Of Philosophical Truths and Scientific Farces: Francis Hutcheson, Morality and the Blank Slate

The thought of brilliant individuals is worth considering regardless of the historical pigeon holes they happen to end up in.  Sometimes we ignore them because they’re not in the “right” pigeon hole.  For example, “philosophers” are dismissed by some as irrelevant since the advent of “science.”  Such a cavalier attitude can be perilous assuming one is really seeking the truth.  True, many philosophers were born too early, before Darwin or his theory were heard of, but that doesn’t mean their musings were useless.  At the very least, they are of historical value, informing us of what was on the minds of people who thought in days gone by.  Sometimes, they are a great deal more valuable than that.

Consider, for example, what a certain 18th century British philosopher by the name of Francis Hutcheson had to say touching on the subject of morality as an expression of human nature.  As my astute readers will recall, the “science” of much of the 20th century denied that human nature had anything to do with morality.  The “scientists” who promoted this dogma, sometimes referred to today as the Blank Slaters, would have done well to read Hutcheson.  He demolished the Blank Slate narrative two centuries before it became the greatest scientific debacle of the 20th century, if not of all time.

As it happens, there is a fascinating connection between thought about morality and human nature in British philosophy going back at least to the time of the Puritans of the 17th century.  An excellent history of the subject was written by Michael Gill, entitled, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics.  Therein, Gill traces the debate between those who defended the possibility of morality based on reason alone, and those, like Hutcheson, as well as Shaftesbury before him and Hume after him, who claimed that a rational origin of morality was impossible.  Of the three, Hutcheson deserves most of the credit for demonstrating that morality based on pure reason is impossible, and that a “moral sense,” grounded in human nature, is a prerequisite for its very existence.

As suggested above, history has deposited Hutcheson in the “philosopher” pigeon hole.  However, he was well aware of the scientific method, and enthusiastic about the advance of science in his own time.  He conscientiously sought to apply scientific technique to his own inquiries into human nature.  His “experiments” consisted of keen observations of the moral behavior and reactions of other human beings, as well as a constant probing and examination of his own consciousness.

Hutcheson’s most important work on the subject was An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, which was published in 1728.  In that work he demonstrated that there can be no such thing as a purely reasonable morality, that reason cannot possibly serve as the end motivation for moral behavior, that only an innate moral sense can provide such motivating ends for moral actions, and that as a consequence of the fact that this moral sense is innate, it cannot be acquired purely by learning or, as moderns might put it, by “culture.”  In other words, the Blank Slate is a logical impossibility.

Hutcheson begins by pointing out that many of the words available in human languages are imprecise, and as a result are blunt instruments for conducting inquiries into subjects as complex as the origins of human morality.  In particular, it’s necessary to understand exactly what one means when one speaks of “reason.”  As he puts it,

Since reason is understood to denote our power of finding out true propositions, reasonableness must denote the same thing, with conformity to true propositions, or to truth.  Reasonableness in an action is a very common expression, but yet upon inquiry, it will appear very confused, whether we suppose it the motive to election, or the quality determining approbation.

It follows that, while reason can be applied to discover the consequences of an action, it can never provide motivation for choosing or approving it over any other:

If conformity to truth, or reasonable, denote nothing else but that “an action is the object of a true proposition,” ‘tis plain, that all actions should be approved equally, since as many truths may be made about the worst, as can be made about the best.

There is one sort of conformity to truth which neither determines to the one or the other; viz. that conformity which is between every true proposition and its object.  This sort of conformity can never make us choose or approve one action more than its contrary, for it is found in all actions alike:  Whatever attribute can be ascribed to a generous kind action, the contrary attribute may as truly be ascribed to a selfish cruel action:  Both propositions are equally true.

Hutcheson went on to point out that, as a result, no ultimate end can ever be found using reason alone.  Any end must have a motivating reason based on some other end.  However, another reason must be supplied for this “other end,” and a reason must be found for that end as well.  As each end is identified in turn, we can go on asking “why?” forever.  As Hutcheson put it,

But as to the ultimate ends, to suppose exciting reasons for them, would infer, that there is no ultimate end, but that we desire one thing for another in an infinite series.

According to Hutcheson, two types of reason can supply the ultimate answer to the final “why,” thereby ending the chain, including “exciting” reasons, and “justifying” reasons.  I encourage those interested in the precise definition of these words to read his book.  However, in either case, they cannot be derived by reason, but presuppose the existence of “human nature:”

Now we shall find that all exciting reasons presuppose instincts and affections; and the justifying presuppose a moral sense.

If we assume the existence of human nature, the “reasons” fall easily into place:

Let us once suppose affections, instincts or desires previously implanted in our nature:  and we shall easily understand the exciting reasons for actions, viz. “These truths which show them to be conducive toward some ultimate end, or toward the greatest end of that kind in our power.”  He acts reasonably, who considers the various actions in his power, and forms true opinions of the tendencies; and then chooses to do that which will obtain the highest degree of that, to which the instincts of his nature incline him, with the smallest degree of those things to which the affections in his nature make him averse.

Of course, versions of the Blank Slate have been around since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and “updated” versions were current in Hutcheson’s own time.  As he points out, they were as irrational then as they are now:

Some elaborate Treatises of great philosophers about innate ideas, or principles practical or speculative, amount to no more than this, “That in the beginning of our existence we have no ideas or judgments;” they might have added too, no sight, taste, smell, hearing, desire, volition.  Such dissertations are just as useful for understanding human nature, as it would be in explaining the animal oeconomy, to prove that the faetus is animated before it has teeth, nails, hair, or before it can eat, drink, digest, or breathe:  Or in a natural history of vegetables, to prove that trees begin to grow before they have branches, leaves, flower, fruit, or seed:  And consequently that all these things were adventitious or the effect of art.

He concludes,

Now we endeavored to show, that “no reason can excite to action previously to some end, and that no end can be proposed without some instinct or affection.” What then can be meant by being excited by reason, as distinct from all motion of instincts or affections?  …Then let any man consider whether he ever acts in this manner by mere election, without any previous desire?  And again, let him consult his own breast, whether such kind of action gains his approbation.  A little reflection will show, that none of these sensations depend upon our choice, but arise from the very frame of our nature, however we may regulate or moderate them.

A bit later, Hume used the same arguments as Hutcheson to demonstrate his famous dictum that,

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

As readers of such modern books as Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind are aware, Hume got all the credit, and Hutcheson is now more or less forgotten by all but professional philosophers.  I suspect that’s because, as Gill pointed out, Hume supplied the final link in a chain of philosophers going back through Hutcheson to Shaftesbury, Cudworth, and many others, who had insisted on the origins of morality in human nature.  Except for Hume, Hutcheson and most of the others had been firm believers in a Deity, and often Christian theologians.  Like Hutcheson, they traced the origins of human nature to the hand of God.  Hume was the exception, and could therefore be ensconced as the “Father of Secular Ethics.”  That doesn’t alter the fact that Hutcheson had supplied compelling arguments for the existence and significance of human nature before Hume came on the scene.  Those arguments remain unrefuted to this day.  As the great Edvard Westermarck wrote nearly 200 years later:

That the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.

Westermarck was familiar with Hutcheson, and referred to him in his own work.  It’s a shame that the latter day Blank Slaters didn’t read him as well.  It turns out that his “philosophy” was far in advance of their “science.”  It took the “men of science” the greater part of the 20th century to finally crawl out of the swamp they had wandered into, and find Hutcheson there to greet them when they finally made it back to solid ground.  There is no more important knowledge for human beings than self-knowledge.  Occasionally one can find it hiding in the books of obscure philosophers.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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