1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Price

Richard Price
Welsh Unitarian minister and social and political thinker

RICHARD PRICE (1723-1791), philosopher, son of a Dissenting minister, was born on 23d February 1723, at Tynton, in the parish of Llangeinor, Glamorganshire. His education was conducted partly by private tutors, partly at private schools. His father was a bigoted Calvinist and seems to have been a person of morose temper, facts which may account, on the principle of reaction, for the liberal opinions and the benevolent disposition of the son. Young Price appears at an early age to have studied the works of Clarke and Butler, and to have conceived a special admiration for the theological and philosophical works of the latter writer. In his eighteenth year he removed to a Dissenting academy in London, and, having completed his education, became chaplain and companion to a Mr Streatfield at Stoke-Newington. While still occupying this position he officiated in various Dissenting congrega-tions, such as those in the Old Jewry, Edmonton, and Newington Green. By the death of Mr Streatfield and of an uncle in 1756 his circumstances were considerably improved, and in the following year, the year in which he first published his best-known work, a Review of the Principal Questions in Morals, he married a Miss Sarah Blundell, originally of Belgrave in Leicestershire. Price now resided at Newington Green, where his time appears to have been mainly occupied in the performance of his ministerial duties, though he made occasional excursions into the regions of mathematics and philosophy. In 1767 he published a volume of sermons, including One on the future state, which attracted the attention and gained him the acquaintance of Lord Shelburne, an event which had much influence in raising his reputation and deter-mining the character of his subsequent pursuits. Soon after this date he added to his duties at Newington Green those of morning preacher to a congregation at Hackney, where his audience appears to have been more numerous and appreciative than any which he had heretofore succeeded in keeping together.

But it was not so much in the capacity of a religious teacher as a writer on financial and political questions that Price was destined to become known to his countrymen at large. In 1769 he wrote some observations addressed in a letter to Dr Franklin on the expectation of lives, the increase of mankind, and the population of London, which were published in the Philosophical Transactions of that year; and, again, in May 1770, he communicated to the Royal Society some observations on the proper method of calculating the values of contingent reversions. The publication of these papers is said to have exercised a most beneficial influence in drawing attention to the inadequate calculations on which many insurance and benefit societies had recently been formed. In the year 1769 Price re-ceived the degree of D.D. from the university of Glasgow. In 1771 he published his Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the National Debt, of which subsequent editions appeared in 1772 and 1774. This pamphlet excited con-siderable controversy at the time of its publication, and is supposed to have influenced Pitt in re-establishing the sinking fund for the extinction of the national debt, which had been created by Walpole in 1716 and abolished in 1733. That Price's main object, the extinction of the national debt, was a laudable and desirable one would now probably be universally acknowledged. The particu-lar means, however, which he proposed for the purpose of effecting this object are described by Lord Overstone as "a sort of hocus-pocus machinery," supposed to work "with-out loss to any one," and consequently purely delusive. As Lord Overstone says, all the sinking funds that have been set on foot have been supported either by loans or by the produce of taxes, and have never paid off a single shilling of debt by their own agency. In 1829 Pitt's sinking fund was abolished by Act of parliament.

A subject of a much more popular kind was next to employ Dr Price's pen. Being an ardent lover of civil and religious liberty, he had from the first been strongly opposed to the war with the American colonies, and in 1776 he published a pamphlet entitled Observations on Civil Liberty and the Justice and Policy of the War with America. Several thousand copies of this work were sold within a few days ; a cheap edition was soon issued ; the pamphlet was extolled by one set of politicians and abused by another; amongst its critics were Dr Markham, archbishop of York, John Wesley, and Edmund Burke; and its author rapidly became one of the best-known men in England. In recognition of his services in the cause of liberty by the publication of this pamphlet Dr Price was presented with the freedom of the city of London, and it is said that the encouragement derived from this book had no inconsiderable share in determining the Americans to declare their independence. A second pamphlet on the war with America, the debts of Great Britain, and kindred topics followed in the spring of 1777, and whenever the Government thought proper to proclaim a fast-day Dr Price took the opportunity of declaring his sentiments on the folly and mischief of the war. His name thus became identified, for good repute and for evil repute, with the cause of American independence. He was the intimate friend of Franklin; he corresponded with Turgot; and in the winter of 1778 he was actually invited by Congress to transfer himself to America and assist in the financial administration of the insurgent States. This offer he refused from unwillingness to quit his own country and his family connexions, concluding his letter, however, with the prophetic words that he looked "to the United States as now the hope, and likely soon to become the refuge, of mankind."

One of Price's most intimate friends was the celebrated Dr Priestley, but this circumstance did not prevent them from taking the most opposite views on the great questions of morals and metaphysics. In 1778 appeared a published correspondence between these two liberal theologians on the subjects of materialism and necessity, wherein Price maintains, in opposition to Priestley, the free agency of man and the unity and immateriality of the human soul. Both Price and Priestley were in theological opinion what would now vaguely be called " Unitarians," though they occupied respectively the extreme right and the extreme left position of that school. Indeed Price's opinions would seem to have been rather Arian than Socinian.

After the publication of his pamphlet on the American war Dr Price became an important personage. He now preached to crowded congregations, and, when Lord Shel-burne acceded to power, not only was he offered the post of private secretary to the premier, but it is said that one of the paragraphs in the king's speech was suggested by him and even inserted in his very words.

In 1786 Mrs Price died, and as there were no children by the marriage, and his own health was failing, the remainder of Price's life appears to have been somewhat clouded by solitude and dejection. It was illuminated, however, by one bright gleam, the eager satisfaction with which he witnessed the passing events of the French Revolution. " I could almost say, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation. . . . After sharing in the benefits of one Revolution, I have been spared to be a witness to two other revolutions, both glorious." The darker side of the picture he happily did not live to see. On the 19th of April 1791 he died, worn out with suffering and disease. His funeral was conducted at Bunhill Fields by Dr Kippis, and his funeral sermon was preached on the following Sunday by Dr Priestley, names which, like his own, are specially honourable in the roll of English Nonconformist divines.

On the 4th of November 1789 Price had preached at the meeting-house in the Old Jewry, before the Society for commemorating the Revolution in Great Britain, his celebrated sermon on the Love of our Country. This sermon, together with a speech subsequently made by him at a public dinner at the London Tavern, rendered him peculiarly obnoxious to Burke, and brought down upon him some of the fiercest denunciations of that brilliant but impassioned writer in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Price's reputation rests mainly upon the position which he occupies in the history of moral philosophy. His ethical theories are contained in the treatise already mentioned, a Review of the Principal Questions in Morals, the third edition of which, express-ing "the author's latest and maturest thoughts," was published in 1787. This work is professedly directed against the doctrines of Hutcheson, but the treatment as a whole is constructive rather than polemical. Price's views approximate more closely to those of Cudworth than to those of any other English moralist; but they are mainly interesting in the history of morals on account of their resemblance to the theories subsequently propounded by Kant. The main positions of Price's treatise are three, which may be stated as follows :—(1) actions are in themselves right or wrong ; (2) right and wrong are simple ideas incapable of analysis ; (3) these ideas are perceived immediately by the intuitive power of the reason or understanding, terms which he employs indifferently.

To the first of these positions it is not, at first sight, easy to attach any precise meaning, nor does even a careful perusal of the work altogether remove the ambiguity. The most natural inter-pretation, perhaps, of the expression that "an action is right in itself" is that it is right without any relation to the nature of the agent, the end aimed at, or the circumstances under which it is performed. But, apart from the fact that the objections to such a theory would be too obvious to be overlooked, the following passage is sufficient to show that Price cannot have entertained it: "All actions being necessarily right, indifferent, or wrong ; what deter-mines which of these an action should be accounted is the truth of the case, or the relations and circumstances of the agent and the objects. In certain relations there is a certain conduct right. There are certain manners of behaviour which we unavoidably approve, as soon as these relations are known. Change the rela-tions, and a different manner of behaviour becomes right. Nothing is clearer than that what is due or undue, proper or improper to be done, must vary according to the different natures and circum-stances of beings. If a particular treatment of one nature is right, it is impossible that the same treatment of a different nature, or of all natures, should be right" (ch. vi.). What, then, does he mean by the phrase that " an action is right or wrong in itself" ? Excluding the meaning which we have set aside, he may wish to express either that actions are right or wrong irrespectively of their consequences, or that the same action would appear right or wrong not to man only but to all intelligent beings, or, as seems to be the case, he may sometimes wish to express one of these meanings and sometimes the other.

The second and third positions, that right and wrong are simple ideas incapable of analysis, and that they are perceived by an intuitive act of the reason, are succinctly stated in the following passage : " 'Tis a very necessary previous observation that our ideas of right and wrong are simple ideas, and must therefore be ascribed to some power of immediate perception in the human mind. He that doubts this, need only try to give definitions of them, which shall amount to more than synonymous expressions " (ch. i. sect. 1). In this and similar passages the question in dispute between the two rival schools of moralists is brought to a definite issue. Does the term "right" admit of any explanation, definition, or analysis, or is it simply inexplicable ? The majority of moralists have adopted the former alternative, and have endeavoured to explain the idea of right in subordination to that of good. Any course of action which has, on the whole, a tendency to promote the happiness or to alleviate the misery of mankind they denominate as right; and any course of action which has a contrary tendency they denomi-nate as wrong. Price, on the other hand, maintains that when we say an action is right we can give no further account of it, that we state an ultimate fact which neither requires nor can receive any further explanation. The connexion of the third with the first and second positions is obvious. Right and wrong, being simple ideas, and being, moreover, qualities of actions, considered in them-selves, are regarded by Price as being perceived immediately by the reason just in the same way that colour is perceived by the eye or sound by the ear. That they are perceived immediately follows from the fact that they are simple ideas, incapable of analysis ; that they are perceived by the reason or understanding, and not by a sense, is maintained in an elaborate course of argument against Hutcheson. When the reason or understanding has once apprehended the idea of right, it ought to impose that idea as a law upon the will; and thus it becomes, equally with the affections, a spring of action.

The place of the emotional part of our nature in this system is not very clear. The predominant view, however, appears to be that, while it is the source of all vicious action, it may, when enlightened by reason, aid in the determination of virtuous conduct. The school of Hutcheson, on the other hand, maintains that the emotions are, in the last analysis, the original source of all conduct, be it virtuous or vicious.

As already stated, the English moralist with whom Price has most affinity is Cudworth. The main point of difference is that, while Cudworth regards the ideas of right and wrong as voryxara or modifications of the intellect itself, existing first in germ and after-wards developed by circumstances, Price seems rather to regard them as acquired from the contemplation of actions, though acquired necessarily, immediately, and intuitively.
Those who are familiar with the writings of Kant (which are posterior to those of Price) will recognize many points of resemblance both in the fundamental ideas and in the modes of expression. Amongst these points are the exaltation of reason ; the depreciation of the affections ; the unwillingness of both authors to regard the "partial and accidental structure of humanity," the "mere make and constitution of man," as the basis of morality,—in other words, to recognize ethical distinctions as relative to human nature; the ultimate and irresolvable character of the idea of rectitude ; the notion that the reason imposes this idea as a law upon the will, becoming thus our independent spring of action ; the insistence upon the reality of liberty or "the power of acting and deter-mining"; the importance attached to reason as a distinct source of ideas ; and, it may be added, the discrimination (so celebrated in the philosophy of Kant) of the moral (or practical) and the speculative understanding (or reason).

Price's ethical theories are almost the antithesis of those of Paley, whose Moral and Political Philosophy appeared in 1785. Speak-ing of this work in his third edition Price says, "Never have I met with a theory of morals which has appeared to me more exceptionable."

Most of Price's more important works have been already mentioned. To these may be added an Essay on the Population of England (2d ed., 1780) ; two Fast-day Sermons, published respectively in 1779 and 1781; and Observations on the importance of the American Revolution and the means of rendering it a benefit to the World, 1784. A complete list of his works is given as an appendix to Dr Priestley's Funeral Sermon. Notices of Price's ethical system occur in Mackintosh's Progress of Ethical Philosophy, Jouffroy's Introduction to Ethics, Whewell's History of Moral Philosophy in England, Bain's Mental and Moral Sciences, the article on ETHICS (vol. viii. pp. 603, 604), and a monograph on Shaftesbury and Hutcheson by the writer of this article in Sampson Low & Co.'s series of English Philosophers. The authority for his life is a memoir by
his nephew, William Morgan. (T. F.)

The above article was written by: Rev. Thomas Fowler.

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