Francis Hutcheson, 1694-1746

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Portrait of Frances Hutcheson.

Francis (or Frances) Hutcheson was a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow, one of the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment and an early utilitarian thinker.

Born in Armagh, Ireland, to a family of Scottish Presbyterians, Hutcheson went on to study at the University of Glasgow, receiving his degree in 1712 and obtaining his license to preach in 1716. However, there were widespread suspicions about about his "Irish" roots and his association with theologian John Simson (then under investigation by Scottish ecclesiastical courts). Hutcheson realized that any ministry he held in Scotland would not be a success, so he decided to abandon the church, return to Ireland and try his luck in academia. He taught for a while at the Dublin Academy, studying philosophy on the side and producing his famous Inquiry (1725).

Hutcheson opposed Thomas Hobbes's old thesis (later taken up by David Hume) that human conceptions of "right" and "wrong", "virtue" and "vice", were rooted not in any theological or natural conceptions but purely in hedonic pleasure and pain calculations. Hutcheson accepted that virtue is often associated with pleasure and vice with pain, but tried to avoid Hobbes's conclusion that it all boils down to self-interest. Instead, Hutcheson argued that humans have natural and disinterested feelings of benevolence which guide their moral acts and an innate "moral sense" which informs their moral judgments. Inverting Hobbes's thesis, Hutcheson argued that virtue/vice comes first, pleasure/pain afterwards. We experience pleasurable sensations in doing or observing "virtuous" things because anything which complies with our natural benevolence or moral sense automatically yields pleasure. As benevolence involves giving pleasure to others, Hutcheson reaches the famous utilitarian "greatest happiness" formula as a natural moral commandment:

"In comparing the moral Qualitys of Actions, in order to regulate our Election among various Actions propos'd, or to find which of them has the greatest moral Excellency, we are led by our moral Sense of Virtue to judge thus; that in equal Degrees of Happiness, expected to proceed from the Action, the Virtue is in proportion to the Number of Persons to whom the Happiness shall extend; ... so that, that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions Misery." (Hutcheson, 1725: Sect. 3.8)

Hutcheson's theory of aesthetics was set along similar lines to his ethics, e.g. beauty was not a property of the object but arises from an innate "aesthetic sense", etc. In a series of articles in the Dublin Journal, Hutcheson also assaulted Hobbes's theory of "laughter" and Mandeville's disturbing Fable (which he despised). He followed all this up with his 1728 Essay.

As his fame spread, Hutcheson was invited back to Scotland to take a Chair of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1729. He would remain there until his death in 1746. It was Hutcheson, more than anybody, that made Glasgow one of the principal seats of activity during the Scottish Enlightenment, counting Adam Smith and Thomas Reid among his students. He was one of the first academics to lecture in English rather than Latin.

Hutcheson also made Glasgow a bastion of anti-Hume thinking. Indeed, in his later works (1742, 1755), he articulated his moral philosophy thesis more explicitly and more directly in opposition to Humean hedonism (it was allegedly on Hutcheson's instigation that Hume's attempts to get an academic appointments in Scotland always met with failure).

Hutcheson's theory was highly influential on Adam Smith, whom, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, tried to reconcile the Hutcheson's "innateness" thesis with Hume's hedonistic doctrine. Hutcheson was not very enthusiastic about the fledgling capitalist system, being highly suspicious of its implications for traditional virtues like benevolence and generosity.

Major Works of Francis Hutcheson

Resources on Francis Hutcheson

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