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Hutcheson, Francis (1694–1746)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB041-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Francis Hutcheson is best known for his contributions to moral theory, but he also contributed to the development of aesthetics. Although his philosophy owes much to John Locke’s empiricist approach to ideas and knowledge, Hutcheson was sharply critical of Locke’s account of two important normative ideas, those of beauty and virtue. He rejected Locke’s claim that these ideas are mere constructs of the mind that neither copy nor make reference to anything objective. He also complained that Locke’s account of human pleasure and pain was too narrowly focused. There are pleasures and pains other than those that arise in conjunction with ordinary sensations; there are, in fact, more than five senses. Two additional senses, the sense of beauty and the moral sense, give rise to distinctive pleasures and pains that enable us to make aesthetic and moral distinctions and evaluations.

Hutcheson’s theory of the moral sense emphasizes two fundamental features of human nature. First, in contrast to Thomas Hobbes and other egoists, Hutcheson argues that human nature includes a disposition to benevolence. This characteristic enables us to be, sometimes, genuinely virtuous. It enables us to act from benevolent motives, whereas Hutcheson identifies virtue with just such motivations. Second, we are said to have a perceptual faculty, a moral sense, that enables us to perceive moral differences. When confronted with cases of benevolently motivated behaviour (virtue), we naturally respond with a feeling of approbation, a special kind of pleasure. Confronted with maliciously motivated behaviour (vice), we naturally respond with a feeling of disapprobation, a special kind of pain. In short, certain distinctive feelings of normal observers serve to distinguish between virtue and vice. Hutcheson was careful, however, not to identify virtue and vice with these feelings. The feelings are perceptions (elements in the mind of observers) that function as signs of virtue and vice (qualities of agents). Virtue is benevolence, and vice malice (or, sometimes, indifference); our moral feelings serve as signs of these characteristics.

Hutcheson’s rationalist critics charged him with making morality relative to the features human nature happens at present to have. Suppose, they said, that our nature were different. Suppose we felt approbation where we now feel disapprobation. In that event, what we now call ‘vice’ would be called ‘virtue’, and what we call ‘virtue’ would be called ‘vice’. The moral sense theory must be wrong because virtue and vice are immutable. In response, Hutcheson insisted that, as our Creator is unchanging and intrinsically good, the dispositions and faculties we have can be taken to be permanent and even necessary. Consequently, although it in one sense depends upon human nature, morality is immutable because it is permanently determined by the nature of the Deity.

Hutcheson’s views were widely discussed throughout the middle decades of the eighteenth century. He knew and advised David Hume, and, while Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, taught Adam Smith. Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, among other philosophers, also responded to his work, while in colonial America his political theory was widely seen as providing grounds for rebellion against Britain.

Citing this article:
Norton, David Fate. Hutcheson, Francis (1694–1746), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB041-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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