Philosophy 433                                     History of Ethics                                   Darwall                        Winter 2008




I  Section VII- rights and obligation.   In Section VII, Hutcheson gives what he calls a "deduction of some complex moral ideas, viz., of obligation, and right . . . from this moral sense."  We have already seen two different senses of 'moral goodness' that he defines in terms of the fundamental simple idea of approbation: viz., the moral goodness of motives and motivated actions, and the moral goodness of choices.  Now he will try to show that other important moral notions can be seen as complex ideas that have the simple idea of approbation as their core.  And correlatively for those complex ideas that employ the simple idea of condemnation.


II  Hutcheson's treatment of rights is particularly interesting.  It is quite subtle and anticipates (by over a hundred years!) J. S. Mill's utilitarian theory of rights which is much better known.  Here is his general statement:

            "Whenever it appears to us, that a faculty of doing, demanding, or possessing any thing, universally allow'd in certain circumstances, would in the whole tend to the general good, we say, that one in such circumstances has a right to do, possess, or demand that thing.  And according as this tendency to the publick good is greater or less, this right is greater or less." (182)  What he means by a 'faculty' here is a sanctioned protection--thus a person has a faculty of doing, possessing, or demanding something if he is protected against anyone's interfering with his doing, possessing, or demanding it, protected, that is, by the state's applying sanctions against anyone who attempts to interfere.  If the complex set of laws and conventions that create such sanctions advances the public good, then the person has a right.  If not, he does not.

            Hutcheson goes on to give an account, within this general framework, of perfect, imperfect, external, alienable, and inalienable.  These categories had developed within the natural law tradition, and within legal theory.  Hutcheson, in effect, begins the whole utilitarian tradition of arguing that such categories of rights, like the very category of a right itself, makes sense when giving realization to such distinctions in social and legal institutions promotes the public good, and that it does not make sense when doing so does not promote public utility.


III  Obligation.  The other major notion in play in Section VII is that of obligation.  We can raise the question of obligation, in the distinctive sense this question had during this period, in the following way.  With apologies to Hobbes, imagine a "fool" who "saith in his heart":

            Why should I be benevolent? 

            Hutcheson wants to answer this question without appeal to the existence of law.  Unlike Hobbes, Hutcheson believes that there is sufficient justification to be benevolent quite apart from any conventional sanctions that might be attached to it.


            A.  Prudential obligation.  Now one sense to the question, is there an obligation to be benevolent?, which Hutcheson recognizes, and which would have been familiar in Britain in the early 18th century is this:  Do we have a motive of self-interest to be benevolent?  Thus:

            "if, by obligation, we understand a motive from self-interest, sufficient to determine all those who duly consider it, and pursue their own advantage wisely, to a certain course of action is . . . " (177)

            Hutcheson thinks there are two distinct kinds of reason why a person is likely to lead a happier life if she is a benevolent person.  First, because she has a moral sense, she will be pleased with her benevolence and will not be subject to the feelings of condemnation she would have were she to be malevolent.  Second,  even without a moral sense, a benevolent person will realize many indirect benefits of her benevolence, e.g., in the reciprocal benevolence of others, and so on.

            How compelling are these arguments?  One problem with the first argument is:  if all we know about approbation and condemnation is that they are pleasures and pains we feel when we contemplate our own motives, this gives us very little reason to think that they must always overbalance whatever pleasures that acting malevolently might bring as effects or whatever pains acting benevolently might bring as effects.  It may be true that our feelings about ourselves matter to us , but Hutcheson's theory doesn't give us any particular explanation of why this would be so.

            Moreover, there seems to be a further problem with any argument of either of these two sorts that we have a justification for being benevolent.  They don't seem to provide us a justification of the right kind.  Anybody who is convinced that he has a justification for being benevolent only if it will work out best for him if he is seems to be undermining his benevolence by his justification.  The benevolent person takes it to be adequate reason to act that another person would benefit.  But anybody who supposes he will only have adequate reason for being benevolent if he profits doesn't seem to be like that.

            B.  Moral obligation.  Hutcheson seems to feel the force of this, and so he explicitly claims that there is another sense of 'obligation': 

            "If by obligation we understand a determination, without regard to our own interest, to approve actions, and to perform them; which determination shall also make us displeas'd with ourselves, and uneasy upon having acted contrary to it:  in this meaning of the word obligation, there is naturally an obligation upon all men to benevolence . . . "  (176)

            We need to analyze this carefully.  That the determination "shall also make us displeas'd with ourselves, and uneasy upon having acted contrary to it . . . " is a consideration of the very sort that Hutcheson considers under the first sort of motive or "obligation" discussed above (of course, it is the second in Hutcheson's text).  So what does he mean by a "determination, without regard to our own interest, to approve actions, and to perform them . . . "?

            Well, we know that he thinks that in having moral sense we have a disposition to feel approbation when we contemplate benevolence.  But does this really answer the fool's question?  He has already admitted that we have this feeling or simple idea, and he still asks, why should I be benevolent? 

            Hutcheson also says that we have a disposition to perform benevolent acts.  But we have to be careful to see what he means.  We might think that moral sense itself gives us a motive to perform benevolent acts.  But, on reflection, how could it?  First, benevolent acts are motivated by the motive of benevolence.  Second, Hutcheson holds elsewhere (in his Essay on the passions) that every human motive is either an irrational passion, or a desire for someone's pleasure (oneself or someone else).  So how could moral sense motivate directly?  And note that even without that

further psychological claim, moral sense could at best second the motive of benevolence. 

            It may be that in referring to the "determination ... to perform them" Hutcheson is actually referring to benevolence itself.  How adequate an answer would that be?


What do we learn from this about the fundamental character of Hutcheson's ethics as opposed to Hobbes's?