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.
 [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].
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.