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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


HUTCHESON

(1694 — 1746)

 

MORAL SENSE THEORY/ UTILITARIANISM

Francis Hutcheson was born at Drunmalig, County Down, Ireland, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He studied philosophy, classics, literature, and theology at Glasgow University. On his ordination he was invited to found an academy for Dissenters in Dublin in 1719, where he remained until 1730 when he was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow. He made a translation of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations.

 

ETHICS

[1] [See Inquiry and System of Morals.] Hutcheson starts by drawing attention to a similarity between what he calls 'internal sense' and 'external sense', namely, that in both cases the mind is affected passively by outside objects. Through the external sense the mind receives sensations and thereby perceives sensible qualities of things; while through the internal sense it can perceive relations which produce feelings in it. He divides the internal sense into an aesthetic sense, or sense of beauty, and a moral sense (which he often identifies with conscience): but they are closely connected [Inquiry I; System I, 1]. The aesthetic sense enables us to perceive uniformity in variety. Through the moral sense we perceive pleasure, as when we contemplate good actions and perceive in them "kind affections", especially benevolence. These relate to qualities of character. He says that we perceive beauty in these affections. (He also distinguishes between absolute beauty, seen in the relation of the parts of a single object, and relative beauty, which involves the relations between individual objects not all of which need to be beautiful in themselves.) According to Hutcheson, we are born with a capacity to exercise moral sense [a]. But although it seems to be some kind of feeling, in later editions of the Inquiry [II, 3] he introduces a rational or judgmental aspect of it, in relation to the consequences of actions. The two aspects are reflected in his distinction between the material and the formal goodness of an action. An action is materially good when it is rationally assessed ('approved') as leading to the general happiness of a community ("the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers" [Inquiry II, 3, 5th edn] ) regardless of the agent's feelings. But it is formally good when it results proportionately from good 'affections' [b]. The former is tested by 'antecedent' conscience, the latter by 'subsequent' conscience. And the recognition by the moral sense of the rightness of benevolent actions determines or obliges us to perform them [for example, Inquiry II, 7] [c]. In so far as this awareness of obligation can be interpreted as a rational expression of conscience, Hutcheson (in his later writings) regards it as a reflection of natural law and thus the voice of God [d]; and he calls it the 'hegemonikon' ('commander').

Hutcheson's moral philosophy is broadly altruistic. While he recognises that we also have 'self-regarding' and often incompatible desires, he believes these can be harmonized in accordance with the principle of 'calm self-love'. Actions based on this are then morally indifferent, unless they conflict with benevolence, in which case they are seen as morally bad [e].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Perhaps the major figure in the moral sense 'school', Hutcheson is important for his development and systematization of Shaftesbury's ethics, his influence on Hume, and for his emphasis on the consequences of virtuous actions, thereby anticipating utilitarianism. Debate has centred on the following issues.

(1) Despite his more systematic treatment of the main issues he did not produce a 'system' as such. Different tendencies in his thinking are therefore not easy to reconcile, in particular egoism as against altruism, and self-regarding actions as against benevolence (the latter in each pair being emphasized).

(2) His theory is essentially psychological: moral sense is a central concept, but its nature is not really made clear. Are both feeling and reason (or judgement) elements?

(3) Hutcheson sometimes seems to be more concerned with the 'beauty' of virtuous action than with duty. He therefore appears to subordinate the ethical to the aesthetic. Is that which 'pleases' the virtuous? Or is virtue an end in itself. Why do benevolent actions produce this result? What of non-benevolent actions which have pleasing consequences? More generally, his ethics lacks any adequate examination of motivation.

 

READING

Hutcheson: An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725); Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728); Illustrations on the Moral Sense (1728); System of Moral Philosophy (1755) (his final account). There is a selection in L. A. Selby-Bigge, British Moralists. See also especially Two Texts on Human Nature, ed. and introduction by T. Mautner.

Studies

T. Fowler, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson.

D. D. Raphael, The Moral Sense.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Hutcheson

 

[1a; cf. 1d] Internal sense (moral and aesthetic — perceives relations and thence inner feelings) and external sense (sensations and sensible qualities); moral sense (= conscience) inborn — but we have no innate ideas

   Locke

   Shaftesbury

Butler

Hume

Kant

Bentham

Mill

[2a]

[1d]

[1b]

[3i]

[6a]

[1c]

[3d]

 

[1b] Goodness of actions: material (happiness of community); formal: from 'good affections'; 'approval'

   Hobbes

Hume

Kant

Bentham

Mill

[7b]

[3a f h]

[6a-d]

[1b]

[3c]

 

[1c] Moral sense as conscience of rightness → obligation to perform benevolent actions (common good)

   Hobbes

Butler

Hume

Kant

Bentham

Mill

[7b]

[1a 1b]

[3a g]

[6a-d]

[1c]

[3a]

 

[1d; also 1a]

Conscience/ obligation reflects natural law (voice of God)

   Aurelius

   Rousseau

Bentham

Mill

[1c 2a b]

[1g]

[1c]

[3d]

 

[1e] Self-regarding desires harmonized through principle of calm self-love (but actions morally indifferent unless they conflict with benevolence)

   Hobbes

Butler

Hume

[7b]

[1a]

[3a c f]