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Richard Price

Richard Price (February 23, 1723 - April 19, 1791), was a Welsh moral and political philosopher.

He was born at Tynton, Glamorgan, the son of a dissenting minister. Educated privately and at a dissenting academy in London, he became chaplain and companion to a Mr Streatfield at Stoke Newington. Streatfield's death and that of an uncle in 1756 improved his circumstances, and in 1757 he married Sarah Blundell, originally of Belgrave in Leicestershire.

In 1767 Price published a volume of sermons, which gained him the acquaintance of Lord Shelburne; this raised his reputation and helped determine the direction of his career. It was, however, as a writer on financial and political questions that Price became widely known. In 1769, in a letter to Benjamin 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 presented 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 helped draw 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 William Pitt the Elder in re-establishing the sinking fund for the extinction of the national debt, created by Robert Walpole in 1716 and abolished in 1733. The means proposed for the extinction of the debt are described by Lord Overstone 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 Joseph 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, 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 Francis 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.

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. Yet, in denying the importance of the emotions in moral judgment, he is driver 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) no relative to imperfect human nature. Price's main point of difference with Cudworth is that while Cudworth regards the moral criterion as a vanua or modification of the mind, existing in gere 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. Happiness he regards as the only end, conceivable by us, of divine Providence, but it is a happiness wholly dependent upon rectitude. Virtue tends always to happiness, and in the end must prodtice it in its perfect form.


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 James Mackintosh's Progress of Ethical Philosophy, Jouffroy's Introduction to Ethics, William Whewell's History of Moral Philosophy in England; Alexander Bain's Mental and Moral Sciences. See also T Fowler's monograph on Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. For Price's life see memoir by his nephew, William Morgan.


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