The Deathbed Argument

The book Death and the Irish: A miscellany is “a medley of 75 perspectives on death and the Irish” edited by Salvador Ryan and published by Wordwell. In a positive review Bridget English makes a minor criticism: “Philosophers have certainly shaped the ways that modern secular society conceives of death, yet there are no entries on the relationship between Ireland and philosophy.”1 Philosophers have also referred to death in arguments, and the review brought one particular philosopher and his “deathbed argument” to mind.

In Francis Hutcheson’s first book (published in 1725) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, Treatise II argues against Mandeville that there must be motives for benevolent action other than your own pleasure. To illustrate this, Hutcheson uses a thought experiment2

[S]uppose that the Deity should declare to a good man that he should be suddenly annihilated, but at the instant of his exit it should be left to his choice whether his friend, his children, or his country should be made happy or miserable for the future, when he himself could have no sense of either pleasure or pain from their state. Pray would he be any more indifferent about their state now, that he neither hoped or feared any thing to himself from it, than he was in any prior period of his life?

If a man about to be utterly destroyed would prefer his children to be happy in the future even though he would never see it, and would want it just as much as he ever had, that suggests he is motivated by a desire other than his own pleasure (eg that obtained by contemplating the happiness of loved ones) or or avoiding his own pain. Since Mandeville claims self-interest is the only motivator for human beings (psychological egoism), this desire shows that Mandeville’s claim must be false.

This type of argument is a “intuition pump”, a type of argument used to direct intuitions. Some believe this style of argument dubious, but others think it not only defensible in certain cases, but often decisive. For more on this aspect using Hutcheson’s argument as an example, see Intuition Pumping for Fun and Profit3.

Hutcheson was no stranger to death. His mother died when he was young; his grandfather with whom he lived between the ages of eight and twelve died in 1711. In 1725, the year the Inquiry was published, his patron Robert Molesworth died. Hutcheson’s next book, An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections4 was inspired by criticisms of the Inquiry, including a debate with Gilbert Burnet that was terminated by Burnet’s death. The period of writing the Essay also saw the deaths of two of Hutcheson’s children, whose deaths are recorded in the registers for St Mary’s: Martha (died 24 December 1726) and John (died 12 September 1728). No wonder that the Essay includes, not only the deathbed argument, but a section on death 5. Hutcheson was buried in the same graveyard almost twenty years after his daughter, on 9th August 1746, survived by his wife and one surviving child of seven born of the marriage 6.

John Calvin on his deathbed, with members of the Church in attendance. Protestant reformer in Geneva.Featured Image: “John Calvin on his deathbed, with members of the Church in attendance.”, Wellcome Trust/Wikipedia, (CC BY 4.0).


  1. Bridget English (2017) “Death and the Irish: A miscellany review: Do we ‘do’ death best?” Irish Times 14 Jan 2017.
  2. Francis Hutcheson (1726/2004) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises (ed. Wolfgang Leidhold), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (online), p. 228.
  3. Charles Johnson (2006) “Intuition Pumping for Fun and Profit” (online draft)
  4. Francis Hutcheson (2002) An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense (ed. Aaron Garrett), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, online)
  5. Hutcheson (2002), pp. 128-9
  6. James Moore (2004) “Hutcheson, Francis (1694–1746)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (