Francis Hutcheson

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Francis Hutcheson

Francis Hutcheson (August 8, 1694 – August 8, 1746) was an Irish philosopher and one of the founding fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Although his philosophy covers a wide range of subjects, he is known primarily for his moral theory and his study of aesthetics. His ideas include the concepts of the "moral sense" and the "benevolent theory" of morals, the latter for which he stood in sharp opposition to Thomas Hobbes and other egoists. He anticipates the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham in his use of the phrase "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," and his influence can be traced through his students, which include David Hume and Adam Smith.



Hutcheson is thought to have been born at Drumalig, in the parish of Saintfield, County Down, Northern Ireland, to a Presbyterian minister. He spent six years at the University of Glasgow, first in the study of philosophy, classics, and general literature, and afterwards in the study of theology.

On leaving university, he returned to Northern Ireland, and received a license to preach. When, however, he was about to enter upon the pastorate of a small, dissenting congregation, he changed his plans on the advice of a friend and opened a private academy in Dublin. While residing in Dublin, Hutcheson published anonymously the four essays by which he is best known: the Inquiry concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design, the Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil, in 1725, and the Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense, in 1728. The alterations and additions made in the second edition of these essays were published in a separate form in 1726. To the period of his Dublin residence are also to be referred the Thoughts on Laughter (a criticism of Thomas Hobbes) and the Observations on the Fable of the Bees, being in all six letters contributed to Hibernicus' Letters, a periodical which appeared in Dublin (1725-1727, 2nd ed. 1734). At the end of the same period occurred the controversy in the London Journal with Gilbert Burnet; on the "True Foundation of Virtue or Moral Goodness." All these letters were collected in one volume (Glasgow, 1772).

In 1729, Hutcheson succeeded his old master, Gershom Carmichael, in the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Yet the works on which Hutcheson's reputation rests had already been published.


Hutcheson dealt with metaphysics, logic, and ethics, but he is primarily known for his contributions to moral theory and the field of aesthetics. His works expound on various ideas including the relationship between beauty and virtue, the functions assigned to the moral sense, and the position that the benevolent feelings form an original and irreducible part of our nature.


According to Hutcheson, humans have a variety of senses, internal as well as external, reflex as well as direct, the general definition of a sense being "any determination of our minds to receive ideas independently on our will, and to have perceptions of pleasure and pain" (Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions, sect. 1). He does not attempt to give an exhaustive enumeration of these "senses," but, in various parts of his works, he specifies, besides the five external senses commonly recognized (which, he rightly hints, might be added to):

  1. consciousness, by which each human has a perception of himself and of all that is going on in his own mind (Metaph. Syn. pars i. cap. 2)
  2. the sense of beauty (sometimes called specifically "an internal sense")
  3. a public sense, or sensus communism, "a determination to be pleased with the happiness of others and to be uneasy at their misery"
  4. the moral sense, or "moral sense of beauty in actions and affections, by which we perceive virtue or vice, in ourselves or others"
  5. a sense of honor, or praise and blame, "which makes the approbation or gratitude of others the necessary occasion of pleasure, and their dislike, condemnation or resentment of injuries done by us the occasion of that uneasy sensation called shame"

It is plain, as the author confesses, that there may be "other perceptions, distinct from all these classes," and, in fact, there seems to be no limit to the number of "senses" in which a psychological division of this kind might result.

Of these "senses," that which plays the most important part in Hutcheson's ethical system is the "moral sense." It is this which pronounces immediately on the character of actions and affections, approving those which are virtuous, and disapproving those which are vicious. "His principal design," he says in the preface to the two first treatises:

is to show that human nature was not left quite indifferent in the affair of virtue, to form to itself observations concerning the advantage or disadvantage of actions, and accordingly to regulate its conduct. The weakness of our reason, and the avocations arising from the infirmity and necessities of our nature, are so great that very few men could ever have formed those long deductions of reasons which show some actions to be in the whole advantageous to the agent, and their contraries pernicious. The Author of nature has much better furnished us for a virtuous conduct than our moralists seem to imagine, by almost as quick and powerful instructions as we have for the preservation of our bodies. He has made virtue a lovely form, to excite our pursuit of it, and has given us strong affections to be the springs of each virtuous action.

Though Hutcheson usually describes the moral faculty as acting instinctively and immediately, he does not confound the moral faculty with the moral standard. The test or criterion of right action is with Hutcheson its tendency to promote the general welfare of mankind. He thus anticipates the utilitarianism of Bentham—and not only in principle, but even in Hutcheson’s use of the phrase "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" (Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil, sect. 3). Hutcheson does not seem to have seen an inconsistency between this external criterion with his fundamental ethical principle. Intuition has no possible connection with an empirical calculation of results, and Hutcheson in adopting such a criterion practically denies his fundamental assumption. Connected with Hutcheson's virtual adoption of the utilitarian standard is a kind of moral algebra, proposed for the purpose of "computing the morality of actions." This calculus occurs in the Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil, sect. 3.

Hutcheson's other distinctive ethical doctrine is what has been called the "benevolent theory" of morals. In this theory, he stands in sharp opposition to the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and other egoists. Hobbes had maintained that all other actions, however disguised under apparent sympathy, have their roots in selfishness. Hutcheson not only maintains that benevolence is the sole and direct source of many actions, but, by a natural recoil that it is the only source of those actions of which, on reflection, people approve. Consistently with this position, actions which flow from self-love only are pronounced to be morally indifferent. But surely, by the common consent of civilized men, prudence, temperance, cleanliness, industry, self-respect and, in general, the personal virtues, are regarded, and rightly regarded, as fitting objects of moral approbation. This consideration could hardly escape any author, however wedded to his own system, and Hutcheson attempts to extricate himself from the difficulty by laying down the position that a man may justly regard himself as a part of the rational system, and may thus be, in part, an object of his own benevolence (Ibid)—a curious abuse of terms, which really concedes the question at issue. Moreover, he acknowledges that, though self-love does not merit approbation, neither, except in its extreme forms, did it merit condemnation, indeed the satisfaction of the dictates of self love is one of the very conditions of the preservation of society. To press home the inconsistencies involved in these various statements would be a superfluous task.


Hutcheson may further be regarded as one of the earliest modern writers on aesthetics. His speculations on this subject are contained in the Inquiry Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design, the first of the two treatises published in 1725. He maintains that humans are endowed with a special sense by which they perceive beauty, harmony, and proportion. This is a reflex sense, because it presupposes the action of the external senses of sight and hearing. It may be called an internal sense, both in order to distinguish its perceptions from the mere perceptions of sight and hearing, and because "in some other affairs, where our external senses are not much concerned, we discern a sort of beauty, very like in many respects to that observed in sensible objects, and accompanied with like pleasure" (Inquiry, etc., sect. 1). The latter reason leads him to call attention to the beauty perceived in universal truths, in the operations of general causes and in moral principles and actions.

Hutcheson's writings naturally gave rise to much controversy. To say nothing of minor opponents, such as "Philaretus" (Gilbert Burnet, already alluded to), Dr John Balguy (1686-1748), prebendary of Salisbury, the author of two tracts on "The Foundation of Moral Goodness," and Dr John Taylor (1694-1761) of Norwich, a minister of considerable reputation in his time (author of An Examination of the Scheme of Amorality Advanced by Dr Hutcheson), the essays appear to have suggested, by antagonism, at least two works which hold a permanent place in the literature of English ethics—Butler's Dissertation on the Nature of Virtue, and Richard Price's Treatise of Moral Good and Evil (1757). In this latter work, the author maintains, in opposition to Hutcheson, that actions are in themselves right or wrong, that right and wrong are simple ideas incapable of analysis, and that these ideas are perceived immediately by the understanding.

Other works

In addition to the works named, the following were published during Hutcheson's lifetime: A pamphlet entitled Considerations on Patronage (1735); Philosophiae moralis institutio compendiaria, ethices et jurisprudentiae naturalis elementa continens, lib. iii. (Glasgow, 1742); and Metaphysicae synopsis ontologiam et pneumatologiam campleciens (Glasgow, 1742). The last work was published anonymously. After his death, his son, Francis Hutcheson published the longest of his works, A System of Moral Philosophy, in Three Books (2 vols. London, 1755). The only remaining work assigned to Hutcheson is a small treatise on Logic (Glasgow, 1764). This compendium, together with the Compendium of Metaphysics, was republished at Strassburg in 1722.

Notices of Hutcheson occur in histories, both of general philosophy and of moral philosophy, as, for instance, in pt. vii. of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments; Mackintosh's Progress of Ethical Philosophy; Cousin, Cours d'histoire de la philosophie morale du XVIII' siècle; Whewell's Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy in England; A Bain's Mental and Moral Science; Noah Porter's Appendix to the English translation of Ueberweg's History of Philosophy; Sir Leslie Stephen's History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Gentury, etc.


  • Aschenbrenner, Karl and Arnold Isenberg. Aesthetic Theories: Studies in the Philosophy of Art. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965.
  • Blackstone, William T. Francis Hutcheson and Contemporary Ethical Theory. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1965.
  • Brown, Michael. Francis Hutcheson in Dublin, 1719-30: The Crucible of His Thought. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002. ISBN 1851826378
  • Carey, Daniel. Locke, Shaftesbury, and Hutcheson: Contesting Diversity in the Enlightenment and Beyond. Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 0521845025
  • Fowler, Thomas. Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. Adamant Media Corporation, 2005. ISBN 1402197144
  • Hutcheson, Francis and Wolfgang Leidhold. An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue: In Two Treatises. Indianapolis, Ind: Liberty Fund, 2004. ISBN 0865974284
  • Hutcheson, Francis, et al. Francis Hutcheson: An Inquiry Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design. Archives internationales d'histoire des idées. Series minor, 9. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973. ISBN 9789024715459
  • Hutcheson, Francis, et al. Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006. ISBN 0865974462
  • Hutcheson, Francis. An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections; With Illustrations on the Moral Sense. Gainesville, Fla: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1969. ISBN 0820110582
  • Kivy, Peter. The Seventh Sense: Francis Hutcheson and Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics. Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0199260028
  • Scott, William Robert. Francis Hutcheson: His Life, Teaching And Position In The History Of Philosophy. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2006. ISBN 1428614796
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved March 28, 2014.

General philosophy sources


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