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Fr. 451

December 3, 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.

The second exception that Hutcheson sets out concerns false approbations or false positives. These are cases in which an action receives the approbation of the moral sense as an act of benevolence, hence the “positive” of false positive. Yet factors or circumstances outside the moral sense here directly counteract its assessment of the situation. Unlike the first exception in which a problem occurs at the level of subsidiary or preliminary processes necessary for the moral sense to function properly, here, the problem intervenes at the level of the moral sense’s primary functioning itself by opposing considerations or sentiments liable to outweigh the moral sense in the inner economy of moral judgment and approbation.

To this end, the author cites the calculation of external advantage and the passions as relevant considerations here1. More precisely, Hutcheson maintains that the normal workings of the moral sense can be “counter-acted from Motives of external Advantage” and that “[s]ometimes violent Passions, while they last, will make them approve very bad Actions in a moral Sense […] But this proves only, ‘That sometimes there may be some more violent Motive to Action, than a Sense of moral Good” (2.4.2, p. 124). Accordingly, in cases where the moral sense might otherwise be led to its normal and proper conclusion to disapprove of an action, here, opposed feelings or motives such as greed or wrath can overwhelm the moral sense and lead the individual to judge in favor of that same act’s virtue, i.e. tendency towards benevolence.

It is necessary to return to the example above, i.e. the torture by hot-iron with observing individual I, in order to assess Hutcheson’s second exception, for it remains to be seen whether this exception allows one to account for contrary cases and, thus, maintain universality in the framework of a moral sense. Perhaps, I is an oral surgeon while the victim is I‘s main competitor in the same medical field. Should torture render the victim unable to resume his or her practice and thus to compete for clients with I in the future, I then stands to benefit from this action. As such, thoughts of profit might outweigh contrary indications from the moral sense in the inner, moral calculus, leading I to judge favorably the act of torture being perpetrated. In short, while still operative, the moral sense is temporarily overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings of greed.

Likewise, in the case of passions, one might suppose that the victim had previously subjected I‘s family to a similar torture, for which reason I has since been motivated by or felt wrath towards the victim. The act of torture would thus constitute a means of vengeance, which could not fail to occur to I, given the circumstances. Consequently, when it came time to assess the virtue of the deed, thoughts and the sentiment of vengeance seem liable to outweigh contrary indications from the moral sense at the time of the moral calculus. This again leads I to approve of the act of torture under consideration, despite the moral sense being operative.

In sum, the moral sense is still at work in both cases. It is, however, overwhelmed by opposed, momentary, contingent interests or passions that outweigh the findings of the moral sense in the economy of moral judgment. Furthermore, this seems to ring true of everyday intuitions concerning morality. Even were I in the cases above to permit and approve of the victim’s torture, it seems plausible, at the least, that I might later feel some remorse or guilt over not intervening to halt the torture. Once fully aware of the gravity of his approbation and non-action, I might even take steps to right the wrong. Indeed, it is sufficient that I have the slightest second thought of this kind to give one reason to think, with Hutcheson, that there exists a moral sense attempting to guide I back to ways of virtue. Given that the moral sense is nonetheless active and would lead I to proper approbation in the absence of these contingent interests or passions, the moral sense is operative in all instances and thus preserves its universality. Divergence in approbation is thus to be accounted for in terms of opposed motives or principles at the time of evaluation.


1. From the ordering of the paragraphs, it might seem that Hutcheson intends to include considerations of external advantage with the first exception, as it falls in the same paragraph as this exception and before the paragraph break after which follows a new paragraph on “false approbations”. Insofar as the calculation of private interest is not an instance of faulty reasoning or understanding (in fact, it seems a paradigm case of both), it seems preferable to class such calculation with those factors directly counteracting the primary workings of moral sense, as is the case with the passions.

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