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Alexander Macbeath

1888 to 1964

Alexander Macbeath was born in 1888 in Applecross, Ross-shire and graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1915. He studied Moral Philosophy and Logic and was highly regarded as a student, receiving the Alexander Smart memorial prize. After serving as a soldier during world war one, he took up a lectureship in Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1920. In 1925 he became professor of philosophy at Queens University Belfast from 1925–54. He was heavily involved in social work outside of academia, serving on the Belfast Council for Social Welfare for twenty-seven years as well as acting as a prominent member of the Council on Civil Liberties. For his services to Northern Ireland, he was awarded a CBE in 1953. In terms of his academic work, notable works include his Fraser Lectures in 1948, which were published as The relationship of Primitive Morality and Religion. In 1948 to 1949, Macbeath was appointed to deliver the Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews under the title “Experiments in Living,” which was later published in 1952.

Drawing on philosophy as well as anthropological work, the work is more a practical work of ethics, concerned as it is with our duties and obligations towards one another and the knowledge and nature of these things. Drawing on studies of groups such as a Bantu tribe, Australian aborigines and Crow Indians shows the great diversity of factors that ethical theory must account for, especially given his universalised ideal for ethical theories. Macbeath argued that the highest good in a moral sense is the goodness of conscientiously doing that which we believe to be right.

With his fluent movement between anthropology, practical ethics and philosophy Macbeath’s work serves as an excellent record of interdisciplinary philosophical work that has, in many ways, served as a foundation for much of the subsequent work in theology, anthropology and philosophy that has followed him. Professor Macbeath died on 15th December 1964 aged 76.

  • Jon Greenaway, Manchester Metropolitan University