Francis Hutcheson

(1694—1746) moral philosopher

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Moral and political philosopher. Born in Ulster, Hutcheson was educated at Glasgow as a Presbyterian, but returned to work in Dublin until 1740, when he was elected professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His central philosophical concerns lay in ethics and aesthetics. In the Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) Hutcheson develops a theory of the ‘moral sense’ whereby to perceive an action as virtuous is in effect to be pleased by it in a very specific way; the ‘amiable or disagreeable’ ideas of actions that we form constitute our moral approval or disapproval. The moral sense is an innate endowment and its direction is towards approval of those actions that benefit human beings. Hutcheson is therefore one of the earliest utilitarians, and indeed was in danger of prosecution by the Presbytery at Glasgow for teaching the ‘false and dangerous doctrine that the standard of moral goodness is the promotion of the happiness of others’. The greatest happiness principle, the watchword of the 19th-century utilitarians, is first found in his work. In his political theory Hutcheson advocates the sovereignty of the people, and the right of rebellion against political authority that fails to aim at their happiness. He was a major theoretical influence on the American revolution, and a favourite author of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the second President (1796–1800) of the United States. In addition to the Origins Hutcheson wrote A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (1747) and A System of Moral Philosophy, in two volumes published posthumously in 1755.

Subjects: Philosophy.

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