Philosophy 433                         History of Ethics                                   Darwall                                    Winter 2008




I Establishing moral goodness exists.  Assume that Hutcheson has made a convincing case that we have the irreducible, distinctively moral ideas of approbation--viz. irreducible ideas that we have only when we apprehend the motives or motivated actions of moral (rational) agents.  If so, it remains to show two further things in order to establish, by Hutcheson's lights, that moral good and evil exist, naturally, as it were, without any conventions, customs, or instituted political authority.

            (a)  First, Hutcheson needs to identify the motives and actions whose apprehension causes approbation and condemnation, respectively.

            (b)  Second, he must show that these motives actually exist.


            Two remarks in passing:

            1.  Note the following passage where Hutcheson makes it explicit that he is conceiving of the relevant "qualities" of actions to be motives:  "whatever we call virtue or vice is either some affection or some action consequent upon it." (101)

            2.  Note the following potential question about the sort of naturalism Hutcheson is espousing:  if we say that the quality which causes approbation itself is moral goodness (suppose that benevolence is that quality, as Hutcheson believes), then it may seem puzzling how we can praise or recommend benevolence, as we might normally think that we are doing when we say of  it that it is morally good.  For though it may seem to us that we are attributing some further property to benevolence, viz. that of being morally good, moral goodness just is benevolence.  And while it might be informative to us that what we might have supposed to be two different qualities are, in fact, the same, it is hard to see why we should be able to praise or recommend something by saying of it that it is morally good, unless we can praise or recommend it by saying (or thinking) of it that it is benevolence.  But this latter possibility seems puzzling since it would seem I could fully grasp that a motive is benevolence without moral sense, but not, it would seem Hutcheson should believe, that it is morally good without moral sense.  Think about this.


II Moral goodness fundamentally a property of motives.  Hutcheson's considered view seems to be that the only motives that are such that their apprehension causes approbation are all, indeed, instances of benevolence.  Thus:

            "Ask, for instance, the most abstemious hermit, if temperance of itself would be morally good, supposing it shew'd no obedience toward the deity, made us no fitter for devotion, or the service of mankind . . . would appear no virtue in them."  (101-102)

            Actually, read this carefully.  The last sentence makes two distinct, and perhaps conflicting claims.  Hutcheson says that these "are dispositions universally necessary to promote publick good, and denote affections toward rational agents."  The first says that the dispositions actually promote public good; the second that it is an affection toward public good.  (Well, not really, it just says an affection toward rational agents, but the whole thrust of the rest of section 2 suggests this reading.)

            Here is a pretty unambiguous statement of Hutcheson's position:

            "Having remov'd these false springs of virtuous actions, let us next establish the true one, viz. . . . some instinct, antecedent to all reason from interest, which influences us to the love of others; even as the moral sense, above explain'd, determines us to approve the actions which flow from this love in ourselves or others." (112)

            N.B. “This disinterested affection . . . .” (112)  Note the distinction between the disinterested affection of benevolence, the motive moral sense approves, and the disinterested “sensation,” “perception,” or sentiment of moral sense itself.  According to Hutcheson’s moral psychology, moral sense cannot directly motivate.  Only an “affection” or “desire” can, and desires are always for some natural good.  This is a very important feature of Hutcheson’s moral psychology to which we shall return.        


III Establishing the existence of benevolence.  Hutcheson needs also to show that benevolence actually exists.  Hutcheson's case for this claim, as for his claims about approbation, is completely empirical; it depends solely on people consulting their own experience.

            Now benevolence can come in various forms.  It can be felt toward a particular person, towards members of a family, towards party, community, country, or, Hutcheson thinks, towards the whole of all humankind, and perhaps towards all creatures who can be happy or unhappy.  And Hutcheson believes that the more extensive the benevolence, the more we approve it:

            "Benevolence is a word fit enough in general . . . under this name are included very different dispositions of the soul.  Sometimes it denotes a calm, extensive affection or good-will toward all beings capable of happiness or misery . . . they have very different degrees of moral beauty.  The first sort is above all amiable and excellent . . ." (231)

            It is not necessary to show that it is very strong, stronger, say, than self-love, but simply to show that it exists to some degree.  Some of Hutcheson's arguments here are on pp. 80f.  See what you think of them.


IV. The Greatest Happiness Principle.  Hutcheson was the first English writer to formulate the phrase "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers," a phrase that came to play such a large role in utilitarianism, especially that of Jeremy Bentham.  And, like the utilitarians, he holds the view that when it comes to choices or acts, as opposed to motives and motivated actions, we should look to which act would produce the most happiness overall to determine what to do. 

            "In comparing the moral qualitys of actions, in order to regulate our elections 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 that action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery." (125)

            Now this may seem puzzling.  First, moral sense approves of motives in the first instance, so why does he say that we are led by our moral sense to judge that an act is best in so far as its effects are the greatest happiness of all?  Second, utilitarians more usually argue to the principle of utility on the grounds (a) that happiness is a good thing, (b) that each person's happiness is equally good, and (c) therefore that the more happiness in the world the better.  If this is what is

fundamental, then it makes good sense to think that what we ought to do, which act we ought to choose, is whichever will actually advance the greatest happiness.  But the question remains, how does Hutcheson get to the greatest happiness principle?  What is fundamental in his system is not any premise about the value of happiness as an effect or state of affairs.  That is a claim about natural goodness, and, by itself, it has no implications about what is morally good.


            Here is how I think Hutcheson must be thinking.  Suppose he were to think that what act a person should perform is simply whatever act she would perform if she were motivated by the morally best motive.  The morally best motive is universal benevolence--an equal regard for the happiness of all persons.  Now Hutcheson evidently thinks that a person moved by this motive would have as her end the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers--that is what she would aim

at.  And, if perfectly informed, what she would do is whatever act would, in fact, realize this end.  So there is a derivative sense in which an act is morally best if it actually accomplishes this end.  While it will elicit approbation only if it is motivated by benevolence, we can nonetheless say that the act is uniquely choiceworthy by virtue of being the act which the morally best motive (in the primary sense) would lead us to choose.