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.

Massimo Pigliucci on Hume and Human Nature

Massimo Pigliucci recently posted an article at his Scientia Salon website exploring the connection between the philosophy of David Hume and the concept of human nature.  Entitled Human Nature, a Humean Take, it’s an interesting artifact of current perceptions in academia of human nature in general and the Blank Slate episode in particular.  Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York.  He prides himself on the latter specialty, and will occasionally use it as a bludgeon against his intellectual opponents.   His article begins with the following:

Human nature is a funny thing. Some scientists, like biologist E.O. Wilson and linguist Steven Pinker are pretty convinced it is a real thing, and that it seriously constrains what we are going to do with our lives (the entire discipline of evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology as it was known in its first incarnation, is predicated on it).

Then again, plenty of philosophers I have talked to in recent years seem to be genuinely surprised that one could still talk about such a thing in all seriousness.  Surely that quaint idea went out the window after decades of criticism of genetic determinism, they say.  This, of course, despite the fact that there is a long and venerable tradition in philosophy of perfectly comprehensible talk about human nature.

The first of these two paragraphs is amusing because one of Pigliucci’s pet peeves is “scientism,” and he has singled out Pinker for criticism as one of the foremost proponents of that ideology.  In spite of that, here we find him rattling off Pinker’s “Big Bang” revision of the history of the Blank Slate as if there was nothing in the least controversial about it.  Score one for Pinker.  His fairy tale is all there, complete with the guileless assertion that “sociobiology” was the first incarnation of the discipline of evolutionary psychology.  Of course, as anyone who’s been around long enough is aware, EP didn’t begin with the “Big Bang” of E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  “Ethology” was the vernacular term of choice for what later became evolutionary psychology more than a decade before sociobiology was ever heard of.  To swallow Pinker’s version of history, you have to perform a lobotomy on the 20th century, deleting a period of about a decade and a half starting around 1960, and pretend that the contributions of the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and, last but by no means least, that greatest of all the unpersons of evolutionary psychology, the “playwright,” Robert Ardrey, were either insignificant or, as Richard Dawkins put it in The Selfish Gene, “totally and utterly wrong.”

In the second paragraph of the above quote, we find Pigliucci all unaware that the “philosophers” who were “genuinely surprised” that there is, in fact, an entire academic discipline that does take the notion of human nature “in all seriousness,” are actually leftover Blank Slaters of a type it’s becoming increasingly hard to find outside of the academic echo chamber.  He also seems unaware that the “decades of criticism of genetic determinism,” really amounted to nothing more than the deification of a propaganda slogan.  For all I know, there may actually be “genetic determinists,” but if so, they must be as rare as hen’s teeth.  I’ve never actually seen one.  If any of my readers ever happen to run across the genuine article in a circus sideshow or some similar venue, I would be most grateful if they’d spread the word.

Pigliucci continues,

Indeed, even people like Pinker seem to be sending somewhat mixed messages about the whole concept: on the one hand he vehemently (and justly) attacks the idea of a “blank slate” (though I don’t actually know too many people who hold onto it in anything like the original, strong, Lockeian version. On the other hand, however, he claims — huge data sets in hand — that human beings have been able to yield to the “better angels” of our nature and have progressively built societies characterized by less and less violence.

This is certainly an odd assertion, following on the heels of his assertions that he knows other philosophers who don’t believe in human nature.  I daresay that their version of the “blank slate” is likely to be a great deal “stronger” than Locke’s.  In the first place, it’s ridiculous to link the “blank slatism” of Locke with that of such later thinkers as John Stuart Mill, or the “blank slatism” of Mill with that of such latter day ideologues as Ashley Montagu or Richard Lewontin.  To do so denies to each of them their right to be taken seriously as individual thinkers.  Locke’s “blank slatism” followed from his religious principles.  Mill’s is probably best described as due to the misfortune of writing his Utilitarianism before his thought could be informed by Darwin’s great theory.  For many of the 20th century versions, “blank slatism” was a necessary prop for the assorted utopian social schemes they happened to favor.  Locke’s version was probably not as “strong” as theirs, or, for that matter, as that of Pigliucci’s “philosophers.”  For example, quoting Locke,

Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles which (as practical principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing.

 Principles of actions indeed there are lodged in men’s appetites.

One can find a whole menagerie of latter day Blank Slaters whose versions are a great deal “stronger” than this by thumbing through the pages of Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  As for the claim that Pinker is sending a “mixed message” in his The Better Angels of our Nature, it’s nonsense unless you believe that one must either be a Blank Slater or one of those unicorn-like Genetic Determinists. Apparently Pigliucci really believes these two extremes are the norm, and imagines himself in the benevolent role of providing adult supervision.  For example,

Because of my original training as an evolutionary biologist interested in nature-nurture issues, I guess I never understood the (alleged) dichotomy. My basic take is that human behavioral traits (“human nature”) are the result of a continuous and inextricable interaction between our genes and our environments — which means that it makes no sense to ask what percentage of what we do is “caused” by genes and what percentage by the environment. If you add the well established concept, in evolutionary biology, of phenotypic plasticity — the idea that different sets of genes help produce wider or narrower ranges of behaviors in response to the quality of environmental inputs, and that the majority of these environmental inputs are nowadays the result of cultural forces — you’ve got a fairly solid framework to argue that yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable.

You might think that this would reassure both the scientists who insists (rightly) that human beings are not infinitely malleable blank slates, and the humanists who are (again, rightly) weary of the sinister socio-political implications of strong biological determinism. Everybody wins, can we go home now?

In fact, as far as human nature is concerned, no such dichotomy has ever existed outside of the fevered imaginations of Pigliucci’s Blank Slate “philosophers.”  If he would trouble himself to read the first chapter of any undergraduate Evolutionary Psychology textbook, he will notice that the point is usually forcefully made that no such dichotomy exists.  Certainly such Pinkerian unpersons as Lorenz and Ardrey constantly insisted there was no such dichotomy, as did E. O. Wilson.  When Pigliucci claims that “percentages make no sense,” he is simply misrepresenting the claims of the users of the mathematical techniques he alludes to.  Finally, when he claims that, “yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable,” he reveals a deep misunderstanding of what is actually meant by the term, “human nature.”  The term is both meaningless and useless unless one is referring to a bag of behavioral traits whose ultimate cause is to be found in our genes.  The fact that the expression of those traits can take on an infinity of different forms does not imply any change in that ultimate cause.  The only way in which “human nature” can change is via genetic change.

Which brings us to David Hume.  He was a brilliant thinker, and what he had to say about human nature is one of the best refutations of “scientism” I am aware of.  Anyone who thinks science has made philosophy irrelevant needs to read him.  The question is, why was he relevant?  I think the best answer to that question was given by Jonathan Haidt in his The Righteous Mind.  Indeed, Haidt is now at NYU, and Pigliucci could do worse than to jump on the subway and ride down to the other end of Manhattan for a visit.  Here’s what Haidt has to say about Hume in a sub-heading entitled The Birth of Moral Science beginning on page 114 of the hardcover version of his book:

Hume’s work on morality was the quintessential Enlightenment project:  an exploration of an area previously owned by religion, using the methods and attitudes of the new natural sciences.  His first great work, A Treatise of Human Nature, had this subtitle:  Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.  Hume believed that “moral science” had to begin with careful inquiry into what humans are really like.  And when he examined human nature – in history, in political affairs, and among his fellow philosophers – he saw that “sentiment” (intuition) is the driving force of our moral lives, whereas reasoning is biased and impotent, fit primarily to be a servant of the passions.  He also saw a diversity of virtues, and he rejected attempts by some of his contemporaries to reduce all of morality to a single virtue such as kindness, or to do away with virtues and replace them with a few moral laws.

Haidt continues with a quote of the great philosopher himself,

Morality is nothing in the abstract Nature of Things, but is entirely relative to the S3entiment or mental Taste of each particular Being; in the same Manner as the Distinctions of sweet and bitter, hot and cold, arise from the particular feeling of each Sense or Organ.  Moral Perceptions therefore, ought not to be class’d with the Operations of Understanding, but with the Tastes or Sentiments.

For someone writing long before Darwin, it’s hard to think of anyone, philosopher or scientist, who came up with an insight more brilliant than that.  For the reasons for that statement, by all means, read Haidt’s book.  Unfortunately, Pigliucci, who piques himself on his profound philosophical insight, can’t leave it at that.  He insists on teasing something more out of Hume.  Eventually, after ruminations which I leave the interested reader to peruse for himself, he gets from point A, the actual writings of Hume, to point B, which he states as follows:

At any rate, the basic, somewhat Humean (or Hume-inspired) outline of what I’m thinking about is that human nature — i.e., what it is to be human, as opposed to, say, being chimpanzee — evolves both genetically and culturally, with the two constantly interacting with each other, and yet, I think, with the cultural component becoming more and more independent of the genetic one.

One must hope that Hume would have disavowed this fanciful interpretation of his work.  The “cultural component” would not exist without its genetic ultimate cause.  This amounts to the same thing as claiming that, because culture has enabled our legs to perform intricate and unprecedented dances, and to jump unprecedented distances, and to climb Mount Everest, our legs are therefore becoming independent of their genetic origins.  In other words, it’s nonsense.  Pigliucci continues,

Consider, as a controversial example, Pinker’s own theory in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence has more or less steadily gone down throughout human history (yes, despite two world wars in the 20th century!) at the least in part because of our ability to talk to each other and originate and spread (philosophical) ideas about democracy, justice, and so on. If Pinker’s outline is even remotely close to the truth, then we have a situation where pre-existing feelings of intra-group fairness and cooperation, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, gradually, via cultural evolution, got more elaborated and became applied more broadly, generating what Peter Singer refers to as our enlarging circle of empathy and moral concern.

The idea is that if, indeed, we are making moral progress (as Singer suggests, and as Pinker-style data seem to confirm), then this in an important sense counts as a change in human nature, but it is one achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

In other words, by enlisting Hume in a cause I daresay the great philosopher would have strenuously objected to were he still among us, Pigliucci ends by claiming that there actually is something as un-Humean as “moral progress,” and that the fictional existence of such a thing counts as a “change in human nature.”  He tops it off with the non sequitur that this “change in human nature” is “achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

What can I say?  I suppose that, first of all, I must congratulate Steven Pinker.  His imaginary “history” of the Blank Slate has apparently been swallowed, even by someone who is one of his most eloquent academic opponents.  In other words, his fiction is well on the way to becoming the “truth.”  And who is likely to ever question the “truth?”  After all, most serious history is now written by academics, and what academic is ever likely to draw down the ire of the rest of his tribe by insisting that the “men of science” were full of crap for more than half a decade, but were finally forced to admit they were wrong by a playwright?  Good luck with that.

Other than that, apparently the concept of “human nature,” a vernacular term understood by virtually every member of our species above the age of 10 as something constant and unchanging in our behavioral repertoire, is not so understood in academia, or at least not universally.  It remains to find a ten-year-old with sufficient influence and charm to explain the concept to the academics.

David Hume
David Hume