A Treatise of the Laws of Nature, originally titled De Legibus Naturae, first appeared in 1672 as a theoretical response to a range of issues that came together during the late 1660s. It conveyed a conviction that science might offer an effective means of demonstrating both the contents and the obligatory force of the law of nature. At a time when Hobbes’s work appeared to suggest that the application of science undermined rather than supported the idea of obligatory natural law, Cumberland’s De Legibus Naturae provided a scientific explanation of the natural necessity of altruism.
Through his argument for a moral obligation to natural law, Cumberland made a critical intervention in the early debate over the role of natural jurisprudence at a moment when the natural law project was widely suspected of heterodoxy and incoherence.
Liberty Fund publishes the first modern edition of A Treatise of the Laws of Nature,based on John Maxwell’s English translation of 1727. The edition includes Maxwell’s extensive notes and appendixes. It also provides, for the first time in English, manuscript additions by Cumberland and material from Barbeyrac’s 1744 French edition and John Towers’s edition of 1750.
"VI. As to the Connexion of the Terms of this Proposition, in which its necessary Truth consists, it seems to me sufficiently plain; for it signifies the same as if we should say as follows; That the Willing, or Prosecution, of all good Things situated in our Power, which is most effectual to the Enjoyment of them by our selves and other Rationals, is the most that Men can effect, that they themselves, and others, may most happily enjoy them. Or, There is no Power in Men greater, by which they may procure to themselves and others a Collection of all good Things, than a Will to pursue every one his own Happiness, together with the Happiness of others.
In which words, what is first obvious, is, “That there is no Power in Men greater to effect any thing, than a Will determin’d to exert its utmost Force.”
Richard Cumberland (1631-1718) was an English philosopher, and bishop of Peterborough from 1691.
Cumberland was educated in St Paul's School, where Samuel Pepys was a friend, and from 1649 at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he obtained a fellowship. He took the degree of BA in 1653; and, having proceeded MA in 1656, was next year incorporated to the same degree in the University of Oxford.
Cumberland was a member of the latitudinarian movement and closely allied with the Cambridge Platonists, a group of ecclesiastical philosophers centered around Cambridge University in the mid 17th century.
In 1672, he published his major work, De legibus naturae (On natural laws), propounding utilitarianism and opposing the egoistic ethics of Thomas Hobbes.
The philosophy of Cumberland is expounded in De legibus naturae. Its main design is to combat the principles which Hobbes had promulgated as to the constitution of man, the nature of morality, and the origin of society, and to prove that self-advantage is not the chief end of man, that force is not the source of personal obligation to moral conduct nor the foundation of social rights, and that the state of nature is not a state of war. The views of Hobbes seem to Cumberland utterly subversive of religion, morality and civil society. He endeavours, as a rule, to establish directly antagonistic propositions. He refrains, however, from denunciation, and is a fair opponent up to the measure of his insight. The basis of his ethical theory is benevolence.