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Fr. 446

November 26, 2013

Can reason reliably distinguish virtue from vice and guide individuals to follow the former? For 18th century proponents of the “moral sense”, reason proves wanting in precisely this matter. For this reason, it falls rather to a sense or feeling that individuals experience when confronted with virtuous action that serves as their moral compass: both that which guides the individual toward virtue and can reliably distinguish virtue from vices or merely mixed virtues.

For Francis Hutcheson, this compass is attuned to instances of benevolence towards which moral sense conduces the individual to feel a certain approbation and satisfaction. As he specifies in his 1726 work, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, benevolence consists in an action’s “Usefulness to the Publick, and not to the Actor himself” (Hutcheson, p. 123). In short, as the opening lines of Section IV, “All Mankind Agree In This General Foundation Of Their Approbation Of Moral Actions. The Grounds Of The Different Opinions About Morals”, make clear, benevolence is to be found in that action leading to the extension and fulfillment of the public interest, rather than the private.

Essentially, if the moral sense is a disposition to benevolence and the individual feels approbation towards an action or motive, it is in virtue of its benevolent character or tendency to promote the public interest. In the end, it is this moral sense on which the individual is to rely in coming to know virtue. Yet questions remain concerning the precise characterization of this moral sense. One inquiring into its conditions might wish to learn more about the precise causal links between the observation of an action or motive, the feeling of approbation experienced and the tendency towards virtue in the individual. Questions could likewise be posed concerning the precise quality or feel of the moral sense and the qualia linked to its exercise or activity. That said, perhaps the most pressing issue surrounding the workings of the moral sense concerns its homogeneity. In other words, is the moral sense uniform in every individual? And can Hutcheson’s linking of the moral sense with benevolence be considered a universal connection to be found in every individual endowed with a moral sense?

In order to understand better what is at stake in this question of uniformity, it is perhaps helpful to being by considering what consequences its non-uniformity would likely entail. First and foremost, if the moral sense is not in fact uniform or singular, it naturally follows that the moral sense is plural. Yet, from the fact of its now being plural, the moral sense takes on a certain indeterminacy in that it is no longer readily apparent just how many varieties of moral sense there are to be found in the world. If, for instance, one attempts to limit the varieties of moral sense to merely two, e.g. the disposition towards benevolence or that towards justice qua exercise of rights, there remains no prima facie reason to restrict the taxonomy of the moral sense to two species. On the contrary, unless some definitive, knock-down argument can be offered a priori as to why benevolence and justice exhaust the realm of possible “moral-sense disposition” candidates, there is little reason to think that the enumeration of moral senses would simply stop there. For, if a single candidate cannot account for all cases of moral-sense dispositions, there seems no compelling argument prima facie why two candidates would succeed where one alone had failed. From this, one could conclude that a list of moral-sense disposition candidates would be forever incomplete. To benevolence and justice could be added such principles as nobility of character or responsibility. Even were one to exhaust a list of such principles, there seems no reason to suppose that one might not also find composite principles, e.g. the combination of nobility and justice or nobility and responsibility, that would likewise operate as principles on their own in regards to the moral sense’s functioning. In sum, once one opens the door to multiple candidates, it places the proponent of a moral sense in a position where it is difficult, if not impossible, to put a definitive and plausible end to the list of candidate dispositions. In such a case, the mere fact of plurality invites further diversity and endless precision of exceptions.

If this first issue, i.e. the mere fact of plurality, does not seem to warrant that one abandon the moral sense position once and for all, it does give one pause insofar as this same fact opens the door to relativism. By relativism, one here means, on a weak version, the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are, thus, not absolute. More strongly, one might contend that, when faced with a choice between a variety of choices of whatever sort, those things under consideration are more or less equal, and the individual can appeal to no steadfast or universalizable criteria by which to make sense of and have the right of the situation. Indeed, it is precisely this notion of “right” that is absent on the relativist picture, for there can be no means of measuring one situation in relation to another such that one could justify that decision to another.

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