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Fr. 453

December 5, 2013

The second ground coincides with the different oppositional systems which frame the organization of individuals into rival groups, societies, etc. In other words, in question here are those “Systems, to which Men, from foolish Opinions, confine their Benevolence” (2.4.4, p. 127), by which Hutcheson means to highlight the opposition of one or more groups (A) to another (B) and the justification following therefrom to exclude considerations of benevolence or the public good from A‘s interactions with B. Whereas A‘s members are portrayed within the limits of that group as being useful and good for society as a whole, B‘s members are presented as useless or pernicious to that same society. Naturally, this leads A‘s members to act in the interests of A to the exclusion of B and, indeed, to such an extent that such exclusion entails violence, discrimination and other forms of injustice towards B. By way of example, one need look no further than those instances of intrasocietal ethnic violence, tension between native and immigration populations, and violent conflict between nations where, no matter the case, each group portrays the other as fundamentally “other” and undesirable. Being thus justified, it might seem, more weakly, that there is at no point a reference to the moral sense in such settings or, more strongly, that human beings are knowingly capable of acting against virtue and benevolence.

Certainly, and as Hutcheson is quick to indicate, this exclusion begins naturally enough in that “it is regular and beautiful to have stronger Benevolence, toward the morally good Parts of Mankind, who are useful to the Whole, than toward the useless or pernicious” (2.4.4, p. 127). Up to this point, the moral sense functions as foreseen: approving what is to the public good, disapproving what is to the public harm. Yet what has its roots in the natural movements of benevolence and the moral sense becomes soon becomes something else through the introduction of opinions that diverge from the reality of the situation. For reasoned, justified exclusion can swiftly become mere habit even if the conditions justifying such an exclusion cease to be actual. In more severe cases, members of a group might forego such justified exclusion and pass directly to the stage of arbitrary exclusion, a danger to which political parties and religious organizations seem most liable to succumb, for Hutcheson. The risk lies in their promoting “trifling Opinions” or “some unaccountable notion of Sanctity, and Religion, in Tenets or Practices, which neither increase our Love to God, or our own Species” (2.4.4, p. 128). Moreover, it is plausible that even those groups of which Hutcheson speaks more favorably (in modern terms, e.g. guilds, unions, civil rights groups, non-governmental organizations, and social clubs) might promote in turn opinions promoting conflict with other groups merely over difference of opinions. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that such a distinction corresponds to a strict either/or; the distinction between justified and unjustified exclusion might prove more of an ambiguous zone. In any case, despite its natural origins, the process of group-formation acquires momentum of its own and stands independent of the initial impulse of benevolence.

Again, contrary to appearances, Hutcheson holds that the moral sense is still at work in the case of unjustified exclusion precisely because the moral sense and benevolence underlie and set in motion oppositional group formation. Insofar as the original motivation for group formation stems from considerations of benevolence, whatever the particular reasons given for exclusion, the process at work is one deriving from the moral sense and benevolence. With this in mind, if the process leads to unjustified exclusions and injustice, this is in virtue neither of the moral sense’s prescriptions nor of its absence from the process. Regardless of the concrete results, the moral sense still has a structural role to play in the process, however thin in terms of content, and the fault for injustice, vice or immorality rests with the individuals making up the group rather than the process of group formation itself.

Of the impetus for group formation, Hutcheson notes: “Now if Men receive a low, or base Opinion of any Body, or Sect of Men; if they imagine them bent upon the Destruction of the more Valuable Parts, or but useless Burdens of the earth; Benevolence itself will lead them to neglect the Interests of such, as to suppress them” (2.4.4, p. 127). The word upon which this argument stands or falls is “imagine”, invoking as it does the appearance-reality divide discussed above in the first ground. For, if the moral sense is to remain intact and operative in every instance, it suffices that the agent of moral judgment perceive actions or attitudes as helpful or harmful for the public good in order to judge of their virtue or vice. As above, it matters little for the purposes of Hutcheson’s argument whether perceived virtue and vice correspond to the reality of the situation, as the moral sense sits a level above first-order judgments. So long as the ambiguity between justified and unjustified exclusion turns on appearances, the moral sense retains its primacy at the level of judgments without succumbing to the ill effects that such moral judgments are liable to produce. Thus, the fault lies with “some such deluding Imagination of moral Good” (2.4.4, p. 129). More simply, the impediment to the moral sense is likely to ascribed to the deficiencies of reason and the interference of the passions1.

Whether one accepts Hutcheson’s decision will turn in large part on whether one finds the initial impetus of the process to be necessarily linked to each and every one of its later developments. One could plausibly hold that, whatever its origins, the process undergoes a drastic qualitative change over time such that the original impetus no longer has any effective role to play in the process, to the extent that benevolence is no longer considered even a structuring factor of the process. This, paired with the unclear attribution of impediment or interference to the moral sense, seems reason to wonder if the two interfering principles outlined above are sufficient in isolation or combination to account for all cases and show that the moral sense is active, if impaired, in all of them.

To this, Hutcheson would most likely respond that, if group formation follows from benevolence, then any group formation will turn on benevolence, no matter how skewed by interfering principles and whatever their nature. Furthermore, a qualitative change of the kind suggested above would necessarily result in a process distinct from the kind of group formation in which benevolence is unimpaired. In order to posit their non-coincidence, it would be necessary to show that group formation in which this underlying motive is masked is different enough to be considered another kind all together. It is not clear that there are sufficient resources to support this claim. In the end, Hutcheson’s view remains prima facie plausible and, hence, sufficient for his purposes.


1 Strikingly, unlike in the first ground, Hutcheson does not explicitly reference the two exceptions to the moral sense outlined in Part III. He speaks of certain emotions that could commonly be qualified as passions (fury, rage, malice, zeal, contempt, hatred, and so on), but it is unclear if such individual instances could be generalized to broader dispositions permanently affecting the behavior of groups otherwise capable of sustained reflection and deliberation. In other words, it is unclear if the exception of the passions as outlined above would suffice to make sense of the moral sense’s impairment in this second ground.

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