In the current Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a discussion piece, Against Empathy. He opens by referencing Adam Smith…
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.
Paul Bloom identifies issues with empathy – that we are more likely to feel empathetic towards people like us or people who are attractive; that empathy leads us to focus on individual cases but ignore mass suffering. He argues that empathy is not the only thing that can motivate helping, compassion can too. Continue reading “Hutcheson Redux? Against Empathy.”
Here is a selection of links tweeted under the hashtag #HutchesonDay, on 8th August 2014.
Joe Humphreys of the Irish Times talked to historian at the University of Aberdeen and author of Francis Hutcheson in Dublin, 1719-1730: The Crucible of his Thought for the Unthinkable slot. A good introduction for those unaware of the philosopher.
“Hutcheson’s big idea was what he called ‘the moral sense’. At the time, most philosophers agreed with John Locke that human beings had no innate ideas: the mind was a clean slate when a human was born. Although Hutcheson agreed, he disagreed that this meant humans had no inherent moral character. Instead he argued that human beings were born with a natural capacity to approve or disapprove of people’s behaviour. Human beings are effectively judgment-makers.
“Importantly, Hutcheson thought that this moral sense was pre-rational, meaning that deciding whether something was right or wrong did not involve a calculation of your self-interest. In this he disagreed with Thomas Hobbes, who thought humans were motivated by personal interest and material gain.”
Edward O. Wilson (1998) writes in The Atlantic on the modern search for a “natural capacity” to judge morality, mentioning Hutcheson along the way. (For the take of Hutcheson’s contemporaries on the “moral sense”, see the SEP on Sentimentalism).
“Hutcheson influenced most of the Scottish philosophers who succeeded him, perhaps all of them, whether because he helped to set their agenda or because they appropriated, in a form suitable to their needs, certain of his doctrines.” From the SEP article on 18th century Scottish philosophy.
Continue reading “Hutcheson Day 2014: links”
On 1st August 1834 slavery was abolished in most of the British Empire, as the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) came into force. (It only applied in India after the 1843 Indian Slavery Act.)
There were many rationales used to support slavery. One common one was Aristotle’s theory of the “natural slave”. In the Politics, Aristotle said:
For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…
In other words, it was right that some people were slaves and others their masters. Such natural slaves were lacking certain qualities which would enable them to rule themselves. This justified “chattel” slavery, where the person and all their descendants were property in perpetuity.
This theory, though criticised by some, was widely accepted. Even those who did not accept it argued for slavery on other grounds. Locke, despite asserting that “every Man has a Property in his own person” (in his Second Treatise, §27), and calling slavery “vile and miserable” such that he cannot believe an Englishman would argue for it (Second Treatise, Introduction), justifies some forms of slavery. Locke defined slaves as (§85) “Captives taken in a just War […] by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters” and as such cut off from civil society. Moreover despite his theoretical requirement for a just war, in practice Locke tolerates chattel slavery. In Constitutions for Carolina Locke writes: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over Negro slaves, of what opinion and Religion soever” (see Sypher, 1939 and a discussion on Locke’s attitude to slavery in the notes of the SEP article about him).
The view of slavery as “vile” slowly started to spread in the early 18th century. Steel portrayed slaves sympathetically in the Spectator, though he falls short of attacking the institution, unsurprisingly since he owned a plantation in the West Indies through his wife. Hans Sloane’s account of harsh punishments for slaves also had an effect. However here too we should not read too much into Sloane’s accounts: he also derived income from sugar plantations and says nothing to suggest chattel slavery should be abolished (see more here.)
Also writing in the early 18th century, Hutcheson’s theory of morality (following the lead of Shaftesbury) was based on the idea of a moral sense, which allowed us to approve of moral actions and disapprove of immoral ones. Moral actions are rooted in benevolence – a feeling of goodwill towards others. Unlike Locke (and like Hume), for Hutcheson emotion is our guide for moral behaviour, not reason.
Continue reading ““Against the doctrine of Aristotle”: Hutcheson on slavery”
Francis Hutcheson has been called “the Father of the Scottish Enlightenment”. He influenced Adam Smith (a pupil of his) and David Hume. He is credited with being the first to denounce slavery from a human rights perspective. His thought has been linked to the American Founding Fathers and to the United Irishmen. But who was he?
Francis Hutcheson was born on the 8th of August 1694, probably in Saintfield, Co. Down, in his grandfather’s manse. Both his father and grandfather (who originally came from Scotland) were Presbyterian ministers.
As a Dissenter (a protestant who was not a member of the Church of Ireland), Francis Hutcheson could not attend Trinity College Dublin. Instead he attended a dissenting academy in Killyleagh, which provided a basic third level education. From there he went to Glasgow in 1710, taking a course of study aimed at fitting him to become a minister. He left the university in 1717, received a licence to become a minister in 1718 and got offered a post in Co. Armagh.
But he didn’t take it. Instead he took a post offered in Dublin by the Wood St meeting house to open a dissenting academy there. The law had only just been changed, the position would be precarious, but in the end his Dublin years proved Hutcheson’s most fruitful.
Continue reading “Hutcheson’s Dublin: Who was Francis Hutcheson?”
It is ridiculous to say, ‘That using any thing above the bare Necessaries of Life is Intemperance, Pride or Luxury; and that no other universal Boundaries can be fixed; because what in one Station or Fortune is bare Study of Decency, or Conveniency, would be Extravagance in another.’ As if Temperance, Frugality, or Moderation, denoted fixed Weights or Measures or Sums that all were to observe, and not a proportion to to Mens Circumstances. Great and Little are relative to a Species or Kind. Those Dimensions are great in a Deer which are small in a Horse: What is great in a Horse would be small in a Mountain. Will any one thence argue, that there can be no adapting one Form to another, so it shall neither be too big not little? Cannot a Coat suit a middle Stature, because the dimensions would be too great for a Dwarf, and too little for a Giant? If […] a man of good sense may know how far he may go in Eating and Drinking, or any other Expenses, without impairing his Health or Fortune, or Hindering any Offices of Religion or Humanity, he has found the Bounds of Temperance, Frugality, and Moderation for himself. “
Francis Hutcheson writing in Dublin Weekly Journal (1727), later printed in “Hibernicus’ Letters”, on the topic of “The Fable of The Bees” by Bernard Mandeville.
Hutcheson goes on to argue that even if true over-consumption was stamped out, the money would be spent elsewhere – on goods to improve the person’s circumstances or that of his family or friends (“Dress, Habitation or Studies”) or indeed keep people alive longer to consume more in the long run!
(Inspired by “The Good Consumer”, which mentions Mandeville but leaves out Hutcheson.)
If we may call every Determination of our Minds to receive Ideas independently on our Will and to have Perceptions of Pleasure and Pain, A SENSE, we shall find many otherSenses beside those commonly explained. Tho it is not easy to assign accurate Divisions on such Subjects, yet we may reduce them to the following classes….
In the 1st Class are the External Senses, universally known. In the 2d, the Pleasant Perceptions arising from regular, harmonious, uniform Objects; as also from Grandeur andNovelty. These we may call, after Mr. ADDISON, the Pleasures of the Imagination; or we may call the Power of receiving them, an Internal Sense. Whoever dislikes this Name may substitute another. 3. The next Class of Perceptions we may call a Publick Sense, viz ‘our Determination to be pleased with the Happiness of others, and to be uneasy at their Misery‘…
4. The fourth Class we may call the Moral Sense, by which ‘we perceive Virtue or Vice in ourselves or others’…
5. The fifth Class is a Sense of Honour, ‘which makes theApprobation, or Gratitude of others, for any good actions we have done, the necessary occasion of Pleasure’…”
From the Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1728). This was written in Dublin, further refining the aesthetic and moral theories he had outlined in Inquiries into the Original of our Ideas of Virtue and Beauty.
Hutcheson outlines five classes of senses, the first of which includes all the physical senses (sight, sound etc), the second is aesthetic, the third the public sense, the fourth the moral senses and the fifth the sense of honour.
Hutcheson argued that, while ideas might never be innate, senses or faculties were. He argued for compassion, mutual aid and support of offspring as the natural state of humans, one that flowed from innate principles in human nature.
Once the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed in the summer of 1776, the pursuit of happiness — the pursuit of the good of the whole, because the good of the whole was crucial to the genuine well-being of the individual — became part of the fabric (at first brittle, to be sure, but steadily stronger) of a young nation.
The thinking about happiness came to American shores most directly from the work of John Locke and from Scottish-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. During the Enlightenment, thinkers and politicians struggled with redefining the role of the individual in an ethos so long dominated by feudalism, autocratic religious establishments and the divine rights of kings. A key insight of the age was that reason, not revelation, should have primacy in human affairs. That sense of reason was leading Western thinkers to focus on the idea of happiness, which in Jefferson’s hands may be better understood as the pursuit of individual excellence that shapes the life of a broader community.”
From Free to Be Happy, by Jon Meacham in Time Magazine, on the meaning of happiness in the US constitution.
Hutcheson was primarily concerned with “flourishing” rather than happiness as hedonism, though it should be noted that he was not a puritan and had no problem with luxury or consumption as long as it was not excessive.
A video (8:30) from the Institute for Humane Studies.
Prof. James Stacey Taylor discusses the contributions of Francis Hutcheson, an intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment who was instrumental in advancing the sentimentalist approach to morality.
Good despite the random insults to Scotland.
With the exception of Shaftesbury, none of the moralists we have been examining was English. In fact, the English are in as short supply among this group as they are in the ranks of so-called English literary modernism. Almost all of the thinkers we have been discussing stemmed from the Gaelic margins of the metropolitan nation, a fact that may not be insignificant. Gaels like Burke, Hume, Hutcheson, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson, along with figures like Goldsmith, Steele, Brooke and Sterne who were born in Ireland or of part-Gaelic provenance, were no doubt more inclined to the cult of sentiment and benevolence than their Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. This is not because Gaels are genetically more genial than the English, but because Scotland and Ireland both had powerful traditions of clan- or community-based allegiances.
It is true that kinship structures, binding customs, unwritten obligations and so-called moral economy had long been under siege in both nations from a colonially imposed system of contractual relations and possessive individualism. But aspects of this traditional way of life survived precariously alongside more modem institutions, and in the political militancy of
small tenants, crofters and labourers could offer such modernity some ferocious resistance throughout the Age of Reason.
From Terry Eagleton (2008) Trouble with Strangers, p. 77.
The first section of this book explores Sentimentalism, also known as Moral Sense Theory. Moral sentimentalists argue against the theory that human motivation is based on self-interest but also deny that morality can be derived from pure reason. Instead they hold the position that morality and altruism are based in sentiment: in the feelings human beings have for one another and their concern for each others welfare.
Of the names Eagleton mentions, Burke, Hutcheson, Goldsmith, Steele,Brooke and Sterne are Irish-born (all links to the Irish Compendium of Biography, 1878). How happy the Scottish philosophers Hume, Smith, Fordyce and Ferguson would be to be called “Gaels”, I am not entirely sure.
By correctly appreciating Hutcheson’s own project, Mautner is able to show clearly what has eluded so many Hutcheson (and Hume) scholars of a less historical bent: while Hobbes and Mandeville may be the most often named antagonists, the real opponent is that particularly bleak culture of orthodox Scottish Calvinism, a faith that makes a mockery of human free will, that emphasizes the utter corruption of human nature, and that celebrates a theodicy in which humans are held accountable to a standard of moral conduct that is acknowledged to be impossible for us to meet.
David Fate Norton has reminded us that Hutcheson, Hume, and their like-minded colleagues aligned themselves as defenders of the “reality” of ‘We.’ By this they meant that ethical egoism and psychological egoism are both false. Ethical egoism is false because to reduce virtue to self-interest is a mean-spirited mockery of the nobility of virtue. And psychological egoism is false because we can in fact act upon benevolent, non-egoistic motives. Hence, it is possible for human beings truly to be morally virtuous. Thus, virtue is “real.”
Thomas Mautner. Francis Hutcheson: Two Texts on Human Nature reviewed by Mark H. Waymack (pdf) (originally in Hume Studies , Volume XX, No 2 (November, 1994), pp. 296-297)
Waymack’s review suggests that the main importance of the book is its outline of what Hutcheson believes a moral theory should do. The extract above highlights Hutcheson’s moral project: against both virtue seen as self-interest and the pessimistic belief that people will always act in a self-interested way.