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Hutcheson, Francis (1694–1746)


Francis Hutcheson, a moral-sense theorist, was born at Drumalig in County Down, Ulster. His father and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers. In 1711 he entered the University of Glasgow, taking both the arts and theological courses and probably finishing in 1717. He was licensed as a probationer preacher by the Ulster Presbyterians in 1719. Not long after, he was invited by the Presbyterians of Dublin to found a dissenting academy for their youth, and he remained in Dublin for the next ten years as head of the academy. His stay there was a turning point in the development of his thought, for he came under the influence of admirers of the Earl of Shaftesbury's philosophy. Hutcheson's first two, and perhaps most important, books were published during this period. The University of Glasgow elected Hutcheson to its professorship of moral philosophy in 1730, a position that he held until his death. In 1746, while visiting Dublin, he contracted a fever and died.

At Glasgow, Hutcheson devoted himself to enriching the culture and softening the Calvinism of his fellow Presbyterians. The Presbytery of Glasgow tried him for teaching, in contravention to the Westminster Confession, the following "false and dangerous" doctrines: (a ) that the standard of moral goodness is the promotion of the happiness of others and (b ) that it is possible to have a knowledge of good and evil without, and prior to, a knowledge of God. Afterward, Hutcheson was able to speak of the matter as the "whimsical buffoonery" about his heresy, but the fact that the charges were brought is doubtless a measure of the effectiveness of his teaching. David Hume sent a draft of Part III of The Treatise of Human Nature, "Of Morals," to Hutcheson for his comments prior to publication. Some indication of the spirit in which Hutcheson wrote his own work can be gathered from his rebuking Hume for a lack of warmth in the cause of virtue, which "all good men would relish, and could not displease among abstract enquiries."

The Moral Sense

Hutcheson's contributions to philosophy lie in aesthetics and moral philosophy. In the one he offers a theory of an internal sense by which we perceive beauty, and in the other he offers a theory of a moral sense by which we perceive and approve virtue and perceive and condemn vice. Hutcheson meant his theory of the moral sense to be a contribution to the contemporary discussion of how to analyze man's moral knowledge. There were two sides in the discussion. Samuel Clarke and his followers held that moral distinctions are made by reason on the basis of our knowledge of the unchanging and unchangeable fitness of things. The other side, owing its original allegiance to Shaftesbury, held that moral distinctions are the deliverances of a moral sense.

Both sides held two points in common. First, moral knowledge must be accounted for by showing how it can be acquired by the exercise of some human faculty. In this respect they were all Lockeans: If something is knowable, you must show how it can be perceived. Second, moral knowledge cannot be simply a revelation from God, though of course God may enter the picture indirectly by having endowed us with our moral faculty. And when it came to picking out actual instances of virtue and vice, both sides were in agreement about the value of benevolence and the wrongness of acts of violence against other persons. Their debate, then, was over the character of the moral faculty.

perception and approval of virtue

Hutcheson plucked from Shaftesbury's rhapsodies the notion of a moral sense and endeavored to give a systematic account of it as the moral faculty of humankind. To see what Hutcheson's claim means, we must first of all consider what led him to make it. When you see someone doing something that is helpful to another, you say that his action is a virtuous one. But why is a helpful action counted as virtuous? It might be said that a helpful action is virtuous because it exhibits benevolence. But this does not take us very far, for we may still ask why benevolence is a criterion of virtue. Hutcheson knew the answer that some moral writers had given to this question: Helpfulness or benevolence is a possible relation between two human beings, and it is a fitting one. Therefore, it is virtuous. But how do you tell what is fitting and what is not? Your reason tells you. At this point, however, Hutcheson asked whether fittingness could be discovered by reason. After all, reason can tell us only that a certain relation does or does not exist; the moral quality of the relation, if any, remains to be apprehended. But by what? Certainly not by reason, Hutcheson argued, because the moral quality is not a relation. And if not by reason, then the only thing left is a sense: the moral sense.

Hutcheson's task was to offer an account of how the moral sense works. He located the moral sense on the map of Lockean psychology. Its deliverances are ideas of reflection that arise from our original perceptions of human actions. As he first described the moral sense, it is a determination of our minds "to receive amiable or disagreeable ideas of actions." The "amiable idea" or, as he sometimes spoke of it, "our determination to be pleased," has two jobs. It is both our perception of the virtue of an action and our approval of it. It so happens that those actions which we discern to be virtuous are always benevolent actions, and we are necessarily determined to discern their virtue as soon as we observe them. Hutcheson attributed both the connection between virtue and benevolence and our necessary perception of the virtuousness of benevolence to arrangements superintended by God. Like sight, the moral sense is universal in humankind. But just as some men are born blind, and others have defective sight, some men have no moral sense at all and others have defective moral senses.

The strength of Hutcheson's theory of the moral sense lies in his having given an account of how we know that benevolent actions are virtuous: They are virtuous because they please. He was careful to point out that they please irrespective of any advantage they may have to ourselves. He noticed that we may indeed perceive as virtuous an action that displeases us because it goes against our selfish interest, and we may desire that someone act in a certain way even though we should call it vicious. He also argued that in the first instance the moral sense works independently of education, custom, and example. These factors may strengthen the moral sense but cannot create it, for they really presuppose a moral sense. In order for a person to be given an education in morality, he must already be able to discern moral qualities. Similarly, in order for customs to be moral customs and for examples to be moral examples, morality must already have been discovered in order to give these factors a moral character.

In saying that virtue is what it is because it pleases, Hutcheson thought that he had given a completely satisfactory account of the nature of virtue. By means of the moral sense, virtue is perceived for what it is. It is an end to be sought for itself, and no further characterization of it is required. Hutcheson's critics, however, found that he had paid a disastrous price for making virtue comprehensible by the human understanding. If virtue is that which pleases, then must any action that pleases be virtuous? Why are the actions that exhibit benevolence the only ones that are counted as virtuous? These questions seem bound to be asked despite the stipulations with which Hutcheson hedged his account of our knowledge of virtue.

Both his theory and its difficulties stem from Hutcheson's tacit assumption of the Lockean guide that a piece of knowledge must be accounted for through an appeal to the faculty by which it is known. It was not open to Hutcheson to try the gambit that it would be logically odd to call an act of highway robbery, for example, virtuous. His first line of defense was to insist that the deliverances of the moral sense with respect to virtue are a distinctive kind of pleasure. But in later editions of his Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil, Hutcheson played down the perceptual function and stressed approving and disapproving. Thus, the moral sense becomes a "determination of our minds to receive the simple ideas of approbation or condemnation, from actions observed ." To call these ideas simple is to claim that they are not subject to further analysis and, hence, to further characterization. But this new position is not without its own difficulties. Approbation and condemnation are dispositions, not sensations; and only a most slavish allegiance to John Locke's model of the mind could lead one to construe all mental acts as perceptions.

motivation to virtuous action

Hutcheson's theory of the moral sense has yet a third part. As well as using it to account for the perception and approbation of virtue, he also used it to account for a person's motivation to behave in a virtuous way. A person pursues virtue because virtuous acts are pleasing to him and avoids vicious acts because they pain him. This account of moral motivation is perhaps the most convincing part of Hutcheson's theory. It enabled him to close the gap between someone's knowing what ways of acting are virtuous and his being inclined to act virtuously. Yet even here the theory gives us less than we might hope, for someone will be motivated to act benevolently only if benevolence pleases. And if other ways of acting please, even malevolence, perhaps, what then? Once more Hutcheson entered a stipulation too pat to be absolutely convincing: God has determined most people to be benevolent. Once again we must admit that he took this position for the best of reasons, for he was opposing those who would reduce all human motives to self-interestand the many disinterested actions that people perform show the absurdity of this contention. But what Hutcheson's account of moral motivation requires is not the sensation of being pleased with benevolence but a disposition to be benevolent. Unfortunately, the psychological theory on which Hutcheson relied required him to reduce all mental phenomena to some sort of perception. Thus, his account of motives lacks an effective analysis of dispositions.


Hutcheson's aesthetics closely parallels his theory of the moral sense. He found that we have an internal sense of beauty, a determination to be pleased by regular, harmonious, uniform objects, by grandeur, or by novelty. These perceptions occur necessarily and independently of our wills, but there is no corresponding "pain or disgust, any farther than what arises from disappointment." This limitation seems to have the curious consequence of leaving Hutcheson no room to account for perceptions of the ugly. The task of approving of the beautiful is not assigned to our sense of beauty. Presumably Hutcheson thought indifference to beauty allowable but indifference to virtue never so.

Role of Passions and Reason in Moral Life

Hutcheson's Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense (published jointly in London, 1728) supplement the part of the Inquiry devoted to morals. In the essay on the passions, Hutcheson defined sense as every determination of the mind either to receive ideas independently of the will or to have perceptions of pleasure or pain. This definition led to the introduction of several new senses into Hutcheson's system. For instance, there is a public sense, which is our determination to be pleased by the happiness of others and to be uneasy at their misery. There is also the sense of honor, which makes the approbation or gratitude of others for any actions we have done the necessary occasion of pleasure.

In the Illustrations upon the Moral Sense, Hutcheson's general aim was to characterize the role of reason in the moral life. With regard to actions, Hutcheson said that we may reason either to account for what excites someone to act as he does or to account for what justifies our approbation of an act. For example, we give the "exciting" reason when we account for a luxury-loving man's pursuit of money by pointing out that money may be used to purchase pleasures. We give the "justifying" reason when we account for our approving of a man's risking his life in war by pointing out that his conduct evidences public spirit. But it is never true that reasons are to be found independently of feelings, for "exciting" reasons presuppose instincts and affections, and "justifying" reasons presuppose the moral sense.

Supposing that we get our ideas of virtue and vice through a moral sense, Hutcheson acknowledged that there are certain truths which might be proved by reason. These are (1) what actions or affections obtain the approbation of any observer, and what actions or affections obtain condemnation; (2) what quality of actions gains approbation; (3) what actions really evidence kind affections and tend to the greatest public good; and (4) what motives excite men to publicly useful actions.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Beauty; Clarke, Samuel; Hume, David; Locke, John; Moral Epistemology; Moral Sense; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Virtue and Vice.


Hutcheson first presented his philosophy in the Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (London, 1725). The Inquiry is divided into two parts: "Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design" and "concerning Moral Good and Evil." It is a much-revised work, the most notable changes occurring in the fourth edition (Glasgow, 1738). Lewis Amherst Selby-Bigge, ed., The British Moralists (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), Vol. I, reproduces a substantial part of the second edition of the "Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil," which taken by itself is an incomplete representation of Hutcheson's thought. In A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: R. Foulis, 1747), an English version of the Philosophiae Moralis Institutio Compendiaria (Glasgow, 1742), Hutcheson uses "conscience" interchangeably with "moral sense," a possible sign of Butler's influence. Hutcheson is also the author of A System of Moral Philosophy, published posthumously in two volumes (London: A. Millar, 1755) by his son Francis. The System contains a biography by William Leechman. Other works by Hutcheson are Metaphysical Synopsis (Glasgow, 1742) and Logical Compendium (Glasgow, 1756).

For Hume's letters to Hutcheson, see J. Y. T. Grieg, ed., The Letters of David Hume (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), Vol. I.

Contemporary criticism may be found in Letters concerning the True Foundation of Virtue or Moral Goodness, wrote in Correspondence between Mr. Gilbert Burnet and Mr. Francis Hutcheson, edited by Hutcheson (Glasgow, 1772), first published in the London Journal (1728).

Biographical and analytical material is contained in W. R. Scott, Francis Hutcheson (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1900); Ernest Albee, History of English Utilitarianism (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1902); and T. Fowler, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson (London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1882).

For critical discussions, see James Bonar, Moral Sense (London: Allen and Unwin, 1930), and D. D. Raphael, The Moral Sense (London: Oxford University Press, 1947).

Elmer Sprague (1967)

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