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Britain's Soldiers: Rethinking War and Society, 1715-1815

December 17, 2014

Originally posted on the OUPblog on 8th December, 2014. By Matthew McCormack, Associate Professor of History at the University of Northampton. Along with Kevin Linch, he is the co-editor of Britain's Soldiers: Rethinking War and Society, 1715-1815, which is now available on Liverpool Scholarship Online.

Britain's Soldiers

Like much historical research, my chapter in the Britain’s Soldiers collection came about more or less by accident. It relates to an incident that I discovered in the War Office papers at in 2007. I was taking a group of History students from Northampton University to The National Archives in Kew, to help them with their undergraduate dissertations. I had a small amount of time to do some of my own research, so ordered WO 43/404. The title sounded promising: ‘A book containing copies of correspondence in 1761, relative to the Behaviour of the Duke of Richmond’s regiment & Militia at Stamford on the 15th April 1761’.

What arrived was a letter book. It immediately struck me as being unusual, as the War Office usually just kept in-letters, whereas this book copied both sides of a lengthy correspondence between the Secretary at War and various other protagonists. Something noteworthy had clearly occurred, and was therefore preserved, possibly as a precedent to inform future action. I was pushed for time, however, so I quickly photographed the whole book and returned to my students.

Four years later I finally had an opportunity to transcribe the letters. What emerged was a bizarre event. In brief, the Lincolnshire Militia was quartered in Stamford and a regiment of the regular army that was on the march approached the town. The regulars had such contempt for the militia that they marched straight in, disregarding the usual military convention that they send advance word, and proceeded to refuse any of the other courtesies that the militia attempted to offer them. The militia’s commander took such umbrage at these slights that he posted sentries at entrances to the town, ‘to prevent any armed Troops entering the Town for the future without my knowledge and consent’. When further regulars attempted to enter the town, the militia stopped them at the point of their bayonets and a fight ensued in which men were injured, and could have been killed.

This was more than a local scrap. Neither side would admit fault and so wrote to the War Office to intercede. Despite the fact that Britain was in the midst of the Seven Years War – the largest global conflict that Britain had then fought – the Secretary at War took the incident very seriously indeed, and the letter book records how the fallout preoccupied him for a further two months. The dispute even drew in the King himself, who as Commander in Chief was keen to preserve ‘that Equality and Harmony in Service which is so much to be wished and cultivated’.

I was intrigued by the story that emerged from this letter book, and a paper trail ensued as I attempted to flesh out the story with other sources. My attempts to find references to the affair in public sources such as newspapers drew a blank, and I had more luck in private family papers and local government records instead. This was not an incident that was publicly known about at the time, which perhaps explains why historians had overlooked it.

As a cultural historian, what drew me to this incident was that it was an example of people behaving oddly. It is often only when people are behaving abnormally that we get an insight into the normal expectations of behaviour that go unspoken – in this case, attitudes towards military precedence and masculine honour. I think that incidents like the one at Stamford in 1761 highlight the crucial significance of ‘polite’ and controlled conduct in the eighteenth-century military. To our eyes, the interpersonal conduct of Georgian army officers may seem terribly mannered – but this is clearly desirable when you have large numbers of men who are highly defensive of their status and armed to the teeth. Rather than just reconstructing micro-incidents like this for their own sake, therefore, it is helpful to think about them more anthropologically in order to shed light on the workings of a past society.


If objective moral reasoning is possible, how does it get started?  Sidgwick’s answer is, in brief, that it starts with a self-evident intuition. He does not mean by this, however, the intuitions of what he calls “common sense morality.”  To see what he does mean, we must draw a distinction between intuitions that are self-evident truths of reason, and a very different kind of intuition. This distinction will become clearer if we look at an objection to the idea of moral intuition as a source of moral truth.

Sidgwick was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, so it is not surprising that already in his time the objection was raised that an evolutionary view of the origins of our moral judgments would completely discredit them. Sidgwick denied that any theory of the origins of our capacity for making moral judgments could discredit the very idea of morality, because he thought that no matter what the origin of our moral judgments, we will still have to decide what we ought to do, and answering that question is a worthwhile enterprise.

On the other hand, he agreed that some accounts of the origins of particular moral judgments might suggest that they are unlikely to be true, and therefore discredit them. We defend this important insight, and press it further. Many of our common and widely shared moral intuitions are the outcome of evolutionary selection, but the fact that they helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce does not show them to be true.

This might be taken as a ground for skepticism about morality as a whole, but our capacity for reasoning saves morality from this skeptical critique. The ability to reason has, of course, evolved, and clearly confers evolutionary advantages on those who possess it, but it does so by making it possible for us to discover the truth about our world, and this includes the discovery of some non-natural moral truths.

Sidgwick thought that his greatest work was a failure because it concluded by accepting that both egoism and universal benevolence were rational. Yet they pointed to different conclusions about what we ought to do. We argue that the evolutionary critique of some moral intuitions can be applied to egoism, but not to universal benevolence. The principle of universal benevolence can be seen as self-evident, once we understand that our own good is, from “the point of view of the universe” of no more importance than the similar good of anyone else. This is a rational insight, not an evolved moral intuition.

In this way, we resolve the so-called “dualism of practical reason.” This leaves us  with a utilitarian reason for action that can be presented in the form of a utilitarian principle: we ought to maximize the good generally.

What  is this good thing that we should maximize? Is my having a positive attitude towards something enough to make bringing it about good for me? Preference utilitarians have argued that it is, and one of us has, for many years, been well-known as a representative of that view.

Sidgwick, however, rejected such theories, arguing that the good must be, not what I actually desire but what I would desire if I were thinking rationally. He then develops the view that the only things that it is rational to desire for themselves are desirable mental states, or pleasure, and the absence of pain.

For those who hold that practical reasoning must start from desires, it is hard to understand the idea of what it would be rational to desire – or at least, that idea can be understood only in relation to other desires that the agent may have, so as to produce a greater harmony of desire.

This leads to a desire-based theory of the good.

One of us, for many years, became well-known as a defender of one such desire-based theory, namely preference utilitarianism. But if reason can take us to a more universal perspective, then we can understand the claim that it would be rational for us to desire some goods, even if we have no present desire for them. On that basis, it becomes more plausible to argue for the view that the good consists in having certain mental states, rather than in the satisfaction of desires or preferences.

- See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/06/the-point-of-view-of-the-universe/#sthash.LhtDta11.dpuf



Discover more: the chapter 'Stamford Standoff: Honour, Status and Rivalry in the Georgian Military' in Britain's Soldiers is now free and available to read until the end of January. Get access to the full text of this book, as well as over 100 Liverpool History titles, by recommending UPSO to your librarian today.