1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Price, Richard

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PRICE, RICHARD (1723-1791), English moral and political philosopher, son of a dissenting minister, was born on the 23rd of February 1723, at Tynton, Glamorganshire. He was educated privately and at a dissenting academy in London, and became chaplain and companion to a Mr Streatfield at Stoke Newington. By the death of Mr Streatfield and of an uncle in 1756 his circumstances were considerably improved, and in 1757 he married a Miss Sarah Blundell, originally of Belgrave in Leicestershire.

In 1767 he published a volume of sermons, which gained him the acquaintance of Lord Shelburne, an event which had much influence in raising his reputation and determining the character of his subsequent pursuits. It was, however, as a writer on financial and political questions that Price became widely known. In 1769, in a letter to Dr Franklin, he wrote some observations on the expectation of lives, the increase of mankind, and the population of London, which were published in the Philosophical Transactions of that year; in May 1770 he communicated to the Royal Society a paper on the proper method of calculating the values of contingent reversions. The publication of these papers is said to have exercised a beneficial influence in drawing attention to the inadequate calculations on which many insurance and benefit societies had recently been formed. In 1769 Price received 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 (ed. 1772 and 1774). This pamphlet excited considerable controversy, 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. The means, however, which Price proposed for the extinction of the debt are described by Lord Overstone[1] as “a sort of hocus-pocus machinery,” supposed to work “without loss to any one,” and consequently unsound.

Price then turned his attention to the question of the American colonies. He had from the first been strongly opposed to the war, 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 Price rapidly became one of the best-known men in England. He was presented with the freedom of the city of London, and it is said that his pamphlet 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. His name thus became identified 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 invited by Congress to go to America and assist in the financial administration of the states. This offer he refused from unwillingness to quit his own country and his family connexions. In 1781 he received the degree of D.D. from Yale College.

One of Price's most intimate friends was Dr Priestley, in spite of the fact that they took the most opposite views on 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 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.

The pamphlets on the American War made Price famous. He preached to crowded congregations, and, when Lord Shelburne 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 words. In 1786 Mrs Price died. There were no children by the marriage, his own health was failing, and the remainder of his life appears to have been clouded by solitude and dejection. The progress of the French Revolution alone cheered him. On the 19th of April 1791 he died, worn out with suffering and disease.

The philosophical importance of Price is entirely in the region of ethics. The Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (1757, Ethical Theory 3rd ed. revised 1787) contains his whole theory. It is divided into ten chapters, the first of which, though a small part of the whole, completes his demonstration of ethical theory. The remaining chapters investigate details of minor importance, and are especially interesting as showing his relation to Butler and Kant (ch. iii. and ch. vii.). The work is professedly a refutation of Hutcheson, but is rather constructive than polemical. The theory he propounds is closely allied to that of Cudworth, but is interesting mainly in comparison with the subsequent theories of Kant.

I. Right and wrong belong to actions in themselves. By this he means, not that the ethical value of actions is independent of their motive and end (see ch. vi), but rather that it is unaffected by consequences, and that it is more or less invariable for intelligent beings. II. This ethical value is perceived by reason or understanding (which, unlike Kant, he does not distinguish), which intuitively recognizes fitness or congruity between actions, agents and total circumstances. Arguing that ethical judgment is an act of discrimination, he endeavours to invalidate the doctrine of the moral sense (see Shaftesbury and Hutcheson). Yet, in denying the importance of the emotions in moral judgment, he is driven back to the admission that right actions must be “grateful” to us; that, in fact, moral approbation includes both an act of the understanding and an emotion of the heart. Still it remains true that reason alone, in its highest development, would be a sufficient guide. In this conclusion he is in close agreement with Kant; reason is the arbiter, and right is (1) not a matter of the emotions and (2) not relative to imperfect human nature. Price's main point of difference with Cudworth is that while Cudworth regards the moral criterion as a νόημα or modification of the mind, existing in germ and developed by circumstances, Price regards it as acquired from the contemplation of actions, but acquired necessarily, immediately, intuitively. In his view of disinterested action (ch. iii.) he adds nothing to Butler. III. Happiness he regards as the only end, conceivable by us, of divine Providence, but it is a happiness wholly depenclcnt upon rectitude. Virtue tends always to happiness, and in the end must produce it in its perfect form.

Works. — Besides the above-mentioned, Price wrote an Essay on the Population of England (2nd 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. His views on the French Revolution are denounced by Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. 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. See also Ethics, and T. Fowler's monograph on Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. For Price's life see memoir by his nephew, William Morgan. (J. M. M.)


  1. Lord Overstone reprinted in 1857, for private circulation, Price's and other rare tracts on the national debt and the sinking fund.