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15 Nov

World Philosophy Day: Francis Hutcheson, Iris Murdoch and the Good Place

Welcome! Everything is fine.

In his post on Virtual Philosopher for World Philosophy Day, Nigel Warburton says, “We are living in a Golden Age for public philosophy, philosophy presented to a general audience rather than a specialised academic one”1. The post includes numerous examples, but omits one which arguably demonstrates this most clearly: the first mainstream television series in which philosophy is front and centre, The Good Place.

The focus of The Good Place is ethics. It is a show where not just the ideas, but the physical books from courses in ethics make an appearance. One of the main characters is even a moral philosopher. Naturally, Consequentialism, Deontology and Virtue Ethics make an appearance, but I’m going to look at one ethical philosophy that does not feature: that of Francis Hutcheson.

A warning: I will be attempting to write this without spoilers, but some of my comments may lead you to guess where a series might be going. So please, if you haven’t watched the series, please stop reading now.

Okay? Then lets begin. The The Good Place starts when self-confessed scumbag Eleanor wakes up and is told by Michael that she is in The Good Place. Michael, an eternal being, shows her around the community explaining that it is created to reward the best of the best, morally speaking. He introduces her to her soul mate, Chidi, a moral philosopher. Eleanor realises there has been a mistake, and wanting to stay in The Good Place, asks Chidi to teach her to be good. Along the way she meets Tahani and Jianyu, two other residents, and Janet, the super-Siri for The Good Place.

When Michael explains how the best of the best are identified, he shows a series of scores. Each act attracts a score: for example “End slavery” attracts +814292.09 points, while “commit genocide” is -433115.25 points. Every single act, from revving a motorcycle to eating a sandwich attracts a score, and your overall total determines whether you get into the Good Place2.

At first glance, it’s plausible that the score is based on the amount of good or bad (in some sense) that the act produced. Eating a sandwich, say, increases the amount of well-being in the world so yields a positive number of points. As the first series progresses however, it’s clear that the score also relates to motivation. The scoring system, then, doesn’t closely match utilitarianism (where only consequences matter), or even virtue ethics (which concentrates on character rather than acts). It does, however, match Francis Hutcheson’s evaluation of acts.

Francis Hutcheson is often viewed as a forerunner of utilitarianism (eg. in defining “the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers” principle). However he argued for a “moral sense”, an innate faculty that people have, which enables them to judge good and evil. This sense tells us that “all Actions suppos’d to flow from such Affections [flowing from the love of others], appear morally Good, if while they are benevolent toward some Persons, they be not pernicious to others”3. In other words, an action motivated by general goodwill towards others or love towards them, is good according to our moral sense (assuming it is not at the same time aimed at hurting others).

Francis Hutcheson also points out that, even if motivated from love of others, there can be dispute about which actions should be carried out. To resolve that dispute, he puts forward this maxim: “That which produces more Good than Evil in the Whole, is acknowledg’d Good; and what does not, is counted Evil”4 Therefore a function of motivation and consequences could theoretically produce a score, similar to that we see in The Good Place. Not only that, but Hutcheson actually sets out a set of axioms to be kept in mind “to compute the Morality of any Actions, with all their Circumstances”, for example the amount of public good produced by an agent is a “Ratio of his Benevolence and Abilitys” and so on, by which benevolence can (theoretically) be estimated5.

Interesting fact that I can’t reference: a poem exists that mocks Hutcheson for thinking one can calculate virtue. (No reference: -20.3 points.) Has the after-life of the Good Place managed to implement Francis Hutcheson’s computations? Is the score essentially a message of benevolence? (Definitely, in my headcanon at least!)

Hutcheson’s separation of morality and reason encompasses the idea that the uneducated and ignorant can be moral, which theories of morality based on reason would find paradoxical. As the section above shows, he allows for abilities in estimating benevolence. Less is expected of those with less abilities to start with. He does not, however, make excuses for carelessness. A person is not at fault for harm done that was unforeseeable, but if they do not foresee it because they didn’t bother reflecting, that’s another matter. It shows a lack of true benevolence. If you cared, you’d think6:

“But then it is also certain, that my prior Negligence, in not examining the Tendency of my Actions, is a plain Evidence of the want of that Degree of good Affections which is necessary to a virtuous Character; and consequently the Guilt properly lies in this Neglect, rather than in an Action which really flows from a good Intention.”

This ties in with the thought of Iris Murdoch. She shares Hutcheson’s concern with character (like another philosopher mentioned in The Good Place, her Oxford contemporary Philippa Foot). Her idea of morality, however, is centered on the concept of “moral attention” in which the seeking of a person to understand another via “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality” allows for the development of a moral consciousness in the seeker7. Hutcheson argues for reflection and seeking to control unruly emotions (in line with his stoicism). Murdoch, from a time after Kant and Freud, sees an equal need to focus outward. She concludes8.

Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

Arguably this is the core difference between learning about morality and learning to be moral. For Murdoch, it is a practice, an opening up of oneself to reality rather than a retreat into fantasy and focus on the self. Francis Hutcheson would agree: ethics is not a matter of theory but something to be actively lived. To date, The Good Place seems to agree.

Welcome! Everything is fine. A recreation of the waiting room wall in “The Good Place”, series one, episode one. Fonts used were Surrounding (free, dafont) and Florencesans (free for personal use, dafont). (c) IrishPhilosophy, creative commons, free for personal use.

  1. Nigel Warburton (2018) “A Golden Age for Public Philosophy” Virtual Philosopher (online).
  2. For screenshots and a list of acts depicted with their scores see Howard Chai (2016) “The Entire List of Actions and Their Scores On ‘The Good Place'” Medium (online).
  3. Francis Hutcheson, Wolfgang Leidhold (ed) (1725/2004) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. (direct link to paragraph).
  4. Hutcheson and Leidhold, (1725/2004), (direct link to paragraph).
  5. Hutcheson and Leidhold, (1725/2004), (direct link to paragraph).
  6. Hutcheson and Leidhold, (1725/2004), (direct link to paragraph).
  7. Iris Murdoch (2001a/1970) “The Idea of Perfection” in The Sovereignty of Good, London: Routledge.
  8. Iris Murdoch (1959) “The Sublime and the Good”, Chicago Review, Vol. 13 Issue 3 (Autumn 1959) p. 51.

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