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Fr. 456

December 9, 2013

In the end, any evaluation of Hutcheson’s foregoing exposition must start from those goals which Hutcheson implicitly sets himself in this chapter in the Treatise: to show that there is an indissoluble link between the moral sense’s approbation and the appearance of public good. So long as Hutcheson can preclude the contrary case, namely, that an individual’s moral sense approves an action or attitude that is, overall, detrimental to the public good, then the author has done enough to demonstrate such a link. Insofar as this same account remains at the level of an empirical or descriptive claim, i.e. that this is how the moral sense’s approbation functions in everyday situations, Hutcheson can consider the presentation of the moral sense and his refutation of rival positions successful. Indeed, this proves the strength of Hutcheson’s considerations: in limiting himself to the empirical and descriptive, he can give a theoretically neat account of the moral sense’s inner workings without worrying overly about how to overcome interference conditions and cognitive defects. It suffices to show that the moral sense is active.

Yet this strength also proves the principal weakness of such an account. For, in so neatly separating the empirical from the conceptual and the descriptive from the prescriptive, it is unclear, on one hand, whether this account has anything of value to offer on the prescriptive question of how moral judgments should be made and, on the other, how far a merely empirical or descriptive account of the moral sense can take the individual. Of the first question, one can argue that, if Hutcheson’s account does not seem to stray directly into prescriptive waters (at least in this section), one can easily see how such a step might be taken.

1. Human beings are endowed with a moral sense guiding them naturally towards virtue.

2. Human beings are afflicted with interference conditions muting that moral sense and putting them on the path to vice.

3. If interference conditions are the sole obstacle between human beings and vice, it is sufficient to eliminate those conditions to become virtuous.

4. Human beings should work to eliminate those conditions in the greatest measure possible.

In short, if only the individual would listen to his or her moral sense, he or she could attain virtue. In this way, one would naturally move from the descriptive realm to the prescriptive as there seems little reason to isolate the defects in one’s practical reasoning if not then to provide concrete proposals for eliminating or reducing those same defects to the greatest extent possible. In such a way, the narrower, descriptive claims could ground broader, prescriptive applications of the theory.

In this section at least, this does not, however, seem to be a source of motivation for Hutcheson’s account, and he limits himself accordingly to a sound principle from an argumentative perspective: posit weaker, descriptive claims without invoking stronger, prescriptive claims and thus provide an easier condition to meet. Wherefore the economical simplicity of the foregoing exposition. Moreover, on this count, one can consider Hutcheson to have been largely successful. In setting out the prime interference conditions of faulty reasoning or understanding and the influence of the passions, he provides factors that would plausibly override the naturally virtuous orientation afforded by the moral sense. Likewise, when the author attempts to show that differing notions of happiness, oppositional group formation, and divisive religious interpretations prove the rule rather than the exception to moral sense in that approbation of apparent public good underlies all these formations, he shows, again quite plausibly, that the differences at the level of manifestation alter not in the least the uniformity at the level of principle. Individuals approve of that which appears to the good of their social environs, regardless of the particular content of that appearance.

In this way, Hutcheson need not even go so far as to show that there is a “soft” consensus between different groups, cultures and societies on human values and ends, such as preserving life, maximizing opportunity, promoting individual development, fostering communal continuity, etc. Nor, unsurprisingly, is there a need to posit a “hard” consensus between these same entities on the best means to attain those selected ends. Hutcheson’s account contents itself with setting out the bare minimum requirement mentioned above: individuals approve only of that which appears to the good of their social environs, hardwired as this is into their cognitive make-up. In the end, the prescriptive can be set aside precisely because this better allows Hutcheson to fulfill his goal of securing a descriptive base from which to work.

In view of this move, the present account returns to the second question laid out above: how far a merely empirical or descriptive account of the moral sense can take the individual. In other words, in attempting to meet only the weaker, descriptive claim, it is unclear what this position contributes to ethical discourse. In proving a sort of empirical sentimentalism, according to which emotions play an indispensable role in generating ordinary moral judgments, this position does nothing to move beyond those cognitive failings that it must posit in order to prove its own claims. Indeed, these same failings bring out to what extent it appears necessary to have a corrective to moral sense, insufficient as it is to guarantee virtuous behavior in each and every instance of moral judgment. In short, in proving its universality, the moral sense position undermines its wider applicability. For, without some corrective, empirical sentimentalism or the moral sense position leaves one in precisely the same situation from which one set out, but with a refined understanding of the situation.

Consequently, any empirical sentimentalism seems to require in and of itself a supplemental doctrine, yet its very nature precludes its prescribing one supplement over another. Moreover, from the empirical sentimentalist perspective, it is difficult to see in what such a corrective might consist. Even were one to join to the empirical sentimentalist perspective a conceptual rationalist view, i.e. that it is a conceptual truth that moral requirements are reasons for action or, more simply, that this is how one must conceive of morality, this brings one no closer to a solution. For conceptual rationalism, once applied to the practical realm, soon comes up against the same difficulties and interference conditions plaguing the empirical sentimentalist perspective: first, in its ability to understand a given situation and process all relevant information fully (exception 1); second, in its tendency to be overridden in the heat of the moment by the passions. In short, one cannot simply join a conceptual rationalist corrective to an empirical sentimentalist position and maintain that the latter is blind without the reason of the former. Although it seems true to say that the latter is conceptually lacking by its (avowed) nature, the former is subject to the same cognitive shortcomings as the latter.

If, in the absence of any corrective, one were simply to maintain that the moral sense suffices as for moral judgment and that any moral deficiencies owe to reason rather than this sense, then a further question arises. What purpose does it serve to attribute to individual a moral sense in the weak, empirical sense describe above? Such purpose is difficult to find if it is framed in terms of distinguishing virtuous actions from the vicious as the moral sense distinguishes only apparently virtuous actions from apparently vicious actions. From the above, it follows that the moral sense is nothing more than an approbation marker. Thus, the question remains: if the moral sense does nothing to set out truly virtuous actions from truly vicious actions, then should one’s focus not shift to some other means of reducing the practical deficiencies of reason so as to secure some method for setting out the virtuous from the vicious in reality rather than appearance? 

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