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Fr. 450

December 1, 2013

If it sometimes happens that the individual approves of an action that proves in the end to be immoral or malevolent and, all the contrary, the individual cannot approve an immoral action in virtue of its immorality or malevolence, it follows, for the moral sentimentalist, that the problem follows from the reasons for approving rather than from the moral quality of the action itself. This consideration leads Hutcheson to posit a first exception to the ongoing work of the moral sense: although the sense can never willingly mislead the individual, as it were, it can be mistakenly invoked due to a misapprehension on the part of the individual endowed of this sense. More simply, the individual might be mistaken in his or her understanding of either the circumstances or purpose of the action. As Hutcheson writes:

“We may perhaps commit Mistakes, in judging that actions tend to the publick Good, which do not; or be so stupidly inadvertent, that while our Attention is fix’d on some partial good Effects, we may quite over-look many evil Consequences which counter-ballance the Good.” (2.4.2, pp. 123-124)

In light of the preceding description, this explication of this exception includes two parts: reason and the understanding take part in the moral judgments in that the former inform the moral sense of some past, ongoing or future action, yet reason and the understanding can prove defectuous in the carrying out of these functions. In short, this first exceptions holds that, if the moral sense seems to lead the individual to approve of immoral actions, it is because reason or the understanding first led it to do so because of “partial Representations” (2.4.2) of the action.

This leaves unanswered whether Hutcheson has the right of it here. Suppose that an individual I is witness to the torturing of an innocent person by the pressing of a hot iron to his or her skin. Yet, by some strange circumstance, I approves of this act. Hutcheson would contend this cannot be due to I‘s moral sense leading him or her to approve of an immoral, i.e. malevolent, act. Rather, I has not grasped all of the information necessary to understand the situation for what it is, i.e. an act of torture. Perhaps, I mistakes the hot iron for a cool piece of metal meant to soothe an ache in the victim’s side. Likewise, I might be colorblind and, thus, unable to perceive the red color indicative of heat. In both cases, there is a mistake at the level of understanding, i.e. in the synthesis of relevant perceptual data to form a judgment about the situation1.

As indicated above, the misfiring of the moral sense might also stem from faulty reasoning on I‘s part. For example, I might mistake the torturer’s intention. If, in applying the hot iron, the torturer cauterizes a wound in the victim’s side and I takes note of only this fact, I might conclude that the torturer is saving the victim’s life and is thus to be commended for the act’s benevolence, i.e. disposition to the public interest. For this reason, I might pay the case no further mind and fail to notice that the wound was originally the handiwork of the torturer or that there are other more effective medical technologies available to the torturer to close the wound. In such a case, there is either faulty instrumental or end-based reasoning on I‘s part. This mistake is instrumental in nature if I takes the hot iron as the most effective means of closing the wound despite the presence of less painful, medical alternatives. By contrast, it is end-based in nature if I takes the torturer’s purpose or intent to be that of healing or closing the wound. In either case, the mistake stems from I‘s being inadvertent and misapplying rational categories.

This analysis is now better position to assess the rightness of Hutcheson’s claim. Indeed, one has a hard time imagining any individual who, once fully informed of the relevant facts, would approve of this act. The sole exception is perhaps that of sociopaths or other amoral individuals, in which case their opinion of the situation is not considered a relevant fact for which moral sentimentalist has to account as the former are incapable of moral sentiment. Moral sense’s universality is thus preserved.


1. One might have reason here to add “perception” to the list of potentially defectuous faculties here, as seen from the colorblindness example. Indeed, the misfunctioning of a person’s perception might prove the issue in a given case of misapprehension of morality. It is unclear whether Hutcheson intended to include anything of the sort under the larger category of “understanding”.

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