Journeys of Janus: Francis Hutcheson


“We must then certainly have other perceptions
of moral actions, than those of advantage: 
and that power of receiving these perceptions
may be called a moral sense. …”1

—Francis Hutcheson

In 1738, at Glasgow University, Francis Hutcheson, appeared before the Presbytery to defend himself against the charge of espousing “false and dangerous” doctrines. Hutcheson, his accusers said, had taught, first, that we should promote the good of all people; second, that our knowledge that we should do so comes to us independently of our knowledge of God, indeed, that moral knowledge comes even without a knowledge of God. All people, Hutcheson believed, have a “moral sense.” The moral sense perceives benevolence to be a virtue, and moves us to behave benevolently. Professor Hutcheson—who was also a Presbyterian minister—maintained that God saves anyone—Christian or otherwise—who, acting in good conscience, seeks to advance the greatest good for the greatest number.2

Today, we wonder how such humane beliefs could be deemed “dangerous.” Hutcheson, however, lived during a period of competing ideologies, two of which viewed human beings ungenerously. First, the theology of John Calvin (1509-1564) still dominated the Church of Scotland. Calvinism was austere. It maintained that Adam’s fall had corrupted all people. Now fully depraved, we can do no good without God’s gracious intervention. Nor have we any control over our own salvation: Before creation, God had “predestined” certain individuals to be saved, others to be damned; and neither bad deeds by the saved nor good deeds by the damned would affect the inevitable outcome. Ominously, God may have saved only a few.

Second, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had characterized people as (at least partially) self-interested. Hobbes said that each individual’s reason dictates that he or she will seek to survive. To survive, however, we need to belong to a larger community, the effectiveness of which, paradoxically, requires that we subordinate our self-interest to the demands of the government. The sovereign’s decisions almost always trump individuals’ preferences, and they do so precisely because, otherwise, individuals’ various self-interests would devolve into conflict, uncertainty, confusion, and inefficiency. Hobbes’ political philosophy thus rests on a psychology that emphasizes self-interest. While less grim than Calvinism, Hobbesianism underscores the idea that, without external intervention, the decisions of individuals cannot be trusted.

By contrast to these two ideologies, a new Protestant liberalism was developing, as well. Liberals, such as Hutcheson, proclaimed both goodness of God and moral potential of the human being. That the Glasgow Presbyters acquitted Hutcheson of the charge of heterodoxy reflects the growing influence of liberalism during the 18th century; that the trial even occurred reflects the continuing power of Calvinism.

Basically, Hutcheson believed that a loving, wise God has created us so that our perceptual capacities, our emotional tendencies, and our rationality enable us to live lives at once full, pleasurable, and moral, lives exhibiting proper regard both for our own interests and the interests of others. Passions tempt us to neglect both others’ needs and our own; but our reason minimizes such errors if—if—our moral sense guides our reason. Reason alone will not the moral person make: Reason merely assists our crucial moral sense.

Hutcheson contributed both to aesthetics, the philosophical study of beauty, and to ethics, the philosophical study of morality. Although we will emphasize Hutcheson’s ethics, we will use his aesthetics to illumine his ethics.

In the expression ‘moral sense’, Hutcheson uses ‘sense’ literally. He does not intend by ‘moral sense’ some vague suggestion such as that people have thoughts about morality, or some vacuous notion that people, for whatever reason, have inclinations to behave in ways that we would call moral. Obviously, we do have such thoughts, and we do behave in such ways. Such truisms are uninteresting. Hutcheson’s actual point, by contrast, is fascinating. Hutcheson believes that we have more than the conventionally supposed five senses! In addition to the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing, we have a sense of beauty and a sense of morality.

Suppose we reap the same advantage from two men, one of whom serves us from an ultimate desire of our happiness, or good-will toward us; the other from views of self-interest, or by constraint: both are in this case equally beneficial or advantageous to us, and yet we shall have quite different sentiments of them. We must then certainly have other perceptions of moral actions, than those of advantage: and that power of receiving these perceptions may be called a moral sense, since the definition agrees with 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.3

The passage contains several important components. Beginning at the end, we see, first, Hutcheson’s meaning of ‘sense’. A sense is a faculty of a person whereby data external to the person register in the consciousness independently of the person’s will. For example, when a person opens her eyes she normally experiences visual data, and she cannot insulate herself from the data directly, by an act of will; she can only do so indirectly, for example, by willing that her eyes close. 

Second, Hutcheson identifies the role of the moral sense in making moral judgments. The moral sense enables an emotional response; it occasions a sentiment that, Hutcheson elsewhere indicates, consists either of pleasurable approval or painful disapproval. 

Third, Hutcheson distinguishes between the self’s anticipation of the self’s gain and the self’s detection of the other’s benevolence. The two are frequently—and catastrophically—conflated. Suppose Susan experiences two situations that are identical, except that in one, Ken lends Susan money because Ken wants Susan to be able to buy breakfast, and in the other, Ken’s twin, Ben, lends Susan money, which will enable her to buy breakfast, but so that Karen, seeing him lend the money, will be favorably impressed. Almost certainly, Susan, if detecting the different motivations, will immediately experience different sentiments in the two cases—approval of Ken, disapproval or indifference of Ben. Moreover, crucially, since the two men’s actions have for her consequences that are identical, her moral sentiments track her detection of motive in the other person, not her anticipation of her own gain. “We must then certainly have other perceptions of moral actions, than those of advantage.… ”4

In this way, Hutcheson makes a case for a moral sense. As with the sense of taste, whereby Susan, when eating a bar of chocolate, cannot insulate herself by an act of will from experiencing chocolate, so, with the sense of morality, she cannot by an act of will insulate herself from experiencing the other’s motivation, be it benevolence, malevolence, or indifference. She must approve in the first case, disapprove in the second, and respond one way or another in the third. Indeed, the moral sense functions whether or not the other’s actions even affect her. 

And so it seems with us all. The murderousness of Pol Pot incites the unpleasantness of our disapproval even if we have no connection to Cambodia. We may think that the movie, The Killing Fields, is excellent artistically; nevertheless, the events that it depicts in the Cambodia of the 1970s we view with pain. Similarly, in watching Schindler’s List, we cannot suppress our disapproval of the Nazis, or our approval of the Germans who risked their own lives to protect Jews and others. We have these feelings of disapproval and approval years—generations—after the acts themselves. Products of the moral sense differ fundamentally from estimations of personal gain or loss.

Hutcheson understands that education serves a role in moral judgment. One does not condemn Pol Pot if one does not know of the atrocities committed by his Khmer Rouge. But education only develops an individual’s inherent human sense of morality, much as the gourmet’s experience with food develops her intrinsic human sense of taste. Any sense can be deprived of the refining influence of education. Further, any sense can be disadvantaged congenitally or damaged later by injury, as in certain instances of blindness and deafness. So it is that the moral sense may be relatively uneducated or uneducable. It would be fallacious, however, to deny that the moral sense helps to define humankind just because some people either do not know Pol Pot’s record, or, though they know it, fail to condemn it. All people make perceptual errors, visual, moral, and otherwise; yet we may legitimately say that the various capacities for perception are essentially universal.

But Hutcheson’s account of morality may fail to support the concept of “moral error,” which he wishes it to do. His account seems subjectivist. Human subjects comprise the basis of his account, subjects who, presumably, sense (approvable) benevolence and sense (disapprovable) malevolence. The subjective response is crucial. Given this subjectivity, can we really speak, in moral contexts, of perceptual errors? Properly speaking, a sense can err only if it ascribes qualities other than those that objectively obtain. Error presupposes objectivity. Does Hutcheson’s ethic provide for objectivity? Or, upon analysis, does it dissolve into mere subjectivity? 

The question troubles us in the 21st century. Many people today feel that there are no objective grounds for moral belief, that if moral truth exists at all, it exists relative to the individual or culture. This view, widely held, goes by various names—relativism, subjectivism, postmodernism. Harry Frankfurt writes,

“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.” In this environment, he says, the vacuous ideal of sincerity supplants the robust virtue of correctness.5

Mere “sincerity,” to use Frankfurt’s language, would withhold condemnation of even the most heinous of acts: The cruelest of sociopaths could only be convicted insincerity of action or speech. Can Hutcheson provide an objective basis for “correctness?”

Whether he can provide a basis depends, in part, on his theory of knowledge. Hutcheson appropriates the theory of the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke claims that all of our ideas are either simple or are formed from simple ideas into complex ideas. Since simple ideas are thus basic to all ideas, and since simple ideas are given in experience, we have to understand sensory perception to understand knowledge. Locke divides the objects of sense perception into primary qualities and secondary qualities. Primary qualities consist of solidity, extension, motion, rest, figure, number; secondary qualities consist of color, sound, taste, and smell. 

Locke believes that the external world causes primary and secondary qualities within minds. We experience the qualities directly, but not the world that causes them. Primary and secondary qualities thus both provide only an indirect perspective on reality. Nevertheless, they differ regarding the exact nature of the indirect perspective. Locke claims that primary qualities resemble their objective causes; secondary qualitites do not resemble their objective causes. Primary qualities are real or objective, secondary are not.

That primary qualities resemble their causes whereas secondary qualities do not resemble their causes, implies that the latter will be experienced less dependably than the former. Generally, whatever causes our experience of the color red does so with sufficient regularity that we stop at red lights if we are paying attention. Nevertheless, secondary qualities involve greater variability than do primary. With secondary qualities, there is greater variability both between different observers at a single time, and between different times for a single observer. This greater variability reflects a greater subjectivity, a subjectivity that derives from the presumed fact that secondary qualities do not resemble their causes.

The distinction between primary and secondary qualities bears on the question of whether, in Hutcheson’s thought, moral properties are objective. Are benevolence and malevolence, for Hutcheson, a kind of primary quality, or a kind of secondary quality? If they are a kind of primary quality, they would resemble some causes within observed moral agents, causes that are not, themselves, directly known. If, on the other hand, benevolence and malevolence are a kind of secondary quality, neither would they be directly known nor would they resemble their causes.

Intuitively, we may prefer the latter alternative. Feelings of approval and disapproval vary considerably, especially between different observers, whether at the same time within different cultures or at different times within a single evolving culture—not to mention between different individuals even at the same time and within the same culture. The variability of moral evaluations seems to exceed not only the variability of apprehension of primary sensory qualities but also the variability of apprehension of secondary sensory qualities.

Hutcheson, however, may think that the situation is more complex, possibly that benevolence and malevolence resemble the causes of their experience more than is the case with secondary sensory qualities. At least he seems to suggest this possibility if we may apply to morality a claim that he makes regarding aesthetics. Although his suggestion pertains explicitly to the sense of beauty rather than to the sense of morality, the two realms sufficiently cohere in his thought for us to suppose that his analysis of aesthetics implies something for his analysis of ethics. 

Hutcheson believes that we have an aesthetic sense that corresponds to our other senses. When a certain kind of object confronts us, the aesthetic sense evaluates the object as beautiful or not. Hutcheson emphasizes form. Specifically, a beautiful object has the form of variety-with-unity. The aesthetic sense, as the moral sense is a sense literally: Not our subjective wills, but the form of the object, determines our response. If we dislike a particular sculpture, we can no more choose to like it than we can choose not to see a fire that blazes in our presence, our eyes open. By the same token, if we like the sculpture, we cannot choose to dislike it. 

The aesthetic response involves a pleasure that is distinctly aesthetic in that it is disinterested: We take pleasure in a scene within nature, or in a painting, or in another person’s countenance, irrespective of the consequences of the object for us. For example, if we should inherit two paintings, the one, H, with a high market value, the other, L, with low, H’s greater monetary value will not determine our attribution of comparative aesthetic value. Aesthetically, we may well prefer L. Attribution of beauty does not depend on the object’s consequences for us.

In the following passage, Hutcheson seems to suggest that the aesthetic sense eludes a neat fit with the primary-secondary distinction.

For beauty, like other names of sensible ideas, properly denotes the perception of some mind; so cold, hot, sweet, bitter, denote the sensations in our minds, to which perhaps there is no resemblance in the objects which excite these ideas in us, however we generally imagine otherwise. The ideas of beauty and harmony, being excited upon our perception of some primary quality, and having relation to figure and time, may indeed have a nearer resemblance to objects than these sensations, which seem not so much any pictures of objects as modifications of the perceiving mind; and yet, were there no mind with a sense of beauty to contemplate objects, I see not how they could be called beautiful.6

Is Hutcheson suggesting that, regarding beauty, a third alternative is needed, akin in a way to primary qualities, akin in another way to secondary? On the one hand, beauty may resemble the objects that occasion it, as primary qualities resemble the objects that occasion them. On the other hand, beauty may depend on the perceiving mind, as secondary qualities depend on the mind that perceives them. Of course, primary qualities also depend on the mind, but they resemble, Locke believes, their causes; so perhaps we should say that the mental component of secondary qualities is greater than for primary, though it is not exhaustive. 

Thus, to return to ethics, we may wonder whether benevolence at once resembles its occasioning source in the agent whom the observer evaluates, so that benevolence is to that extent objective; and yet, it also requires the mind of the observer who ascribes it, so that benevolence is to that extent subjective. And to what extent? Hutcheson specifically notes that a sense of beauty requires a mind to contemplate the beautiful object. In other words, perhaps benevolence resists tidy designation as either primary or secondary?

Possibly. That a theory admits untidiness should not necessarily count against the theory. We should not pretend to more neatness than the subject allows or we have achieved. Still, this interesting notion—that benevolence is neither fully primary nor fully secondary—needs work. If benevolence depends crucially on the one who ascribes it, why are we to believe that benevolence also resembles its cause somewhat as do primary qualities? We seem back to relativism. If benevolence depends on human subjects, it seems relative to the human cognitive structure. Had we been differently structured, or should we come to be differently structured as we and our cultures evolve, so that, say, we would respond to wanton cruelty approvingly, then, by Hutcheson’s principles, cruelty would constitute virtue.

Of this concern, Hutcheson will say that God did not so structure us; could not so structure us because of his goodness; and will disallow our so evolving because God’s goodness is immutable. A logical circle now traps Hutcheson: To preserve the objectivity of our evaluations of people, he assumes the objectivity of our evaluation of God. But if we can’t be confident of our evaluations of people, how can we be confident of our evaluation of God? Indeed, many people today believe that it is easier to know something about their fellow human beings than it is to know anything about God.

Though there thus be some large loose ends in Francis Hutcheson’s thought, we owe him much. Not the least of our debt concerns his attack on what, in our era, has come to be called “psychological egoism.” Psychological egoism maintains that self-interest—actually, the self’s perception of self-interest—motivates all human beings in everything that we do. The theory is categorical. Apparent exceptions, properly interpreted, reduce to self-interest heretofore hidden. For example, according to this theory, a son treats his elderly mother well so that she will keep him in her will; or, a bit more subtly, so that his sister will not think the less of him for his inattention to their mother; or, more subtly yet, so that he can maintain a level of comfort that is associated with habits that he has developed over the years to elicit approval from his father, though the father is now long deceased. Psychological altruism denies psychological egoism. The psychological altruist does not maintain, naively, that a concern for others motivates allbehavior; only that it motivates some.

Though psychological egoism is sometimes illustrated with the thought of Thomas Hobbes, Hobbes may not be a psychological egoist in this categorical sense.7 Rather than claiming that all people are always motivated by self-interest, he seems to claim that people in general are often so motivated. People are sufficiently self-interested that our survival requires submission to a strong sovereign.

Hutcheson disagrees both with Hobbes’s psychology and his political philosophy. Our concern is the psychology. Although Hobbes (probably) does not support psychological egoism proper, Hutcheson seems to criticize psychological egoism proper.8 Whether, in doing so, Hutcheson misreads Hobbes we leave to others, but we note the current importance of Hutcheson’s criticism because, as we begin the 21st century, many Westerners subscribe to true psychological egoism. (We hereafter drop the ‘propers’ and ‘trues’, and simply say ‘psychological egoism’. Hutcheson himself uses an expression that is uncommon today, ‘selfish philosophy’.)

Hutcheson says that “selfish” philosophers, that is, psychological egoists, try to reduce motivation to self-interest in two ways, the first focused on the desire for others’ happiness, the second on others’ happiness itself.9 First, they say that since the desireof the happiness of others appears beneficial to us, we choose to acquire that desire. Second, since others’ happiness itself is pleasurable to us, we come to desire others’ happiness as a means to our pleasure. In either case, the motivation is some benefit that we perceive to redound to us.

Hutcheson counters the first alternative, that we choose to acquire the desire for others’ happiness, with a couple of arguments. To begin, he claims that no desire can be created voluntarily, hence no benevolent desire can be created voluntarily. Regarding the more general claim, Hutcheson may be wrong. There do, in general, seem to be tactics that we can use whereby we can acquire a desire. Suppose that we do not desire X, but desire to desire X. Under those circumstances, through techniques taught by psychotherapists, we can come to desire X. Think, for example, of independence from some drug dependency: Through desiring not to desire the drug, we can, with assistance and effort, come not to desire the drug. Hutcheson himself allows the possibility of indirect creation of desire in general.

Regarding the more specific possibility of creating in ourselves benevolence, that is, our desire for others’ happiness, he says that an individual can incline himself toward benevolence by attending to qualities in the object of the possible benevolence that he appreciates. We can imagine Bill’s attending to Betty’s admirable characteristics, whereby Bill nurtures in himself an attitude of desiring her happiness. Bill indirectly creates the specific desire, benevolence. But if, in this way, we could create benevolence indirectly, we could, in fact, create benevolence. So, it would seem at first blush, contrary to Hutcheson, that we could create a desire that others be happy.

But Hutcheson blocks this specific conclusion concerning benevolence. This is the second argument against the first alternative. He asks, why would we, out of a desire for pleasure, seek to create in ourselves benevolence? Benevolence, after all, often is accompanied not by pleasure but by distress. When the person toward whom we might be benevolent is in distress, benevolence is accompanied by pain, distress of our own. 

Hutcheson thereby makes an important point that bears elaboration beyond his own analysis. Ordinarily, we ascribe degrees of benevolence to a benefactor according to two factors, both concerning distress or harm: (A) the degree of harm risked by the benefactor; and (B) the degree of harm risked by the benefactee. The benefactor who rescues a drowning child is highly benevolent because of the extraordinary need of the benefactee, to which the benefactor ministers; and the benefactor who, in such a rescue, risks her own life is all the more benevolent. Benevolence requires distress of one party, and is enhanced by distress of both. Such are the common data of our moral experience. 

Hence, with Hutcheson, we wonder why—how—would one create, out of one’s own self-interest, a desire that others be happy? If one already had the desire that others be happy, acting on the desire could produce pleasure, true enough. But the question before us is whether a person, not yet benevolent, could come to benevolence through his love of himself. It is difficult to see why one would, or how one could, create the desire for others’ happiness out of self-interest.

The second way that psychological egoists attempt to reduce benevolence to self-interest posits not that we seek to acquire benevolence because we are made happy by the desire that others be happy; rather, that we are benevolent, we desire others’ happiness, because we are made happy by their happiness itself. According to this second way, we enjoy others’ happiness; we enjoy others’ happiness just as we enjoy movies, music, and poetry. Literature, music, and others’ happiness count among life’s finer experiences, and so we desire them; we desire them, but only as means to our pleasure.

Though Hutcheson finds the second way more plausible than the first, he believes it, too, is mistaken. It conflicts with the way we ascribe virtue. Suppose that there are four individuals, Green, Black, White, and Jones. Jones is an honest person whose self-appraisals are reasonably accurate. On Thursday, Black bets Green that Jones will be happy on Friday. White places no bet himself, but will observe the entire process. On Friday, the four gather. Jones reports that, indeed, she is happy. Black is happy because he has won some money. White is also happy; on the psychological egoist’s account he is happy just because Jones is happy. Black and White are both happy, but only to White do we ascribe virtue. Since people ascribe virtue to an agent according to the agent’s motives, and since our ascriptions to Black and White differ, we must believe that their motives differ. The psychological egoist’s claim that all motives are identical because all are self-interested seems defeated by the fact that moral attributions differ.

We have emphasized Hutcheson’s opposition to psychological egoism. He opposes as well ethical egoism. Whereas psychological egoism claims that, in fact, we only do pursue our (perceived) self-interest, ethical egoism claims that we only should pursue our (actual) self-interest. The former theory describes behavior; the latter theory prescribes behavior. Hutcheson’s argument against psychological egoism applies, as well, against ethical egoism: Since we can respond to others as White does, we shouldtry to do so.

Additional arguments tell against both forms of egoism. Hutcheson notes,

We all often feel delight upon seeing others happy, but during our pursuit of their happiness we have no intention of obtaining this delight.10

The point seems true, yet is frequently overlooked. To elaborate, that some consequence, C2, often attends a kind of action, A, does not entail that instances of A are usually motivated by the effort to achieve C2; the motivation might have been C1. Specifically, higher levels of academic achievement seem to correlate with longer life, but few people decide to pursue a degree in order to live longer. Similarly, we should not we suppose that, because acting altruistically causes our own enjoyment, we often act altruistically to cause our own enjoyment. The psychological egoist commits to the doubly dubious proposition, not merely that we often act altruistically to cause our own enjoyment, but that we always do. As both a psychological and ethical altruist, Hutcheson believes that we have been so designed by a loving God that we can, and therefore should, act altruistically. Benevolence thus inheres in human nature; it grows from within, even though it is nurtured by education, by models from without.

Francis Hutcheson was born in 1694 at Drumalig, Northern Ireland. His grandfather, a Presbyterian minister, had emigrated from Scotland; his father was a Presbyterian minister, as well. Hutcheson studied theology at Glasgow University. At age 27, he returned to Ireland to found, in Dublin, a “dissenting academy,” a school for non-Anglican Protestants. During his eight-year tenure at the academy, he married Mary Wilson and published his most influential work, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. In 1730, he returned to Glasgow University to assume a professorship in moral philosophy. In 1738, he was acquitted of the heresy charge, later brushing it off as a bit of academic silliness. In 1746, age 52, while visiting Dublin, he caught a fever and died.

His students had loved him. Throughout life, he had expressed moral, aesthetic, and political optimism about human nature. His own generous spirit embodied evidence for that optimism.


  1. (Back to text) Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue , edited by R. S. Downie (Everyman, 1994), 71.

  2. (Back to text) Francis Hutcheson, not Jeremy Bentham, was the first philosopher to enunciate the ethical principle of utility. See Downie’s Introduction, ibid., xxxii-xxxiii.

  3. (Back to text) Ibid., 70-1.

  4. (Back to text) Ibid.

  5. (Back to text) Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, 2005), 64-5.

  6. (Back to text) Ibid., 14. Italics added.

  7. (Back to text) Thomas Mautner raises questions about this contemporary interpretation of Hobbes. Francis Hutcheson: Two Texts on Human Nature(Cambridge1 1993), 154.

  8. (Back to text) “This disinterested affection, may appear strange to men impressed with notions of self-love, as the sole spring of action.… ” Hutcheson has italicized ‘sole’. Ibid., 84. 

  9. (Back to text) Ibid., 80.

  10. (Back to text) Ibid., 82.