Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment Part One: Francis Hutcheson

James Stacey Taylor,

Release Date
December 7, 2011



Prof. James Stacey Taylor discusses the contributions of Francis Hutcheson, an intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment who was instrumental in advancing the sentimentalist approach to morality. In this approach, Hutcheson acknowledged the conventional five senses, but in addition, identified three additional senses:

  1. The public sense
  2. The sense of honor
  3. The moral sense

Hutcheson had a tremendous influence on his contemporaries, including Adam Smith and David Hume, and is still important and influential today.
Watch part two featuring Adam Smith.

Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment Part One: Francis Hutcheson
In the eighteenth century, something really spectacularly interesting happened in Scotland. Now this might comes as a surprise because most people don’t think of Scotland as being a spectacularly interesting place. But in the eighteenth century, it was, because we have the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment. I like to point out to American audiences that we have yet to have an American Enlightenment. We just have the Scots’ version. So that’s what we are going to focus on. And it’s spectacular.
You have a small, dank country covered in hills, sheep, and heather, and it produces philosophical and economic geniuses who have influence not just on their compatriots but have influence on economics and philosophy even today. And one of the giants of the Scottish Enlightenment is Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was not himself Scots, he was Irish. But, he moved to Scotland as soon as he possibly could, which is a hallmark of his obvious genius. Hutcheson was fantastic. Hutcheson is the Scottish Enlightenment equivalent of a blue touch paper on a firework. You light it and it starts burning, burning and then suddenly the whole thing just explodes, because Hutcheson has a tremendous influence on many of his contemporaries. In particular, he has influence on Adam Smith and David Hume.
Moreover Hutcheson’s views resonate today. We have many prominent bioethicists who have the ears of presidents, such as Leon Kass with George W. Bush, who offer a form of Hutchesonian moral sentimentalism as a justification for their views in bioethics. So Hutcheson, writing in the eighteenth century, resonates today and is still tremendously influential. So what is important about Hutcheson? The most important thing about Hutcheson is his sentimentalist approach to morality. Hutcheson recognized and accepted, as everybody in the eighteenth century and now does, that people have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and the like. But, Hutcheson held that people have three further senses: they have a public sense, a sense of honor, and a moral sense.
Now Hutcheson believed that these are genuine senses, but he didn’t think that there was anything spooky or mysterious about them. They’re very straightforward in their operation. Let’s give you an example. Hutcheson believes that persons have a public sense. You feel pleasure as a person of a person’s happiness; you feel pain over their lack of success or their misfortune. And this comes perfectly naturally and without any intermediate judgment. It is, after all, a sense. And notice how your other senses work. You smell rotten milk, which is a common experience in Scotland. You don’t sit down and judge this milk is rotten and then have a scent. You just smell it and it hits you, and you smell the rottenness of the milk. For public sense, for Hutcheson, it works just like that. You see somebody experiencing misfortune; you feel sadness as a result of this. You see somebody experiencing good fortune, and you feel happy as a result of this.
This is something that people experience every day, not just with respect to real people but also with respect to fictional characters. You see movies: the hero does badly, you feel unhappy. The hero does well, you feel very happy indeed—especially, it seems, if the hero happens to be a little furry dog; people like little furry dogs.
But, notice what the point is for Hutcheson. People have a genuine public sense.
They also have a sense of honor. And by this Hutcheson means something quite specific. You have a sense of honor when you receive appropriate gratitude for a good deed that you have done. It makes you feel happy. You don’t sit down and think that gratitude was appropriate; rather, you simply receive it and you feel happiness as a result. Again, like the unhappiness or the happiness that you experience from your public sense when you see the fortune or misfortunes of others, your sense of honor leads you to have certain affections.
And so, too, does your sense operate in this way with respect to your moral sense. And here is where we move into the core of Hutcheson’s moral philosophy. You persons have a moral sense, claims Hutcheson. You feel approval when you recognize that persons have performed good, virtuous actions. You feel disapproval, naturally, when you feel, believe, and sense that they haven’t.
Let’s give you a very simple example. You are having—you are out for meal with friends, and somebody collects the money and then they are supposed to pay your server. They do pay the server, but they leave a really bad tip. You might feel that’s the wrong thing to do. You feel this almost visceral reaction to your friend’s poor behavior. You don’t sit there and think, is this a rational self-interested action or not. You simply think, that was not the right thing to do. Your moral sense is offended. Now, you might think, where does this moral sense come from? Why are we concerned about the interests of other people? For Hutcheson the answer is straightforward. We have a calm, stable disposition towards universal benevolence. In this, Hutcheson is reacting against the psychological egoism of Thomas Hobbes, who held that persons were rationally self-interested and always acted in their own self interest.
Not at all, claims Hutcheson. People are instead generally benevolent. Moreover, for Hutcheson, Thomas Hobbes is not only wrong in ascribing rational self interest to agents, he’s also dangerous. Because if we think that we are just purely rationally self interested and we fail to recognize our natural benevolence, we might not try to develop our benevolent affections. Indeed, we might even try to crush them. Now, one might say in response to Hutcheson, couldn’t we just say that our benevolence works to our advantage? After all, we tend to like to associate with benevolent persons, so if you’re a benevolent person, you’re going to gain certain social advantages.
Hutcheson’s response is straightforward. Not so. Benevolence can’t be reduced to self interest, because benevolence, remember, is simply an affection; it’s a moral sense. We don’t mediate our senses through the will. Moreover, there might be certain act of benevolence which actually cut against our obvious self interest. For example, you might be a donor to the Institute for Humane Studies or to your alumni association. You could have used something else with that money, which would give you more obvious and immediate gratification, but you don’t. Because you think it is important to support the causes that you believe are worthy or to support your alma mater’s fund-driving effort. So you act benevolently even if you recognize this might not be strictly in your self interest.
For Hutcheson, then, benevolence and self interest are going to come apart. Hutcheson is incredibly influential. He develops a moral sentimentalist account of morality which influences David Hume and Adam Smith, two other giants of the Scottish Enlightenment. He is important for us today because he influences many of the debates which affect public policy, such as the views of Leon Kass. And, finally, he’s simply somebody who offers an account of human nature that we might like to take on board when we are considering how to arrange institutions. After all, if Hutcheson is right and people are generally benevolent, we might want to arrange our institutions very differently than if we considered people to be in a Hobbesian sense rational, self-interested predators of one another.
So if Hutcheson’s view of this is correct, we are going to have a very different view of society than if Hobbes is correct. And now, let’s turn to Adam Smith and David Hume and see where they take the Hutcheson firework.