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Fr. 452

December 4, 2013

Yet, once evoked, this consideration of divergence in approbation lingers, a fact which is evidenced by Hutcheson’s own efforts to explain away the difficulties linked with such divergence. For it seems at least conceivable that the cause of such divergence might be something other than the exceptions or interferences given above. One such case might be found in cultural differences, such that one individual or group might regard an action as virtuous that would be found morally deplorable by another individual or group, considered to be a normal observer1. This consideration is significant insofar as, if there exists even a single individual or group in whom the moral sense diverges from that of a normal observer, in the absence of the interferences seen above, this is sufficient to disprove the universality claims issued above. For this reason, Hutcheson’s exposition shifts from its negative task of explaining interferences away in relation to moral relativism to the positive task of showing that no individual or group is bereft of a moral sense in the absence of cultural relativism.

With this aim in mind, to the exposition of the foregoing exceptions, Hutcheson joins a final consideration that sets the stage for his treatment of the diversity of mores in human society. Hutcheson writes: “But to prove that Men are void of a moral Sense, we should find some instances of cruel, malicious Actions, done, and approv’d in others, when there is no Motive of Interest, real or apparent, save gratifying that very Desire of Mischief to others” (2.4.2, p. 124). It is to the account of grounds of divergence in 2.4.3 that this analysis now turns.

The first of these grounds is that of differing conceptions of happiness or the good. In different cultures, varied means and ends are prized as leading to happiness or being happiness. As such, the key worry becomes that different cultures will promote opposed or contradictory means and ends as essential to being happy. Consequently, the moral sense would seem to provide inconsistent prescriptions. Were it so inconsistent in its prescriptions, this would further suggest that the inner workings of the moral sense are fundamentally contradictory and the sense itself incoherent. For example, whereas in contemporary, post-industrial, Western society, happiness is effectively or implicitly tied to the quantity and quality of one’s possessions, consumerism and purchasing power having come to act as reliable indicators of the good, in any society or culture where the concept of property is absent from everyday practical reasoning, little value is accorded to the acquisition of goods. On the contrary, reactions by the latter cultures to the former’s norms of property might range from outright opposition to acquisition (asceticism) to general disregard (common property). Indeed, such acts as theft, if at all conceivable in the latter societies, would surely meet with little in the way of sanction1. So, it would be that property, considered a fundamental right by the former, proves to be a non-entity for the latter, either as morally reprehensible or merely incomprehensible. If, as Hutcheson claims, the moral sense is at work in both of these scenarios, it seems incapable of distinguishing worthwhile and worthless ends. What concrete prescriptions are to be taken from the moral sense if it is truly incapable of such distinctions?

For Hutcheson, in the absence of readily apparent commonalities, it is necessary to dig deeper and discover how the moral sense relates to these opposed cases at a more fundamental level. What is common to both of these cases is the value placed by individual, community and society on the tendency of these means and ends to the public good (viz. benevolence), despite their promotion of different or even opposed means and ends. In other words, both of the example societies make their prescriptions in view of those actions that, to their minds, best promote general welfare and happiness. This valuing function proves the essential component of the moral sense, for the expectation of specific, concrete prescriptions from a non-discursive, moral faculty proves overly demanding. As Hutcheson maintains, “we are not to imagine, that this Sense should give us, without Observation, Ideas of complex Actions, or of their natural Tendencys to Good or Evil: It only determines us to approve Benevolence, wherever it appears in any Action, and to hate the contrary” (2.4.3, p. 125). In other words, even were one or both societies mistaken on the presence of the good as relates to notions of property, this would not alter, for Hutcheson, in either case the link between approbation of certain practices and perceived benevolence.

In the end, for Hutcheson’s claim to hold true, it is enough that there be apparent benevolence, whatever the reality of the situation. Certainly, the question remains whether this position provides one with sufficient resources to criticize morally deficient positions. Although providing little in the way of specific, concrete policy examples, the moral sense does bring with it one advantage in that it allows for critical distance as concerns every case and thus introduces the possibility of discerning review. Insofar as a third party to the moral judgment can always distinguish between real and merely apparent goods, the moral sense enables one to make sense of how one values while still allowing for later critical examination and thus preserves itself from the contradictions of everyday prescriptions by remaining a principle of second degree. In short, the moral sense is by all accounts consistent with itself in its prompting one to value a certain set of opinions in view of their anticipated good; it is, however, in no way to be expected that the moral sense has the conceptual resources to determine the relation between those opinions and the reality of a given situation, a task left to reason.

If divergence is not in itself a negative phenomenon disproving the moral sense, what then accounts for the existence of morally deficient actions and attitudes proves the same as in the considerations of moral relativism: failures of reason and understanding, as well as interference from the passions. Accordingly, cultural relativism is only an apparent threat, exacerbated by the sensationalism common to the “Storys of Travellers” ignorant of the “Appearance of publick Good” (2.4.3, p. 126). In all cases, there is a common thread to be found.


1. Certainly, this notion of “normal” observer carries with it numerous difficulties, the bulk of which surpass the scope of this investigation. The mention “normal” denotes simply that individual or group likely to find virtuous an action typically considered as virtuous, as well as the converse statement.

1 Hutcheson alludes notably to the case of Sparta (4.2.3, p. 125).

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