interest’, but the consistency in question is
practical consistency and not theoretical consistency.

What happens in Butler’s theorising is, in effect,
that Egoism, ejected by the front door by a series
of quite serious and impressive arguments, creeps in
again by the back i~ the respectable guise of a
‘rational principle of ordering’ and is in this
guise comfortably recommended as a principle
scarcely different in its effects from virtue, while
virtue, by the same token, is made to appear as the
prudent man’s surest road to the maximum satisfaction
of his desires. And while this is going on the
questions of how we recognise the moral rightness
or wrongness of acts and of whether a self-interested
act can be moral, as distinct from in accordance with
the dictates of morality, are s~uffled away into the
decent obscurity of an unopened file labelled
, conscience’ .

The crucial move of Butler’s which leads to this
Pyrrhic victory of Egoism in his thought is, I think,
his decision to treat other-regarding paSSions – what
we have called ‘human needs’ – as merely one category
of particular passions. The significance of this in
Butler’s theory is that for him all particular
passions are in themselves morally neutral, moral
significance being reserved for Reason, in the shape
of the two ordering principles Conscience and SelfInterest. He makes this assumption, it seems to me,
because he accepts the underlying thesis of egoism,
that a man who is enjoying himself – satisfying a
passion – cannot a fortiori be said to be acting
virtuously; and its corrollary, the sense that
morality has nothing intrinsically to do with human

relationship. As a result Butler, like Kant, offers
us a picture of moral thought as something conducted
within the individual consciousness, and something
which essentially involves, not ~otional relationship with others, but the operations of some species
of reason: although in Butler’s case the space left
for reason in this account is to all intents and
purposes filled by prudence.

This covert complicity between Butler and Mandeville explains incidentally why Butler can make no
sense of the notion of consciences: remorse is a
feeling (in Butler’s terms a passion) and not,
except secondarily and indirectly, a principle of
choice. But the same complicities between the
conventional pieties of Standard Benevolism and the
scandalous heresies of Egoism are to be found everywhere in English moral thought in the Eighteenth
Century, and permeated the intellectual climate in
which Fielding was writing.

We are now in a position from which we can come to
see Fielding’s true weight as a moral theorist.

Fielding’s ‘central doctrine’ was, in the baldest
terms, that the mark of a virtuous man is the
possession of ‘Goodness’, or a ‘Good Heart’. By
‘Goodness’ Fielding does not mean, however, the
possession of a faculty of moral intuition, but
simply the capacity for disinterested love: ‘a kind
and benevolent disposition which is gratified by
contributing to the happiness of others.’J3 The
concept of disinterested love has, of course, a
long history, and is central to at least some
interpretations of the Christian moral tradition.

Here is Traherne on the subject: ‘Lov greatly
deiighteth in seeing its Object continualy seated
in the Highest Happiness ••• They [the Endless
Powers of your Soul] command you to lov all Angels
and ~ten, They command all Angels and Men to lov
you. When you lov them, they are your Treasures,
when They lov you, to your great advantage you are
theirs. ,14 The same account of love is given by
Leibniz,l 5, for example, and had been a commonplace
of theological debate in the previous century.

The ‘central doctrine’ does not merely
amount, however, to the assertion that disinterested
love exists. Butler, for example, would have granted
as much, but Butler would have assigned disinterested
love to a place among the particular passions: that
is, he would have denied that desires springing from
disinterested love were inherently any more ‘moral’

than other desires. This, we have suggested, is
because Butler thought that there is a fundamental
dichotomy between actions governed by desire
(passion, appetite) and actions governed by reason
(that is, by some sort of rule for assigning
priorities in situations of choice); and that moral
actions are a subclass of the latter set.

Fielding’s ‘central doctrine’ now, has often
been taken to consist in the claim that morality
should be, in effect, shifted from the rational pole
of this Augustan dichotomy to the opposite pole:

that, in short, morality is a simple upwelling of
the heart. Most of the abuse directed at Fielding
from the puritan wing of English criticism has
rested upon the repetition, with variations, of
this charge: that Fielding is in this sense a vulgar
moral intuitionist, and that sentimental intuitionism
of this kind is a viciously obscurantist and escapist
view, since it conceals from us all the real
complexities and difficulties of an adequate moral
response to life. And it is easy to see how a
reader might arrive at such an estimate of Fielding’s
position if such a reader were to bring with him to
Fielding a belief in the adequacy (the exhaustiveness,
that is) of the Augustan dichotomy between Desire
(or Sentiment) arid Reason, and, in consequence, with
the assumption that any writer on morals must place
himself at one pole or the other of this dichotomy.

As I read Fielding, however, he is not merely
deserting one pole of the dichotomy for the other:

he is deserting the dichotomy. The ‘central doctrine’

plainly if flatly stated, would run, I think, as
follows. When X loves Y ‘disinterestedly’, X takes
pleasure in Y’s ‘perfections and felicity’ (the
terminology is Leibniz’s, quoted above). This
pleasure is one which X can only enjoy on condition
that he really does love Y disinterestedly: unless
his motives are in this sense pure, V’s perfections
and felicity can only be in themselves at best
indifferent or at worst a source of chagrin to him.

The pleasure that X takes in Y’s perfections and
felicity is hence inherently linked to a certain state
of X’s motives, or in Kantian terms X’s will, as
regards Y: unless X loves Y disinterestedly – which
is to say, unless Y is, in his own right and without
reference to any other ends which X may have, a
source of ends for X – he cannot enjoy Y in the sense
in question; although of course X may ‘enjoy’ Y in
many other ways: as a sexual object, as a tool, or
as a comic spectac~e, fo~ example.

One of Kant’s secondary formulations of the
Categorical Imperati~e is: ‘treat every rational
being as an end in himself, rather than as a means’.

I think that Fielding, in making disinterested love
the central concept of morality, came very close to
antiCipating this strain in Kant, but I want to say
als’o that he went one step further. What Fielding
has seen is that when X takes Y as a source of ends,
irrespective of whatever other ends X may have, X
steps, in that moment, into a world which contains
forms of enjoyment which are available only to a
man who has taken the volitional or motivational
step of taking others as sources, for him, of
ultimate ends.

At this point the two poles of the Augustan
distinction between Reason and Sentiment fuse, and
the dichotomy which they define collapses. Disinterested love is an appetite, and its satisfaction is enjoyable – indeed, as Fielding constantly
insists, the greatest enjoyment we can know – but,
at the same time disinterested love possesses
certain of the characteristics of reason which
have led moralists to work so hard at the attempt
to effect an analogical extension of the term
‘reason’ to morals. Thus disinterested love·
functions, with respect to my other ends and desires
as a regulating principle exactly as self-interest
or conscience do in Butler’s model: if I subordinate
my desire to advance the perfections and felicity of
the beloved to any of my other desires then I am
de facto no longer the disinterested lover. And in
disinterested love I must govern my life not by
response to the gush of ,self-indulgent sentiment,
but by reference to something objective and external
to me: the real needs and nature of the beloved.

The Appetitive and the Rational, the Emotional and
the Volitional, are at one in disinterested love: or
rather, the distinctions in question can find no

Praise of disinterested love may sound, of
course, suspiciously like praise of the hallowed,
but not necessarily particularly virtuous, practise
of looking after Rabbit’s Friends and Relations.

don’t want to suggest that there is no element of
universal reference in morality; but only that the
‘universalisability’ of moral judgements which has
been exhaustively discussed by contemporary moral
philosophers 16 cannot be treated as a basic and
unexplained feature of our conceptual scheme – of
the ‘logic of our language’ – without making logic
appear curiously arbitrary and lacking in connection with the fabric of experienced human relationship. Contemporary upholders of ‘universalisability’

theories of moral reasoning encounter the same .

difficulties that Kant encountered in explaining why
we should engage in moral reasoning at all. Nhat I
do want to suggest is that universalisability
requirements represent loqicallv derivative
features of our moral thinking, and that what gives
rise to them is simply the fact that it is possible
to treat any human being whatsoever as an object of
disinterested love. Moral growth is the widening
of our symputhies in this respect, and Tom,Jones is


an epic of this kind of moral discovery. Tarn passes
frarn being ~ modest and local sympathies – for
Square Allworthy his benefactor, for Molly Seagrim,
for Black George as boyish hero and hunting companion – to larger moral demands, through the first
encounter with the highwayman, the recalling of
Nightingale to his duty (that is to a serious
encounter with the nature of disinterested benevolence, or ‘genuine pure love’), the second episode of
the highwayman and the renunciation of Lady
Bellaston’s £50, to the dilemma ,over whether to
desert Sophia for Arabella Hunt and finally to a
point at which he can feel disinterested love not
only for Black George as thief and bet~ayer of friendship, but for the abject and ruined Blifil. Like
Empson, I find this an impressive progress, and the
final conversation between Allworthy and Tom, in
which Tom now clearly stands as Allworthy’s moral
superior, very moving.

It is perhaps by now obvious enough that Fielding’s
fundamental claim is that disinterested love is the
heart of morality: what I now want to argue is that
this claim, far from marking a facile surrender to
a crude intuitionism, amounts merely to the first
move in an anti-reductionist reconstruction, through
the mode of ironic fiction, of the conceptual and
phenomenological fabric of the moral life. This
reconstruction is all in the detail of Fielding’s
writing, and to this we must now return.

We can now see why it is so important for
Fielding to preserve a moral vocabulary in which
words like ‘love’, ‘trust’, ‘affection’, ‘friendship’,
‘gratitude’ and so on, are preserved from empiricist
and egoist reduction to the status names of
appetites. For ‘love’, like the others, is not the
name of an appetite in the sense that ‘hunger’ is
the name of an appetite: it denotes a logically
complex and logically indissoluble fusion of
volitional, appetitive and emotional elements: and
it is such complex states which form the whole
basis and subject-matter of the moral life. We
have already seen how, in the episode of Sophia’s
bird, Fielding distinguishes benevolent impulse from
cruel whim.

I think it is clear from Fielding’s
treatment of this episode that he is not criticiSing
Blifil for not having the right social reflexes
(‘one ought not to be horrid to girls’), or for
having bad impulses (any more than he is commending
Tom for having good impulses): He is criticising
him for not being capable of a pure pleasure in
Sophia’s felicity, or of a pure pain at her distress,
and thus by implication of laCking any similar moral
relationship to the bird. Had Blifil been a child
given to disinterested love he would have exhibited
a full moral response in the situation: that is, one
of distress both at the confinement of the bird and
at Sophia’s loss, of pleasure both in the bird’s
flight and at Sophia’s pleasure in Tom’s present. 17
It is the crippled, the truncated, character of
Blifil’s response here which reveals it as not being
a moral response at all. And what makes it a
crippled response is that Blifil, not having taken
the volitional step into disinterested love (the step
of allowing others to become ultimate sources of
ends for him) has not entered that world in which
our impulses can and must be measured against the
demands of human relationship. He remains in the
self-enclosed world of impulse and appetite in which
impulse, just because it can be measured against
no reality external to itself, remains strictly
morally unassessable. It is this last point I think
that makes Fielding’s whole treatment of Blifil so
impressive. Fielding makes it clear at a number of
points that Tom’s motives are entirely obscure to
Blifil and that this is so because Tom and Blifil
live in different conceptual worlds; Tom’s the
conceptual world of ordinary men, in which moral
language has its ordinary force; Blifil’s the world
of that egoist version of Economic Man who dominates
the pages of Hobbes and Mandeville.

In egoist moral


psychology moral distinctions find-no foothold, and
this is so precisely because self-enclosed impulse
finds nothing external to self against which to
measure itself. IS And the reason why this is so is
that egoist moral psychology rejects the possibility
that one person should be an ultimate sources of
ends for another.

The impossibility of explaining ordinary moral
distinctions to a mind which has not taken the step
from self-enclosed egoism to regarding others as
ultimate sources of ends is, I think, what Fielding
is getting at in the following passage l9 , which is
frequently brandished as a paradigm example of
Fielding’s alleged intuitionism and anti-intellectualism.

Examine your heart, my good reader, and resolve
whether you do beiieve these matte~s [that
there is such a thing as disinterested love]

with me. If you do, you may now proceed to
their exemplification in the following pages:

if you do not, you have, I assure you,
already read more than you have understood;
and it would be wise to pursue your business
or your pleasures (such as they are) than to
thFOW away any more of your time in reading
what you can neither taste nor comprehend.

To treat of the effects of love to you, must
be as absurd as to discourse on colours to a
man born blind, since possibly your idea of
love may be as absurd as that which we are
told such a blind man once entertained of the
colour scarlet; that colour seemed to him to
be very much like the sound of a trumpet, and
love probably may, in your opinion, very
greatly resemble a dish of song, or a surloin
of roast beef.

That this and what immediately precedes it should
have been read as an invitation to the reader to
repose comfortably on the unexamined deliverances
of conventional moral sentiment I find, I must
confess, baffling.

Fielding, in abandoning the dichotomy between Reason
and Sentiment abandones likewise those pOSitions
which sustain the complicity between Egoism and
Standard Benevolism. For Fielding, far from its
being the case that one cannot enjoy an action or
its consequences without forfeiting all claim to
have acted virtuously, the experience of certain
sorts of enjoyment is central to the moral life.

And with the opposition between virtue and enjoyment
Fielding abandons also the conception of moral
thinking as a solitary process of quasi-rational
computation. This shows, I think, in Fielding’s
relationship with Mandeville.

It is worth remarking that Fielding very often
writes about moral hypocrisy in a startlingly
Mandevillean vein. For example his diatribes on
the meaning which ‘love’ bears among town wits (love
is that sentiment which a hungry man feels towards
a plate of roast beef) has an authentic Mandevillean
venom, and his treatment of the chastity of Laetitia
Snap or Lady Bellaston might have been lifted
wholesale from the passages on chastity in
Mandeville’s defensive notes on The Grumbling Hive.

He is constantly aware – indeed it is a central
theme of both Tom Jones and Jonathan Wild – that
overt virtue is very often merely the mask of vice. 20
And yet at tne same time Fielding presents us with
cases of extraordinary altruism, such as Tom’s
handing over of Lady Bellaston’s £50, practically
all the money he has in the world, to Mrs Miller for
the relief of her cousin the ‘highwayman’ of his
destitute family. We do not need to have read
Mandeville to be primed to shout ‘escapist fantasy:’

here; it will do very well to have read other
passages of Fielding. And yet such protests die
on our lips: the episode is, oddly enough, completely
convincing. Now, why is this so?

Partly, I.think, it is because Egoism must work
at the lOevel of particular cases of altruism by
suggesting possible discreditable ulterior motives;
and this is a procedure which it is much easier to
carry out in the rarified air of a philosophy
tutorial, where exemplary cases are barely sketched
out with a minimum of contextual information, than
in a novel, where contextual information can be
deployed much more fully. Fielding is well aware of
this, and it is part of the mechanism by which he
establishes the concrete reality of Tom’s altruism.

In the case of Tom’s donating his £50 for the
succour of the highwayman and his family, the most
obvious ulterior motive for the egoist to postulate
here is the love of moral self-congratulation:

pharisaical pride. But to love the satisfaction of
pharisaical pride is a fortiori to love one’s
person and one’s comfortable circumstances: such
pride is a rather delicate luxury. Common-sense
would have given Mrs Miller £10. This would have
purchased enough moral self-congratulation to last
a reasonable man a lifetime, while reserving £40
for the relief of more pressing needs: nor need
common sense be too consciously attended to in
performing the act – these things can always, in a
well-regulated mind, be done, as it were, under
plain cover. Fielding drives home this point, in
fact, by having Partridge, whose concern is clearly
Partridge’s opinion of Partridge, make a solemn
offer of a guinea, which Mrs Miller sharply refuses.

But then, perhaps Tom is activated by moral
magniloquence: the desire for the grand, self-subduing
gesture, for greatness? Mandeville is right, I
think, to say that this passion can on occasion send
men to the stake, let alone deprive them of their
last £50; but such a motive cannot exist in relation
to a particular act alone; it requires a context,
which in Tom’s case is absent: he is accident-prone,
indeed, but he is not seeking martyrdom: no
reasonably competent seeker after martyrdom would
achieve it on such consistently ludicrous and, as
Fielding’s contemporaries would have said, ‘low’


Perhaps then, like so many gently-reared persons,
Tom just cannot face the thought of children’s
corpses? But to say this is precisely to say that
he is good-hearted, unless we have recourse to
Hobbes’ celebrated definition of pity: that pity
is fear of my own misfortune induced by the spectacle
of another’s. This definition has the consequence
that the more likely I am to be overtaken by a given
calamity the more I pity others whom it overtakes,
and this might seem to heip the egoist in the present
case, for Mrs Miller’s cousin and his family face
starvation, a fate not altogether unlikely to overtake Mr Jones.

But here again the attempted
explanation doesn’t fit.

Jones is manifestly not a
fearful man, and if he did fear starvation enough
to be moved to give £50 away he would fear it
sufficiently to keep his £50 – or some of it – in
his pocket. Context in the novel thus constrains
the free flights of arbitrary postulation of motive
to which the vacant scythian plains of the philosophy
tutorial so seductively beckon us, and in the end
there is nothing to be done but to grant Jones the
motive which common-sense would have granted him in
the first place: namely, that he very much wants the
highwayman and his family not to starve. And his
subsequent transports at their recovery confirms

But the contextual density of the novel as a
form does not entirely account for the convincingness of this episode. The other force working on
Fielding’s side is that, in order to establish Tom’s
altruism it is not necessary for him to convince us
that Tom is acting out of bare fidelity to a conception of virtue which has nothing to do with distress
or enjoyment. 21 Tom is distressed, all right, when
he offers the purse to Mrs Miller; and he is delighted
when he hears of the deliverance of the highwayman
and his family: the moral interest is all in the
question, delighted or distressed at what. Context
can be used to decide this question convincingly,

but Fielding has already slipped out of Mandeville’s
grasp in the long process of argument (in the broad
sense of ‘argument’ which I have, on one level, been
trying to establish as appropriate to Fielding’s
sort of novel) which has, earlier in the novel,
established this question as the morally important
one in his readers’ minds.

Fielding has, on occasion, been taken by critics to
be a Standard Benevolist, expounding familiar
philosophical lessons in the form of dramatic
parables for the edification of those whose philosophical stamina was insufficient to carry them into
the icy intellectual fastenesses inhabited by Pope
and the first Earl of Shaftesbury.22 ,~ think it can
easily be shown that in fact Fielding is explicitly
contemptuous of Standard Benevolism.

There are a set of religious, or rather moral
writers, who teach that virtue is the certain
road to happiness and vice to misery, in this
world. A very wholesome and comformable
doctrine, and to which we have but one
objection, namely, that it is not true. 23
A host of incidents in the novels confirm this
view. The exercise of goodness of heart, although
its pleasure are unmatched, is unsafe. Tom’s
rejoicing at Allworthy’s recovery, followed by his
attempt to protect the identity of Molly Seagrim,
launches him on his travels; the postboy gives
Joseph Andrews his cloak and is transported some
months later for stealing a chicken. The entire plot
structure of Tom Jones with its last-minute rescues
and eleventh-hour disclosures, is meant to heighten
our sense that in real life Blifil and not Jones
would have ended as master of Paradise Hall. Blifil,
and Wild, are indeed the key figures to be kept in
mind here.

The central doctrine of Standard
Benevolism was that self-interest and virtue are
compatible, and indeed often practically indistinguishable in their effects. Fielding’s treatment
of the characters of Blifil and Wild constitutes a
savage parodic attack on this view. Blifil and Wild
are indeed led by prudential reason to adopt in
various ways an outward conformity to the requireoments of conventional virtue and respectability,
but behind this mask there is nothing but a solitary
and ingrown flux of appetites. But Fielding leaves
us in no doubt that their prudential calculations are
well-calculated to achieve their ends in any world
other than that of comedy and the comic Providence
that watches over picaresque heroes. The virtuous
man, in Fielding, is in ordinary prudential terms a
fool; and his folly in loving makes him endlessly
vulnerable until he learns the true prudence of the
virtuous, which is not self-interest but the art of
practising love in safety.

What Blifil’s prudence produces is a mere
mechanical semblance of virtue, distilled from inductive observation of the manners prevailing about
him in society.

I have already given one example of
this; another is his behaviour at his last interview
with Jones, at which he has to decide whether to
confess or deny all:

Blifil was at first sullen and silent,
balancing in his mind whether he should not
deny all; finding at last the evidence too
strong against him, he betook himself at last
to confession. He then asked pardon of his
brother in the most vehement manner, prostrating himself on the ground, and kissed his
feet; in short, he was now as remarkably mean
as he had been before remarkably wicked.

We can hear the whirr of Blifil’s internal
computer as it draws up his internal balance sheet
of likely pleasures and pains: Butler stands at his
elbow and Bentham is prefigured.



In the light of what we have said we can now return
to reconsider one or two remaining elements in the
case for the critical dismissal of Fielding on
grounds of moral and philosophical naivete. First
there is Fielding’s alleged opinion that the moral
judgement of a good heart is infallible, and the
associated charge of anti-intellectualism. I can
find no textual evidence for these charges at all
and the textual evidence against them is overwhelming.

Duty and desire are frequently at odds in Tom: his
. good heart exposes him to such battles rather than
freeing him from them by offering a facile and
infallible decision procedure for moral dilemmas.

Tom’s soliloquy on his duty to Molly Seagrim at
Book V Chapter 3 and the moral reasoning leading up
to his decision to reject Mrs Hunt’s proposal are
obvious examples of these internal moral debates:

in the latter indeed Tom almost ends by serving his
own interests~on a pretext of high~inded selflessness concerning Sophia. Fielding makes the
essential point when he says of Tom (Book IV, Ch.6)
‘though he did not always act rightly, yet he never
did otherwise without feeling and suffering for it.’

As to Fielding’s anti-intellectualism, it
derives in part, paradoxically enough, from his
philosophical acumen in anticipating the central
discovery of Hume’s moral philosophy. Fielding, like
Hume, realised that mere rational contemplation of
abstract relationships cannot move us to action.

The central prinCiple of morality (the Good Heart)
‘is an active principle and doth not content
itself with knowledge or belief only,24 It is this
insight which leads Fielding to the rejection of
Shaftesbury, and of all talk of Natural Law and moral
reason, which is manifest in his treatment of Square,
and in discursive passages Hj(e the following:

Good nature is that benevolent and amiable
temper of mind which disposes us to feel the
misfortunes, and enjoy the happiness of others;
and consequently, pushes us on to promote the
latter, and prevent the former, and that
without any abstract virtue, and without the
allurements or terrors of religion. 25
Fielding was an anti-intellectualist, then,
insofar as he rejected the Reason wing of the
conventional controversy about whether morality is
a matter of Reason or sentiment. What I have tried
to show here is that he did not, pace a very great
deal of inattention and misreading on the part of
his critics, adopt the banner of Sentiment, either.

Fielding the bluff Tory, who relies for the success
of his entire method as a novelist on an assumed
community of bluff Tory moral sentiment between his
readers and himself is a chimaera. Frank Kermode,
in the article I mentioned earlier, says:

There is nothing intellectualist about the
moral criteria of the Good Heart. They come,
in the long run, to common-sense, which in this
context is a supposedly instinctive understanding
on the part of both reader and writer of Right
and Wrong. Fielding was perfectly well aware
that, given the validity of his method, he had
to demand of the reader an identity of interest
and point of view of his own.

No such demand is to be found in Fielding.

Kermode, it is true, singles out Book VI Chapter 1
as a locus classicus of Fielding’s alleged appeal to
a community of moral instinct between the reader and
himself, but Book VI Chapter 1 has as we have seen,
a very different purpose: to assert the gulf between
a reductionist and an anti-reductionist account of
the concept of love, and to draw the connections
between a man’s possessing the concept of love in
its full-blooded sense and his having entered into
relationships with others in which volition and
emotion, reason and sentiment, form a seamless whole.

The genesiS of the impulse to reduce this


complex and subtle doctrine to a crude intuitionism
resting upon an appeal to community of moral sentiment
among ordinary men is easy enough to understand.

Someone who approaches Fielding with an unshakeable
prior belief in the existence of a logical cleavage
between reason and emotion will approach him believing, in effect, that love must he either a ~oist
sentiment or a passionless commitment of Will to the
moral authority of some abstract prinCiple or
doctrine. Finding no evidence for Fielding’s
acceptance of the latter view, and much (sound)
evidence that he rejected it, he will feel forced to
the conclusion that Fielding accepted the former.

A moderate amount of ingenuity in misreading will
then suffice to cram Fielding into this mould. What
has forced this interpretation upon the reader is
not Fielding’s words but his own philosophical preconceptions: preconceptions indeed whi~h Fielding
attacks. But it is in the nature of philosophical
preconceptions to blind. us most effectively to truths
which threaten the fabriC of presumed exhaustive
dichotomy upon which they themselves are based.


I read an earlier draft of this paper in
November 1971 to a group of philosphers and
literary critics which meets occasionally at
Sussex. The present version has profited from
the discussion at that meeting, especially from
comments by A. D. Nuttall and Roy Edgley.


William Empson, ‘Tom Jones’, The Kenyon Review
XX (Spring, 1958), 217-249








The Folio Society’s


Frank Kermode, ‘Richardson and Fielding’ ,
Cambridge Journal, 4 (1950): 106-114.


Samuel Coleridge, Works, ed. W. G. T. Shedd
(New York, Harper and Brothers, 1853), IV,·38l

B Bernard Mandeville, Fourth Dialogue between
Horatio and Cleomenes, The Fable of the Bees,
ed. Irwin Primer, Capricorn Books, NY, p.192

In Dom Moraes’ book about India, Gone Away.


Les1ie Stephen, History of English Thought in
the Eighteenth Century, Harbinger edition,
Rupert Hart-Davies, London, 1962, v.l, p.76f.


A celebrated example is Hobbes’ definition of
pity as fear for oneself occasioned by the
misfortune of another. Butler argues that on
this view fearful men would be the most
compassionate, which simply conflicts with
observation~ and that hence, while such fear is
often an element in feelings of compassion it
cannot be identified with compassion.


An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, Part 11


Tom Jones, VI.I.


Centuries, I. 6, 20.


‘genuine pure love consists in the state in which
we find pleasure in the perfections and the
felicity of the beloved ••. ‘, Principles of Nature
and Grace, Tr. Latta, Leibniz: The Monadology and
other philosophical writings, Oxford University
Press, 1898, p.422.


See for example, R. M. Hare, The Language of
Morals, Oxford,


Fielding’s point, I take it, is that a Blifil
with Tom’s heart would either, seeing all this,
not have released the bird but have sought some
subtler way to resolve the dilemma (i.e.

persuading Sophia to let it go) or else, having
released the bird, have become progressively
more distressed as the consequences of his action

became more apparent to him. Tern never acted
wrongly ‘without feeling and suffering for it’.


It will perhaps be evident to some readers that
I am making a point parallel to the point which
leads Wittgenstein to reject the possibility of
‘private’ assignments of names to referents.

The parallel is cernplex, and hardly worth
drawing out at length here.


Tom Jones, Book VI, Chapter 1.


Thus, see for example An Essay on the Knowledge
of the Characters of Men, Works Henley edn.

v.XIV, p283: ‘Thus, while the crafty and designing
part of mankind, consulting only their own
separate advantage, endeavour to maintain one
constant imposition on others, the whole world
becomes a vast masquerade, where the greatest
part appear disguised under false vizors and
habits; a very few only showing their own faces,
who become by so doing, the astonishment and
ridicule of all the rest.’


There is located somewhere here a major dividing
line between Puritanism and other versions of the
Christian tradition. Puritanism is, in effect,
the view that a man should want nothing but to
be morally justified. Compare this with
Traherne’s ‘Your Enjoyment of the World is never
right, till you so Esteem it, that every thing
in it, is more your Treasure, than a King’s
Exchequer full of Gold and Silver’ (Centuries
1.25), and the following:

On Ihe elhics
of ..evolullon
Kai Nielson
It was said long ago that politics is the art
of the possible. That does not suppress our
initiative: since we do not know the future,
we have only, after carefully weighing
everything, to push in our direction. But
that reminds us of the gravity of , politics;
it obliges us, instead of simply forcing our
will, to look hard among the facts for the
shape they should take.


When a great social revolution shall have
mastered the results of the boUrgeois epoch,
the market of the world and the modern
powers of production, and subjected them to
the common control of the most advanced
peoples, then only will human progress cease
to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who
would not drink the nectar but from the
skulls of the slain.

‘Socrates was wont to say, They are most happy
and nearest the Gods that need nothing. And caming
once up into the Exchange at Athens where they
that Traded Asked him, What will you Buy; what
do you lack? After he had Gravely Walkt up into
the Middle, spreading forth his Hands and turning
about, Good Gods, saith he, who would hav
thought there were so many Things in the World
which I do not want … Socrates, perhaps being
an Heathen, knew not that all things proceeded
from God to Man, and by Man returned to God: but
we that know it: must need All things as God doth
that we may receive them with Joy, and liv in
His Image.’ (Centuries 1.40)

See, for example, W. R. Irwin, The Making of
Jonathan Wild, Columbia University Press, 1941,


Tom Jones, Introduction to Book XV.


Tom Jones, Book IV, ch.6.


Essay on the Knowledge of tne Characters of Men,
Works, Henley edn.v.XIV, p285.




What are the degrees of moral outrage by a government which justify resistance by violent, and also
by illegal, means? One would be where our basic
liberties were being taken from us and where we had
no effective legal or non-Violent means of redress.

If we were deprived or where being deprived of such
basic liberties as freedom of speech and assembly,
the right to stand for public office, libetty ·of
conscience and freedom of thought, including the
right to print, circulate and promulgate our
beliefs, and there was no effective legal or nonviolent, non-legal way, such as by civil disobedience, to correct this situation, then we would be
justified in violent rebellion or revolution, if we
sould not by so acting bring on even a greater
injustice and/or more suffering all around.

However, while this is one standard situation
in which persons would be justified in resistance
to a government – indeed here a tyranny – by violent
means, this is not the only situation in which
revolutionary activity would be justified. The
other situation is where one class, a ruling, small
elite, runs society (including, of course, the
government) in its own interests and exploits
another .class or group making up the vast majority
of the people.

In short, in Marx’s terms where we
have a ruling class of capitalists exploiting and
oppressing proletarians (who are the vast majority
of the people), then, when they reasonably can
without bringing about even greater all around
misery and injustice, they should make a socialist

The qualification in both cases about ‘greater
injustice and/or more suffering all around’ and
‘even greater all around misery and injustice’ is
crucial and we should be qUite clear about what is
intended here.

I think, as Marcuse has recognized,
that here we must make rough historical calculations
about the consequences of revolution and about the
consequences of continued acquiescence in an
exploitative and repressive status quo.l My claim
is that, where practically feasible, a socialist
revolution would be justified where by making it
less suffering for the mass of mankind would obtain
and greater satisfaction of desire would occur and
where this would obtain under the constraints of –


Download the PDFBuy the latest issue