David Fordyce (1711-1751)

David Fordyce (1711 – 1751) was born at Broadford, a village near Aberdeen in 1711, the same year as David Hume. He was one of no fewer than twenty children, several of whom went on to have reputable (and in one case disreputable) careers in the professions and commerce. Fordyce's father George served as Provost (mayor) of Aberdeen on more than one occasion and his mother – Elizabeth Brown – may have been related to the Principal of Marischal College, the younger of Aberdeen's two universities.

Fordyce attended Aberdeen Grammar School and, as was normal for the time, at the age of thirteen entered Marischal College, where he followed the traditional four year liberal arts curriculum, graduating with an MA in 1728. George Turnbull was regent at the time, and Thomas Reid became a student one year later. The extent of Fordyce's contact with Turnbull and Reid during his college years is not known, but he undoubtedly knew and was influenced by Turnbull's writings, and in later years was able to call on Reid for letters of recommendation. Like Reid, Fordyce remained at Marischal as a Divinity student, and was duly licensed to preach. Unable to find a patron, he could not be called to serve a congregation, and was thereby thwarted in his long held ambition to be a Presbyterian Minister. The years that followed contributed significantly to his philosophical formation. He spent some time in Glasgow where he attended the lectures of Francis Hutcheson, then Professor of Moral Philosophy, and formed a longstanding friendship with one of Hutcheson's protégés, William Craig, a 'moderate' minister with whom he subsequently conducted a sustained philosophical correspondence.

In 1742 Fordyce returned to Aberdeen to become regent (teacher) at Marischal College, and taught there until his death at sea in 1751, when a violent storm wrecked the ship he was returning home in. He was succeeded in 1753 by his most gifted student, Alexander Gerard, who continued to teach and study moral philosophy in the style of Turnbull and Fordyce, and extended it to aesthetics.

Fordyce's most celebrated work arose from a commission to contribute a lengthy essay on ethics to The Preceptor, a comprehensive textbook for the educational formation of young men, published in 1748. The section on ethics was very received, and in 1754, after Fordyce's death, it was published separately as The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Enthusiastic reviews, and translations into both French and German appeared soon after. A large part of the essay was included in the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1771) and was widely, and used extensively in both American and European colleges.

The Elements of Moral Philosophy is divided into three books, with a brief appendix on the origins and nature of philosophy. Book I lays the philosophical foundations. Book II systematically sets out duties to oneself, to society and to God. Book III turns to practical ethics, and from there to beliefs about God and the soul. For Fordyce, as for most of his contemporaries, morality has divine authority. In Section II of Book I, Fordyce considers various theories of obligation. He argues against Hobbesian egoism, rejects any direct appeal to divine command, and criticizes rationalistic appeals to abstract reasoning. In contrast to Francis Hutcheson, Fordyce thinks that moral obligation cannot be derived from benevolence. It is a basic, distinct and independent 'perception', in just the way that hearing is distinct from sight though no less basic. What is true is that our ability to perceive what we ought to do is not always productive of right action. Though there is evidence that Fordyce had read David Hume, there is no reference to him anywhere in the Elements.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary