Francis Hutcheson Moral Philosophy Essay

Francis Hutcheson (1694—1745)

Francis Hutcheson was an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher whose meticulous writings and activities influenced life in Scotland, Great Britain, Europe, and even the newly formed North American colonies. For historians and political scientists, the emphasis has been on his theories of liberalism and political rights; for philosophers and psychologists, Hutcheson’s importance comes from his theories of human nature, which include an account of an innate care and concern for others and of the internal senses (including the moral sense). The latter were pivotal to the Scottish Enlightenment’s empirical aesthetics, and all of Hutcheson’s theories were important to moral sentimentalism. One cannot properly study the works of Adam Smith, Hutcheson’s most famous student, or David Hume’s moral and political theories, without first understanding Hutcheson’s contributions and influence.

Popular and well-read in his day, Hutcheson’s writings seem to be enjoying resurgence specifically among libertarians, contemporary moral psychologists and philosophers. The latter are taking another and more in-depth look at Hutcheson and the rest of the sentimentalists because present-day empirical studies seem to support many of their claims about human nature. This is not surprising because the philosophical theories of the Scottish Enlightenment were based on human observations and experiences, much of which would be considered psychology today.

As part of his attempt to defend Shaftesbury against the attacks of Bernard Mandeville, Hutcheson's writings concentrate on human nature. Hutcheson also promoted a natural benevolence against the egoism of Thomas Hobbes and against the reward/punishment view of Samuel Pufendorf by appealing to our own experiences of ourselves and others.

What follows is an overview of Hutcheson’s life, works and influence, with special attention paid to his writings on aesthetics, morality, and the importance of the internal senses of beauty, harmony, and the moral sense.

Table of Contents

  1. Life
  2. Internal Senses
  3. Moral Sense Faculty
    1. Operations of moral sense faculty
    2. Sense vs. Reason
    3. Basis of Moral Determinations
  4. Benevolence: Response to Hobbes and Pufendorf
  5. Influences on Hume and Smith
  6. References and Further Reading
    1. Works by Hutcheson
      1. Collected Works and Correspondence
    2. Secondary Readings

1. Life

Francis Hutcheson was born to Scottish parents on August 8, 1694 in Ireland. Though remembered primarily as a philosopher, he was also a Presbyterian minister, as were his father and grandfather before him. After he attended the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1711 he returned to Dublin in 1716. Rather than taking a ministry position he was asked to start an academy in Dublin, and it was here that he wrote his most influential works. At this time he also married Mary Wilson and had one son, Francis. Eventually he was appointed professor and chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1729 following the death of his mentor and teacher, Gershom Carmichael.

Hutcheson was a popular lecturer perhaps because he was the first professor to use English in lectures rather than the commonly used Latin and also, possibly influenced by his preaching experience, was more animated than was typical of an eighteenth-century academic. Throughout his career he retained a commitment to the liberal arts as his thoughts and theories were always connected to the ancient traditions, especially those of Aristotle and Cicero. His writings were respected even before his Glasgow position and this reputation continued throughout his lifetime. His most influential pieces, first published in Dublin anonymously, were An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) and An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations of the Moral Sense (1728). Hutcheson’s moral theory was influenced most by Lord Shaftesbury, while his aesthetics were in many ways influenced by and a response to John Locke’s primary and secondary qualities. Those who read and were influenced by Hutcheson’s theories included David Hume and Adam Smith, his student at Glasgow, while Thomas Reid and Immanuel Kant both cited Hutcheson in their writings.

Francis Hutcheson died in 1745 after 16 years at Glasgow while on a visit to Ireland, where he is buried.  After his death, his son and namesake published another edition of Hutcheson’s Illustrations on the Moral Sense in 1746 and in 1755, A System of Moral Philosophy, a text written specifically for college students.

2. Internal Senses

Though Shaftesbury could be called the father of modern aesthetics, Hutcheson’s thorough treatment of the internal senses, especially of beauty, grandeur, harmony, novelty, order and design in the Inquiry, is what specifically moved the focus of study from rational explanations to the sensations. For Hutcheson the perception of beauty does depend on the external sense of sight; however, the internal sense of beauty operates as an internal or reflex sense. The same is the case with hearing: hearing music does not necessarily give the perception of harmony as it is distinct from the hearing (Inquiry I. I. X). Yet, the internal senses are senses because like the external senses they are immediate perceptions not needing knowledge of cause or advantage to receive the idea of beauty. Both the external and internal senses are characterized by a passive and involuntary nature, and the internal senses are a source of pleasure and pain. With a nod to Locke’s primary and secondary qualities (Inquiry I, 1 7), Hutcheson described perception specifically of beauty and harmony in terms of simple and complex ideas. Without the internal sense of beauty there is no perception of it: “This superior power of perception is justly called a sense, because of its affinity to the other senses in this, that the pleasure does not arise from any knowledge of principles, proportions, causes, or of the usefulness of the object; but strikes us at first with the idea of beauty: nor does the most accurate knowledge increase this pleasure of beauty, however it may super-add a distinct rational pleasure from prospects of advantage, or from the increase of knowledge” (Inquiry I, 1, 8).

The perception of beauty though excited by an object is not possible without this internal sense of beauty. There is a specific type of absolute beauty and there are figures that excite this idea of beauty. We experience this when recognizing what Hutcheson calls “uniformity amidst variety” (Inquiry, I, 2, 3). This happens with both mathematical and natural objects, which although multifaceted and complex, are perceived with a distinct uniformity. The proportions of an animal or human figure can also excite and touch the internal sense as absolute beauty. Imitative beauty, on the other hand, is perceived in comparison to something else or as an imitation in art, poetry, or even in an idea. The comparison is what excites this sense of beauty even when the original being imitated is not singularly beautiful.

Hutcheson wondered why there would be a question about whether there were internal senses since they, like the external ones, are prominent in our own experiences. Perhaps one of the reasons that the internal senses are questioned more than the external is because there are no common names for them such as ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’ (Inquiry, I. VI, IX). There is no easy way to describe the sense that feels beauty, yet we all experience it in the presence of beauty. Though this internal sense can be influenced by knowledge and experience it is not consciously controlled and is involuntary. Moving aesthetics away from logic and mathematical truths does not make it any less real and important for our pleasure as felt in the appreciation and experience of beauty and harmony. The internal senses also include the moral sense, so called by Shaftesbury and developed thoroughly by Hutcheson.

3. Moral Sense Faculty

a. Operations of moral sense faculty

Hutcheson, like Shaftesbury, claimed moral judgments were made in the human faculty that Shaftesbury called a moral sense. Both believed human nature contained all it needed to make moral decisions, along with inclinations to be moral.

The process, Hutcheson described, begins with a feeling of pleasure or advantage felt in the moral sense faculty—not necessarily to us but advantageous to someone or generally for everyone. This perception of pleasure has a specific moral flavor and causes us to feel moral approbation. We feel this pleasure when considering what is good or beneficial to others as a part of our natural instinct of benevolence. The things pursued for this pleasure are wanted because of our self-love and interest in the good for others. So first there is a sense of pleasure; then there is the interest in what causes the pleasure. From there, our experience or reason can tell us what objects have and may continue to give us pleasure or advantage (Hutcheson 1725, 70). For Hutcheson, the moral sense thus described is from God, implanted, not like innate ideas, but as an innate sense of pleasure for objects that are not necessarily to our advantage—and for nobler pleasures like caring for others or appreciation of harmony (Hutcheson 1725, I.VIII, 83).

Evaluating what is good or not—what we morally approve of or disapprove of—is done by this moral sense. The moral sense is not the basis of moral decisions or the justification of our disapproval as the rationalists claim; instead it is better explained as the faculty with which we feel the value of an action. It does not justify our evaluation; the moral sense gives us our evaluation. The moral faculty gives us our sense of valuing—not feeling in an emotional sense as that would be something like sadness or joy.  There is feeling, but the feeling is a valuing type of feeling.

Like the other internal senses of beauty and harmony, people are born with a moral sense. We know this because we experience moral feelings of approbation and disapprobation. We do not choose to make moral approvals or disapprovals; they just happen to us and we feel the approvals when they occur. Hutcheson put it this way: “approbation is not what we can voluntarily bring upon ourselves” (Hutcheson 1728, I. 412). He continued that in spite of the fact that it is a pleasurable experience to approve of actions, we cannot just approve of anything or anyone when we want to. Hutcheson gives illustrations of this: for instance, people do not “approve as virtuous the eating a bunch of grapes, taking a glass of wine, or sitting down when tired” (ibid.). The point is that moral approvals and disapprovals done by our moral sense are specific in nature and only operate when there is an action that can be appropriately judged of by our moral sense (ibid.). Another way to make this point is to compare the moral sense to the olfactory sense. I can put my nose to this ceramic cup in front of me but my nose will not smell anything if there is nothing to smell. The moral sense operates when an idea touches it the same way a nose smells when there is an odor reaching it. No odor, no smell; no moral issue, no moral sentiment. For Hutcheson, the moral sense is involved and included when the agent reflects on an action or a spectator observes them in reference to the action’s circumstances, specifically those whom it affects (Hutcheson 1728, I. 408). So when an action has consequences for others, it is more likely to awaken our moral sensibility.

Reasoning and information can change the evaluation of the moral sense, but no amount of reasoning can or does precede the moral sense in regard to its approval of what is for the public good. Reason does, however, inform the moral sense, as discussed below. The moral sense approves of the good for others. This concern for others by the moral sense is what is natural to humankind, Hutcheson contended. Reason gives content to the moral sense, informing it of what is good for others and the public good (Hutcheson 1728, I. 411).

Some may think Hutcheson a utilitarian and certainly no thorough accounting of historical utilitarianism is complete without a mention of Hutcheson. Consider the following statement from Hutcheson: “In the same manner, the moral evil, or vice, is as the degree of misery, and number of sufferers; so that, that action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions, misery.” Preceding this, though, is the phrase, “…we are led by our moral sense of virtue to judge thus…” (Inquiry, II, 3, 8). So it is our moral sense that evaluates goodness and evil and does seem to evaluate much like a utilitarian, but it is not bound by the utilitarian rule—moral sense evaluations are normatively privileged and prior to moral rules of any kind.

In Illustrations upon the Moral Sense (1728),Hutchesongives definitions of both the approbation of our own actions and those of others. Approbation of our own action is given when we are pleased with ourselves for doing the action and/or pleased with our intentions for doing the action. Hutcheson puts it this way: “[A]pprobation of our own action denotes, or is attended with, a pleasure in the contemplation of it, and in reflection upon the affections which inclined us to it” (I. 403). Consider what happens when someone picks up and returns something that another person drops. In response to the action, the person who picked up the dropped item would have feelings of approbation toward their own action. This person would be happy with what they did, especially after giving it some thought. Further, they would be pleased if their own intentions were ones with which they could also be pleased. The intention could possibly be that they just wanted to help this person; however, if the intention was to gain advantage with the other person, then they would not be as pleased with themselves. Approbation of another’s action is much the same except that the observer is pleased to witness the action of the other person and feels affection toward the agent of the action. Again Hutcheson:

[A]pprobation of the action of another has some little pleasure in attending it in the observer, and raises love toward the agent, in whom the quality approved is deemed to reside, and not in the observer, who has a satisfaction in the act of approving (Hutcheson 1728, 403).

There is a distinction, Hutcheson claimed, between choosing to do an action or wanting someone else to do an action and our approbation of the action. According to Hutcheson, we often act in ways we disapprove of (ibid. 403). All I have to think of is the extra cookie I have just consumed: upon reflection I am not pleased with my choice; I disapprove of eating the cookie.

b. Sense vs. Reason

In response to the difficulty philosophers seem to have understanding the separate operations of sensing—done by the moral sense—and intellectual reasoning, Hutcheson referred to the ancients—a common element in his writing—and the division of the soul between the will (desires, appetites, ‘sensus’) and the intellect. Philosophers who think reasons motivate and/or judge have conflated the will into the intellect (Hutcheson 1728, 405). In this same discussion, Hutcheson, borrowing from Aristotle, explained that reason and the intellect help determine how to reach an end or goal. Yet the desire for that goal is the job of the will. The will is moved by the desire for that end which, of course, for Aristotle, was happiness (ibid. I. 405-6).

There has to be a desire for the will to choose something. Something is chosen because it is seen as a possible fulfillment of a human desire. For Hutcheson, there is a natural instinct and desire for the good of others. Without this natural desire, Hutcheson claimed, no one would care whether an action benefits or harms one person or many. Information may be sound and true about the dangers of an action, yet without the instinct to care about those who would be benefited or harmed the information would not move our passions (ibid. I. 406-7). The only reason to care about a natural disaster 1,000 miles away where we do not know anyone and we are not affected even indirectly is that we care about others in general and do not wish harm on them. A person can only want something if the desire for it is connected to or understood to be satisfying a certain natural instinct or affection (ibid. I. 404). This instinct or desire for the welfare of others is what influences our moral sense to approve or disapprove of an action.

Reasons and discussions that excite and motivate presuppose instincts and affections (ibid.). To be moved means there is an instinct that is moved. Consider a different type of instinct like one’s instinct for happiness. Hutcheson explained it this way: “[T]here is an instinct or desire fixed in his nature, determining him to pursue his happiness: but it is not this reflection on his own nature, or this [some] proposition which excites or determines him, but the instinct itself” (ibid. I. 406). It is not the proposition that a certain act will produce lots of money that excites a person, but rather the instinct toward happiness and the belief that money will bring the desired happiness. So reasoning that leads a person to believe that money will bring happiness presupposes an instinct that values happiness. Reasons that justify or explain something as being moral or immoral presuppose a moral sense (ibid. 404). If there are reasons for something and those reasons are considered, a moral sense must exist that cares about and utilizes the information.

Hutcheson thought one of the reasons there was confusion and opposition to the idea of moral judgment coming from one’s instincts or affections is the violent, passionate actions that are observed in people and would not be effective as moral evaluators. Yet Hutcheson was not claiming that these passions and out-of-control desires are the source of moral judgment; it is “the calm desire or affection which employs our reason freely…” (ibid. IV. 413). Also, for Hutcheson, “the most perfect virtue consists in the calm, impassionate benevolence, rather than in particular affection” (ibid.). So not only are the moral passions calm, they naturally respond positively to behaviors that benefit the public good. Hutcheson did not claim that this should be the case and, therefore, it is not the normative claim utilitarianism makes; rather, what Hutcheson argued is that his experiences and moral sense find this to be the case.

To the criticism that a person’s moral sense might be judged good or evil, Hutcheson replied that this was not possible. He compared judging the moral sense as good or evil with calling the “power of tasting, sweet or bitter; or of seeing, strait or crooked, white or black” (ibid. I. 409). So a person cannot have a morally evil moral sense even if this person disagrees with another. Hutcheson did see that people may differ in taste—and various people could and do—and that the moral sense can be silenced or ignored (ibid. 410). He contended, however, that these differences in taste and evaluation do not indicate evil in the moral sense itself.

Hutcheson did address the issue of uniformity in moral sentiments by answering whether or not we can know others will also approve of that which we approve (ibid. IV. 414). Though there is no certainty of agreement, the moral sense as natural to humankind is largely uniform. Hutcheson added that God approves of benevolence and kindness and so he created human nature with the capability to make the same types of approvals, and this is done by the moral sense. Our moral sense naturally, according to Hutcheson, approves of kindness and caring for others, and unless there is a prejudiced view of whether the action is truly kind and publicly useful, it is not probable that a person would judge incorrectly (ibid.). So, yes, there is disagreement sometimes, but the disagreement is not rooted in self-interest.

c. Basis of Moral Determinations

For Hutcheson, the foundation of our moral determinations is not self-love. What is basic to morality is our inclination for benevolence—an integral part of our moral evaluations which will be more fully examined in the following section. In response to the Hobbesian doctrine of egoism as advanced by authors like Bernard Mandeville, Hutcheson set out to prove the existence of natural feelings like benevolence in order to show that not every action was performed out of self-interest. Although the following quote demonstrates that Hutcheson worried that our natural benevolence could get caught up with our selfish nature, he hoped people could realize that our natural benevolence will allow us to see the higher character and that we can understand and encourage what is best for everyone:

Let the misery of excessive selfishness, and all its passions, be but once explain’d, that so self-love may cease to counteract our natural propensity to benevolence, and when this noble disposition gets loose from these bonds of ignorance, and false views of interest, it shall be assisted even by self-love, and grow strong enough to make a noble virtuous character. Then he is to enquire, by reflection upon human affairs, what course of action does most effectually promote the universal good… (Hutcheson 1725, VII. 155).

However, even when selfishness drowns out our benevolent instincts, our moral sense still operates in response to what is good for others.

Hutcheson’s moral sense theory helped to conceptually circumvent the problems that stem from a strict doctrine of egoism. He claimed that it is natural for us to want good things for others. When someone’s moral sense operates and they judge an action as morally wrong, the moral sense is not why they feel the wrongness, it is how they feel it. It is like an applause meter that evaluates the morality that is expressed in the sentiment: “I morally disapprove of that.” This last statement is a report of the moral sense into an opinion of morality, moving from a feeling to an idea. Yet, if the moral sense faculty works the way Hutcheson describes, there needs to be an innate benevolence, and that case is made by Hutcheson.

4. Benevolence: Response to Hobbes and Pufendorf

Hutcheson’s arguments for an instinctual benevolence are in both Reflections on the Common Systems of Morality (1724) and the Inaugural Lecture on the Nature of Man (1730), both found in Francis Hutcheson: Two Texts on Human Nature (Mautner 1993). In these texts Hutcheson responds to both Thomas Hobbes and Samuel Pufendorf, arguing that from our own experiences we can see that there are, in fact, disinterested motivations common in humankind. Hutcheson specifically claims that the term ‘state of nature’ as used by Hobbes and Pufendorf creates a misunderstanding of what is actually present in human nature. The actual ‘state of nature,’ for Hutcheson, includes the benevolence he claimed as instinctual to humankind. The particular Pufendorf claim that Hutcheson was concerned with was that people would not be virtuous unless they believed in divine punishment and reward (Mautner 1993, 18). This is not unlike Hobbes, who claimed that without civil authority, life for humankind would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes 1651, 13.8). For both Hobbes and Pufendorf, the natural ‘state of nature’ is unappealing and full of egoistic defensive protections against others. In opposition, Hutcheson claims the nature of humankind as created by God includes a natural instinct for benevolence. Hutcheson considered the state of nature as described by Hobbes and Pufendorf as an uncultivated state (Hutcheson 1730, 132). He described the cultivated state as one in which a person’s mind is actively learning and developing. These cultivated persons are, for Hutcheson, truly following their own nature as designed by God. In this cultivated state, persons take care of themselves and want all of humankind to be safe and sound (Hutcheson 1730, 133). Hutcheson would have preferred that Hobbes and Pufendorf had used a term other than ‘state of nature’—perhaps ‘state of freedom’—to describe the uncultivated state. This may seem like an unimportant distinction, but consider it for a moment: if humankind is naturally as Hobbes and Pufendorf described, then they need to be forced to develop in cooperative ways, which would be against their nature. If humankind were by nature caring of others, as Hutcheson proposed, then individuals would not need to be forced to cooperate.

Besides the label, ‘state of nature,’ Hutcheson had other objections to the negative characterization of humankind ascribed by Pufendorf and Hobbes. Surely we experience other aspects of people that are not cruel or selfish. We also experience in ourselves a caring and a concern for others. Hutcheson wondered why there was no attention or acknowledgement given by Hobbes or Pufendorf to people’s natural propensity and:

kind instinct [s] to associate; of natural affections, of compassion, of love of company, a sense of gratitude, a determination to honour and love the authors of any good offices toward any part of mankind, as well as of those toward our selves… (Hutcheson 1724, 100).

These characteristics, for Hutcheson, are certainly a part of what we experience in ourselves and in others. We reach out to people for friendship and are impressed and grateful to people who kindly help others as well as ourselves.

Hutcheson also added that human beings naturally care what others think of them. He described this characteristic, observed in others and experienced in ourselves, as “a natural delight men take in being esteemed and honoured by others for good actions…” These characteristics, “all may be observed to prevail exceedingly in humane life,” are ones that we witness daily in people, and are ignored and therefore unaccounted for by Hobbes and Pufendorf (Hutcheson 1724, 100-1). Here, Hutcheson took care to describe his own experiences, and those of others for whom caring for others is not uncommon, and yet these characteristics are missing in the Hobbesian model of humankind. And it is not a meek or quiet instinct: “we shall find one of the greatest springs of their [men in general] actions to be love toward others…a strong delight in being honoured by others for kind actions…” (Hutcheson 1724, 101). Along with his disagreement with the Hobbesian characteristics of humankind, Hutcheson also discusses whether all human action comes from self-interest, arguing against psychological egoism. Hutcheson acknowledged that it is in everyone’s advantage to form cooperative units and that this interdependence is necessary for mankind’s survival (Hutcheson 1730, 134-5). This view agrees partially with what is referred to as prudentialism, as discussed by Hobbes and Pufendorf. Prudentialism is the theory that all cooperation and sociability comes from a self-interested motive. So people make friends or are kind because they know in the long run the effort will benefit their projects and survival—it is prudent to at least feign to care for others. Where Hutcheson disagreed with Hobbes and Pufendorf was over the claim that self-interest is the only motive for social life and/or caring for others. Hutcheson claimed that human beings have other natural affections and appetites “immediately implanted by nature, which are not directed towards physical pleasures or advantage but towards certain higher things which in themselves depend on associating with others” (Hutcheson 1730, 135).

Hutcheson could not imagine a rational creature sufficiently satisfied or happy in a state that would not include love and friendship with others. Hutcheson allowed that this person could have all the pleasant sensations of the external senses along with “the perceptions of beauty, order, harmony.” But that wouldn’t be enough (ibid. V. 144).  When discussing the pleasures of wealth and other external pleasures, Hutcheson connected the enjoyments of these with our experiences and involvement with others. For Hutcheson, even in an imaginary state of wealth, we include others. Hutcheson asked whether these kinds of ideas of wealth do not always include “some moral enjoyments of society, some communication of pleasure, something of love, of friendship, of esteem, of gratitude” (ibid. VI.147). Hutcheson asked more directly, “Who ever pretended to a taste of these pleasures without society” (ibid. VI. 147). So even in our imagination, while enjoying great wealth and material success, we are doing so in the company of others.

There is another minor disagreement between Hobbes and Hutcheson over what is considered funny, specifically what makes us laugh. Though taking up only small sections in Hobbes’ Human Nature (9. 13) and Leviathan (I.6.42), Hobbes’ claim that infirmity causes laughter was addressed by Hutcheson in “Thoughts [Reflections] on Laughter and Observations on ‘The Fable of the Bees.’” In this collection of six letters, Hutcheson also addresses his disagreements with Mandeville.  These letters, though not as well known today, could well have been quite influential essays when they were published originally in the Dublin Journal. They are also an excellent illustration of Hutcheson’s skills in argumentation.

5. Influences on Hume and Smith

The moral sentimentalist theories of David Hume and Adam Smith were able to move past the Hobbesian view of human nature as both men considered Hutcheson to have handily defeated Hobbes’ argument. Hume does not take on Hobbes directly as he explains that “[m]any able philosophers have shown the insufficiency of these systems” (EPM, Appendix 2.6.17). Without Hutcheson’s successful argument for natural benevolence in human nature, Hume’s and Smith’s moral theories were not feasible because an innate care and concern for others and for society are both basic to their theories.

As a professor at the University of Glasgow, Hutcheson taught Smith, and his writings influenced both Smith and Hume by setting the empirical and psychological tone for both of their moral theories. Hutcheson particularly set up Hume’s moral theory in three ways. Hutcheson argued—as far as Hume was concerned, successfully—against humankind being completely self-interested. Hutcheson also described the mechanism of the internal moral sense that generates moral sentiments (although Hume’s description differed slightly, the mechanism in Hume’s account has many of the same characteristics). In connection to these two Hutcheson themes (the argument against human beings as solely self-interested and a moral sense wherein moral sentiments are felt), Hutcheson also made an argument for a naturally occurring instinct of benevolence in humankind. It was with these three Hutcheson themes that Hume and Smith began articulating their respective moral theories.

It is impossible to know how much Smith was influenced by Hutcheson. Many of Smith’s theories, especially concerning government regulations, property rights and unalienable rights, certainly resemble those espoused by Hutcheson. These were all addressed in the second treatise of the Inquiry (sections v-vii), where Hutcheson aligns the naturally occurring benevolence with feelings of honor, shame and pity, and with the evaluations of the moral sense—and also explains the way benevolence affects human affairs and the happiness of others. Smith’s ideas in Wealth of Nations align with Hutcheson on such issues as the division of labor and the compatibility of the amount and difficulty of labor with its value. Smith was also influenced by Hutcheson’s discussion of the cost of goods being dependent on the difficulty of acquiring them plus the demand for them (Systems II. 10. 7). Also of note in the same chapter is an insightful description for the use of coinage, gold and silver in the exchange of goods and the role of government in the use of coins. Overall, Hutcheson’s timely and meticulous attention to these kinds of social, economic and political details was not only instrumental to Smith’s development but also to that of the American colonies. The latter could have resulted specifically from Hutcheson’s A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy being translated from Latin into English andused at American universities such as Yale.

6. References and Further Reading

a. Works by Hutcheson

  • Hutcheson, Francis. 1724. Reflections on the Common Systems of Morality. In Francis Hutcheson: On Human Nature, ed. Thomas Mautner, 1993. 96-106. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Hutcheson, Francis. Philosophical Writings, ed. R. S. Downie. Everyman’s Library. 1994. London: Orion Publishing Group.
  • Hutcheson’s Writings (selection) ed. John McHugh in the Library of Scottish Philosophy seriesed. Gordon Graham. Forthcoming 2014
  • Hutcheson, Francis. 1725. An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our Ideas of Virtue or Moral Good. Selections reprinted in British Moralists, ed. L. A. Selby –Bigge, 1964. 69-177. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Hutcheson, Francis. 1728. Illustrations upon the Moral Sense. Selections reprinted in British moralists, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. 1964. 403-418. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Hutcheson, Francis. 1730. Inaugural Lecture on the Social Nature of Man. In Francis Hutcheson: On Human Nature, ed. Thomas Mautner. 1993. 124-147. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hutcheson, Francis. 1742. An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. Selections reprinted in British moralists, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. 1964. 392-402. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Hutcheson, Francis. 1755. A System of Moral Philosophy. Selection reprinted in British moralists, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. 1964. 419-425. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

i. Collected Works and Correspondence

  • Liberty Fund Natural Law and Enlightenment series: General Editor, Knud Haakonssen. Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana U.S.A.
  • 1725 An Inquiry into the Original of Our ideas of Beauty and Virtue. 2004
  • 1742 An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with the Illustrations on the Moral Sense. 2002
  • 1742 Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind. 2006
  • 1745 (Translated into English 1747) Philosophiae Moralis Instituitio Compendiaria with A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy. ed. Luigi Turco. 2007
  • 1755 Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius. 2008
  • 1729 “Thoughts on Laughter and Observations on ‘The Fable of the Bees’” in The Correspondence and Occasional Writings of Francis Hutcheson  2014

b. Secondary Readings

  • Berry, Christopher J. 2003. “Sociality and Socialization.” The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, ed. Alexander Broadie, Cambridge University Press.
  • Blackstone, William T. 1965. Francis Hutcheson & Contemporary Ethical Theory. University of Georgia Press.
  • Broadie, Alexander, ed. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, Michael. 2002. Francis Hutcheson in Dublin 1719-1730: The Crucible of his Thought. Four Courts Press.
  • Carey, Daniel. 1999. Hutcheson. In The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers, eds. John Yolton, John Valdimir Price, and John Stephens. Two volumes.Vol. II: 453-460. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press.
  • D’Arms, Justin and Daniel Jacobson. 2000. Sentiment and Value. In Ethics 110 (July): 722-748. The University of Chicago.
  • Daniels, Norman and Keith Lehrer. Eds. 1998. Philosophical Ethics. Dimensions of Philosophy Series. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  • Darwall, Stephen. 1995. The British Moralists and the Internal ‘Ought’ 1640 – 1740. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Darwell, Stephen, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton, eds.1997. Moral Discourse and Practice. Oxford University Press.
  • Emmanuel, Steven, ed. 2001. The Blackwell Guide to the Modern Philosophers. Massachusetts: Blackwell Press.
  • Gill, Michael. 1996. Fantastic Associations and Addictive General Rules: A fundamental difference between Hutcheson and Hume. Hume Studies vol. XXII, no. 1 (April): 23-48.
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Author Information

Phyllis Vandenberg
Grand Valley State University
U. S. A.


Abigail DeHart
Grand Valley State University
U. S. A.

Source: Editor's Introduction to Hutcheson's An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises, ed. Wolfgang Leidhold (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).


Liberty and Happiness

The political dimension of liberty is at least twofold: civil liberties and independence. The former is a matter of the political order of a country; the latter, of freedom from foreign domination. Liberty and happiness can be related to each other as they were in the third section of the “Virginia Bill of Rights,” from 6 June 1776:

That government is or ought to be instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

The preceding section puts forward a short argument: The right to reform, alter, or abolish government is founded on the judgment of whether such government is adequate or contrary to its main purpose, namely the greatest degree of happiness and safety of the community. The argument has a philosophical background. The criterion of “producing the greatest degree of happiness” is part of the principal maxim of utilitarian ethics. The right of resistance against inadequate government, on the other hand, is part of the liberal creed. In the eighteenth century the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), in his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (London, 1725), linked the two sides of the argument for the first time.1 There he even coined the phrase, “That action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.”2

Hutcheson’s philosophy became part of the ideas that formed the American polity. In the eighteenth century his books were imported to America and his philosophy was well known through his students and learned visitors to Scotland—among them was Benjamin Franklin in 1759. Hutcheson’s ideas even became part of the colonial curriculum.3 The Inquiry, which is published here in a new edition, was the book that established Hutcheson’s reputation as a philosopher.

The Argument of the Inquiry

Already in this early work, Hutcheson detailed some of his political ideas.4 However, his main task was examining the foundations of his aesthetic, moral, and political philosophy. This was done in two treatises, one dealing with the principles of aesthetics,5 the other with those of ethics and, to some extent, their political consequences.6 In both treatises the structure of the argument is similar: (1) Our ideas have their origin in our perceptions and are received by senses. (2) For different perceptions we have different senses. (3) Perceptions are founded in certain qualities of the objects perceived. (4) These qualities we can describe in a maxim or formula. Hutcheson’s theory in both treatises therefore is a complex of three related components: a subjective sense, an objective foundation, and an analytical formula. Hutcheson presents the outline of his theory of perception in the first treatise.

The First Treatise

Hutcheson’s theory of perception starts with the ideas of John Locke.7 For Locke all materials of reason and knowledge come “from experience” and our senses are “the first step and degree towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it.”8 Hutcheson accordingly defines different senses as the powers “of receiving . . . different Perceptions” (I. I. §§ I, II) and maintains that we also acquire the material for our aesthetic and ethical knowledge by some sort of perception. However, what is the specific quality we perceive in aesthetic perceptions? Here Hutcheson relies on Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury’s analysis of aesthetic perception is based on the Platonic concept of form (forma is the Latin version of the Greek Platonic term idea). Beauty then is the “outward form” of things, reflecting the “inward form” of some “forming power.”9 Accordingly Hutcheson defines beauty as a “form” or as “Figures . . . in which there is Uniformity amidst Variety” (I. II. § III).

Hutcheson implies that form and uniformity cannot be perceived by the normal senses but by a special sense only. Therefore he expands the notion of experience beyond the confines of the ordinary five senses. Form or uniformity then is the particular quality in objects which is the “Foundation or Occasion of the Ideas of Beauty among Men” (I. II. §§ I, II). Beauty is our perception or knowledge of this objective quality, and in accord with his definition of “sense” as the power of perceiving these objective qualities, he assumes a special sense of beauty. This sense is but one of a group of “internal senses” which include among others the “good Ear” or “sense of harmony” (I. VI. § IX). The formula by which the objective form in things themselves can be described is, as already noted, “uniformity amidst variety.” With these words Hutcheson paraphrases Shaftesbury’s concept of beauty. As in his analysis of moral actions, Hutcheson thinks that aesthetic phenomena are capable of a mathematical analysis, which he sketches in his study of “original or absolute beauty” (title of I. II.).

After delineating his theory of aesthetic knowledge, Hutcheson in the remaining chapters of the first treatise develops a general aesthetic theory. This theory of beauty is not limited to a theory of art but extends to a general, almost cosmological theory. This becomes clear when we look at his basic distinction of original or absolute beauty from comparative or relative beauty at the end of the first section. Absolute beauty we “perceive in Objects without comparison to any thing external, of which the Object is suppos’d an Imitation, or Picture” (I. I. § XVI). Examples of such beauty are the works of nature—like heaven and earth, plants and animals—the harmony of music; some works of art, when their beauty, as in architecture or gardening, is not an imitation of something else. Even theorems, such as those in mathematics, can in the absolute sense be beautiful. Relative beauty is “founded on a Conformity, or a kind of Unity between the Original and the Copy” (I. IV. § I). Instances here are poetry and painting, and the creation as a whole—since in the beauty of the effects it reflects the design and wisdom of its cause, which is God the Father as the Creator (I. V.).

It is the general theory of perception as developed in the first treatise that forms the basis of the similar argument in the second. We may assume that Hutcheson wanted first to establish the idea of additional senses in a field that was not as controversial as that of moral philosophy.

The Second Treatise

The moral controversy is found right in the title of the book. In the first edition we read that Hutcheson wants to defend Shaftesbury’s ideas against the author of the “Fable of the Bees,” that is, Mandeville. The two names reflect the clash between the “benevolent” and the “selfish” system. The first position argues that men have by nature moral principles, the second that these principles are but a political invention that is socially useful and based only on self-love or self-interest. Shaftesbury had taught that social affections were the foundation of morals and that a moral sense was the origin of our moral ideas.10 Where Shaftesbury speaks of “social affections” as the foundation of morals, Hutcheson prefers the Christian concept of “love” as “benevolence.” The logical structure of the second treatise is similar to the first. Again we can discern three major components: an objective foundation, which here is benevolence; a particular sense, which is the moral sense; and the analytical formula of “the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.”


In the second treatise, Hutcheson wants to establish the notion of a moral sense as the “Original of our Ideas of . . . Virtue” and love or benevolence as the particular quality we perceive in virtue:

The Affections which are of most Importance in Morals, are Love and Hatred: All the rest seem but different Modifications of these two original affections. (II. II. § II)

Since Hutcheson wanted to follow Locke’s theory of knowledge (as in the first treatise), he had to analyze love or benevolence in accordance with Locke’s ideas. According to Locke, all materials of experience consist either of simple ideas or of complex ideas, which are composed of simple ideas. Complex ideas can be real or they can be fictitious (being put together by the imagination or by reason). However, neither imagination nor reason can invent simple ideas. Therefore, only simple ideas necessarily represent something real. If Hutcheson thinks benevolence is the objective foundation of morals, he must show what simple ideas constitute it.

Locke had defined love by the simple ideas of pleasure and pain.11 Love for him is the subjective pleasure of something and is identical with self-love. This definition of love is compatible only with the selfish system. Hutcheson wants to avoid just that. Therefore he distinguishes two versions of “good” and “evil,” that is, natural and moral good or evil. A natural good is perceived only in inanimate beings. This perception is one of advantage or disadvantage, of pleasure or pain. A moral good is perceived in rational agents since “they study the interest, and desire the Happiness of other Beings.” Our moral relationship with rational agents then is twofold: (1) a moral perception and (2) a moral affection or desire. The moral perception is generally called “approbation” or “disapprobation”; the desire is generally named “love” and “benevolence” or “dislike” and “hate” (II. Introduction; II. I. § I; II.).

Hutcheson defines love by the “simple idea of desire.” In the first edition of the Inquiry the terminology is not yet quite consistent; refinements are added later.12 In the Essay he defines love as the “desire” for the happiness of others and addresses desire as a simple idea (Essay, p. 64).13 In contrast to Locke,14 Hutcheson considers desire to be an act of the will. This is consistent with the Christian idea of love. Love in the Christian sense of benevolence is not an emotion or a feeling, but an act of the will.15 Otherwise, the words of the Sermon on the Mount—“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself ” (Matthew 19.19)—would become a very strange commandment: a feeling cannot be commanded. A contemporary Christian author, Richard Cumberland (1631–1718), knew this very well.16


While benevolence is the foundation of the moral good, the moral sense is the source of moral ideas, of approbation and disapprobation. Hutcheson concedes that the moral sense is a “secret sense” (II. Introduction; II. I. § III). That means the existence of such a sense is not immediately known and calls for an indirect proof. On the basis of his theory of perception he demonstrates that there are distinct moral perceptions and concludes that there must be a distinct sense:

since the Definition agrees to it, viz. a Determination of the Mind, to receive any Idea from the Presence of an Object which occurs to us, independent on our Will. (II. I. § I)

For Hutcheson, the particular moral perception is approbation. We perceive a “moral good” when a person acts from benevolence, and this “(excites) . . . Approbation or Perception of moral Excellence.” The “natural good,” on the other hand, raises the “Desire of Possession toward the good Object.” Hutcheson emphasizes that approbation should not be mixed up with the “Opinion of Advantage,” and later on throughout the first and the following chapters he strengthens his position with a number of instances. That the perception of approbation or moral excellence is different from other perceptions is for Hutcheson a matter of evidence.17 Evidence for him seems to be a proof from experience, which cannot be supported by other sufficient reasons (II. I. § I).


To be sure, the moral quality of actions is not the same in all cases. Sometimes we approve one act more than another, or we may have to choose between different options. To clarify the difference, we have to analyze the object of perception, that is, the moral quality itself. In this case we would make a judgment about moral quality. This is what Hutcheson does with his maxim of the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers. In the third section Hutcheson introduces the formula:

that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions Misery. (II. III. § VIII).

The formula is based on the moral sense, the objective moral quality, and a rational procedure, namely a comparison of the varying moral qualities of actions. The subsequent judgment is based on the moral sense that still performs a leading role. In the earlier editions, the presentation of the maxim was followed by a number of mathematical algorithms that, however, are omitted in the fourth edition. Hutcheson states in the preface to the latter that he had left out the mathematical expressions since they “appear’d useless, and were disagreeable to some Readers” (4th ed., Preface, p. xxi; see Preface note 28 of the present edition). The term “happiness” is defined as a “natural good.” To be sure, the greatest good turns out to be benevolence itself (II. III. § XV) or the “Possession of good moral Qualities” (II. VI. § I). The greatest happiness for Hutcheson cannot be found in wealth and external pleasures, but virtue is “the chief Happiness in the Judgment of all Mankind” (II. VI. § II).


Hutcheson’s moral philosophy has a political perspective.18 This becomes clear in phrases like the “common good” or “public interest” that he uses throughout the Inquiry. Especially in its final chapter he treats the basic questions of political order. His main subjects are the corruption of human nature, prudence, rights, and the form of government. The political problem emerges right from the center of Hutcheson’s moral philosophy. Since virtue is the highest form of happiness, and virtue is based on benevolence and benevolence in turn on the free will, then only people who can exert their free will can be happy. Liberty therefore becomes a central political idea. At the same time, liberty can provide difficulties: it may happen that people do not follow the path of virtue.

What shall we do if the moral foundation is weak and if the moral ideas are insufficient? The argument is based on the insight that not all citizens may be virtuous all the time. Although the moral sense and all good reasons may point toward a virtuous life, human nature is open to corruption because men are free. Man is moved by two opposing principles, love and self-love, and is free to follow either. Therefore liberty and happiness sometimes counteract each other. It is difficult to determine the prevailing motive, benevolence or self-love, particularly in public life (II. III. § XII). The polity therefore can be based not on good intentions but on good results. Government can rest only on prudence, not on moral perceptions. The importance of prudence as opposed to moral reflections is typical for both the republican tradition of James Harrington and the Whig tradition, and Hutcheson was close to both.19 Accordingly, the moral sense must be supplemented by an external motive to “beneficent Actions . . . for the publick Good . . . to counter-ballance those apparent Motives of Interest.” This external motive is “a law with Sanctions” (II. VII. § I). For Hutcheson the transfer and restriction of liberty therefore is the central question of political order and of the limits of government:

Men have [the Right] to constitute Civil Government, and to subject their alienable Rights to the Disposal of their Governours, under such Limitations as their Prudence suggests. And as far as the People have subjected their Rights, so far their Governours have an external Right at least, to dispose of them, as their Prudence shall direct, for attaining the Ends of their Institution; and no further. (II. VII. § VIII)

To be acceptable, liberty and its restriction must be in balance with happiness. If a government assumes all rights from its people and neglects the “publick Good of the State” altogether, it is called despotism. For Hutcheson a “Despotick Government” is directly inconsistent with his idea of a civil government (II. VII. § X). With despotism, liberty and happiness are at stake. In such cases, Hutcheson advocates a right of resistance (II. VII. § X). And later on he argued that this is “When it is that colonies may turn independent.” 20

Wolfgang Leidhold

[1 ]For Hutcheson’s biography, see W. R. Scott, Francis Hutcheson, His Life, Teaching and Position in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900; reprint, New York: A. M. Kelley, 1966). Also see the brief overview of Hutcheson’s early life and writings in the editor’s introduction to Hutcheson, An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense (1728), edited by Aaron Garrett (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).

[2 ]The formula was first used by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in a critical remark on Samuel Cocceji’s thesis De Principio Juris Naturalis Unico, Vero, et Adaequato (Frankfurt: Schrey/Hartmann, 1699); see Joachim Hruschka, pp. 166–69.

[3 ]For the impact of Hutcheson’s philosophy in Europe and America, see the introduction to Hutcheson, Über den Ursprung unserer Ideen von Schönheit und Tugend, edited by Wolfgang Leidhold (Hamburg: Meiner, 1986), pp. xi–xiv.

[4 ]Especially in the second and the third editions, 1726 and 1729, respectively.

[5 ]On Hutcheson’s aesthetic philosophy, see the works and articles of Peter Kivy, Caroline Korsmeyer, E. Michael, and M. Strasser, listed in “References and Further Reading” (p. xix of this volume).

[6 ]For discussion of Hutcheson’s central ideas, see “References and Further Reading” (p. xix of this volume), especially the works and articles of Giovanni de Crescenzo, William K. Frankena, Knud Haakonssen, Peter Kivy, Wolfgang Leidhold, David Fate Norton, D. D. Raphael, Jane Rendall, and William Robert Scott; still valuable as a basic bibliography is T. E. Jessop. For a wider British context, see Isabel Rivers.

[7 ]Locke is mentioned in the Inquiry: I. I. § VII. Here and in the following the Inquiry is quoted by treatise, section, and article; for example, “I. I. § VII” means first treatise, first section, article seven.

[8 ]John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II. I. § 2; see II. IX. § 15.

[9 ]See J. V. Arregni and P. Arnau, “Shaftesbury: Father and Critic of Modern Aesthetics,” British Journal of Aesthetics 34 (1994): 350–62.

[10 ]See Anthony, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, edited by Philip Ayres, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), I, pp. 55–57, 62 ff., 93–101, 196–274. Also see Stanley Grean. The term moral sense was first used by Thomas Burnet, a student of Ralph Cudworth, in his discussion of John Locke, cf. Ernest Tuveson.

[11 ]See Locke, Essay, II. XX. § 4.

[12 ]Here the reader is confronted with an irritating number of terms used to describe love: affection, intention, sentiment, design, disposition, inclination, motive, determination, instinct, even passion, see Inquiry (first edition 1725), pp. 104, 107, 112, 119, 131, 137, 143; “passion”: pp. 132, 134, 141, 175 ff.

[13 ]The same argument is added to the third and the fourth editions of the Inquiry (II. II. § IV and § V).

[14 ]Locke, Essay, II. XXI. §§ 28 ff.

[15 ]On the Christian idea of love see M. C. D’Arcy, The Mind and Heart of Love (London: Faber and Faber, 1944); J. Burnaby, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947); V. Warnach, “Agápe, Not Eros—or Caritas,” Anglican Theological Review, 37 (1955): 67–73; most comprehensive: Ceslaus Spicq, Agapè dans le Nouveau Testament: Analyse de textes, 3 vols. (Paris: Gabalda, 1958–59). A good introduction is C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 21st ed. (Glasgow: Collins, 1981).

[16 ]See R. Cumberland, A Treatise of the Law of Nature (London: Phillips, Knapton, 1727; first edition in Latin, London 1672), 42. For Hutcheson the conceptual situation was rather complicated, and it took him a while to clarify it. Finally, in the fourth edition of the Inquiry the definition of love is given the most precise wording. Here Hutcheson identifies the “Desire of the Good of Others” with the Aristotelian “órexis bouleutiké,” translating it as a “settled Disposition of the Will, or a constant Determination, or desire to act . . . , or a fixed Affection toward a certain Manner of Conduct.” Since the foundation of morals sometimes had been called an “instinct,” he at the same time defines “instinct” as an “Essential or Natural Disposition of the Will, an Affectionate Determination” (p. 195).

[17 ]Hutcheson uses the word “evidence,” for example, in Inquiry II. I. § I.

[18 ]See Wolfgang Leidhold, Ethik und Politik bei Francis Hutcheson (Freiburg, Munich: Alber, 1985), especially chapters 6–10.

[19 ]See Caroline Robbins and Charles Blitzer, An Immortal Commonwealth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), and J. G. A. Pocock, ed., The Political Works of James Harrington (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

[20 ]Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, 2 vols. (Glasgow: Foulis, 1755), II, p. 308.

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