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Fr. 457

December 11, 2013

Of course, such talk of virtue as a real property as opposed to an apparent property encounters its own problems insofar as this can be seen as a surreptitious introduction of virtue as an objective quality. Although one need not go so far as to posit virtue in this case as a material quality, Hutcheson’s account implicitly trades in such a distinction so as to retain the maximum flexibility and universality for its principle, and this account thus requires that one also provide the means for adjudicating rival claims of apparent virtue with regards to the real virtue of an action or attitude. Wherefore another fundamental tension in this section of the Treatise. If Hutcheson introduces such a distinction, he seems, by contrast, ill-placed to resolve disputes between claims of the sort. In such a way, one could plausibly maintain that, all the while maintaining a strict universality of the moral sense, Hutcheson leaves to the door open to an intractable relativism qua diversity at the level of the moral sense’s manifestation in society. In other words, whereas, for Hutcheson’s opponent, virtue and moral sense are artifice, dependent on custom and education and, hence, culturally relative, for Hutcheson, what proves culturally relative is the appearance of virtue rather than virtue or moral sense themselves, i.e. their manifestations within a group, culture or society. In sum, how one would go about setting apparent virtue from real virtue remains to be answered on Hutcheson’s picture for the very reason that real virtue will necessarily coincide with one group or other’s apparent virtue.

As a final consideration, this evaluation will briefly return to the question of the necessity of Hutcheson’s descriptive claims. Recall that, if this picture of the moral sense is to remain consistent at a conceptual level, this sense must intervene in every case in otherwise normally functioning human beings, even if muted by interference conditions. Does Hutcheson do enough to justify such necessity in dismissing reports of strange norms as sensationalism? Suppose for a moment that ethnologist have recently come across a group in some remote land for whom it is common practice to torture birds. This group, when observed and interviewed about the reason for this practice, gives no reason comparable to considerations of the public good; it is with the aim of sustenance, religious rite, physical enhancement, security, etc.. In short, it would simply be an activity in which they engage. Faced with such an example, one would be tempted to maintain that Hutcheson’s picture fails to account for this sort of group and situation, for, at no point in their judgment, do considerations of the public good and, thus, the moral sense intervene.

In response, it seems likely that Hutcheston would counter such claims by maintaining that one simply does not know enough about the group’s reasons for doing so and that it is necessary to know how this group conceives of this practice. In other words, it is necessary to know all of the motives, more or less conscious, (perhaps as well as the phenomenological states) of the individuals involved. Otherwise, the observers reporting the information are liable to miss a relevant consideration proving that the moral sense is at work simply because of some underlying motivation to find that which is fundamentally different. This would simply prove another “traveller’s tale”, resulting from a psychological need to downplay similarity and highlight difference in order to reason oppositionally, all of which amounts to just another case of sensationalizing the Other.

Yet this does nothing to change the fact that there is as much of a burden of proof on those arguing in favor of a universal sense as those in favor of a thoroughgoing disagreement pointing towards cultural relativism in a broad sense. If it is indeed necessary to know all the motives, more or less conscious as these are, in order to determine the existence of a fundamental disagreement in one case, then it seems reasonable prima facie to hold the inverse claim to the same methodological requirements. One might even join a further addendum in order better to test for agreement or disagreement. If the moral sense is universal, i.e. has a form and basic content that is necessarily the same in all human beings and is thus not a function of contingent circumstances, it would seem to concern all possible human beings, past and existent, future and possible. In short, to be human is to have a moral sense approving actions tending toward the public good. Accordingly, one could test this claim or equivalence by one by considering its applicability in all possible worlds and inquire as to whether human beings would necessarily display this faculty or attribute in all of their manifestations.

More simply, is a necessary part of being human being endowed with a moral sense to the point that it is impossible to conceive of human beings without a moral sense? Suppose that there exists a planet like the present one, but different in minor way, in which the bird-torturing group of the preceding example does exist. In light of the question above, one would then inquire whether the individuals in this group are no longer to be considered human because of this apparent deficiency. It is not clear that the members of this group would no longer qualify as human even were the average observer to feel some discomfort at their behavior. Resultantly, their possible existence is enough to cast doubt on the universality of this claim, as, indeed, would the case of sociopaths in this world. So long as one can consistently conceive of a group whose members display moral judgments out of keeping with the moral sense in the absence of interfering circumstances or limiting conditions, then there is sufficient reason to require further evidence from the empirical sentimentalist. (Of course, it seems possible that the way in which the test is here framed might lead one inevitably to this doubt, for, admittedly, it is somewhat dubious to equate the quality of “human” with the property of “moral sense” when it would be more accurate, strictly speaking, to correlated the quality “moral”, “virtuous” or “moral being” with the property of “moral sense”.)

In sum, if the plausibility and universality of this empirical sentimentalist account come at the price of emptying its conditions of any determinate content whatsoever in favor of the merely apparent, all the while bringing nothing to dispel the cognitive failings necessary on that same account, then doubts remains as to whether such an account does enough to change the challenging circumstances facing the individual on the path to virtue. If the empirical sentimentalist dismisses such a claim in maintaining that this does not figure among the goals for such a position, it is nonetheless clear that that same position implies, to a greater or lesser extent, the need for a corrective to the present circumstances.

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