Lessons from Ireland’s great forgotten philosopher: Francis Hutcheson

This August marks the 270th anniversary of the death of one of Ireland’s greatest philosophers: Francis Hutcheson. Who has heard of this County Down-born sage, son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, today? He ran a ‘dissenting academy’ in Drumcondra Lane in Dublin in the 1720s and during his time there wrote two of the most influential philosophy books of the 18th century; as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University (1729-1746) he was called  ‘Father to the Scottish Enlightenment’ and taught the economist Adam Smith and the philosopher David Hume; his ideas about the right to resist enslavement, the desire of human beings to contribute to the ‘public good’ and the centrality of happiness to a good society influenced Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, the architects of the US Constitution and the United Irishmen; and he – rather than the English Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham – originated the famous line: “that action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that is worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery”.

Hutcheson’s core belief was that human nature is inherently prone to sympathy and kindness. In his 1725 book, Enquiry into the Original of Beauty and Virtue, he asserted that “there is universal determination to benevolence in mankind, even towards the most distant of the species”, and that it is this instinctive “moral sense” that stimulates men and women to acts of charity that go beyond mere self-serving affiliation with family and friends. This belief in instinctive human benevolence made him urge political leaders to devise constant opportunities for the individual to “concern himself with the common good.”

The corollary of this was opposition to despotism. “The moral sense of individual men and women must be allowed to function if the virtuous society that flows from the free exercise of this sense is to be given a chance to flourish.” So wherever government takes place without “the universal consent of the people”, there arises “a right to resistance.” This was written over 50 years before the American Revolution and over 70 years before the French Revolution.

In a 2011 essay on Hutcheson¹, the Northern historian and playwright Philip Orr, writes: “Clearly if these arguments about humanity’s innate moral sense possess any modern validity – even in an age where we have witnessed so much war and violence – then the political philosophy that underlies much of 21st century capitalism has questions to answer, given the dominance within that economic philosophy of a model of human beings as consumers and competitors who are motivated by self-interest, and a rigid model of the state as a gigantic and all-pervasive market place.”

Orr says that for Hutcheson “morality was not to be understood as a painful shackle on human desire and aggrandisement, but rather as a guide to the highly pleasurable exercise of man’s capacity for altruism.” He goes on, quoting Hutcheson: “Missing out on the satisfying reality that ‘human nature is formed for universal love and gratitude’, the citizens of an inferior society that does not prize benevolence and reciprocity are in danger of experiencing ‘the misery of excessive selfishness.”  This warning goes to the very heart of the experience in too many countries, including Ireland, during the ‘boom’ years of the late 1990s-early 2000s, which although they brought many material benefits, also “suffused society with the values of conspicuous acquisition and consumption, leaving an aching sense of precious things that have been lost – community, decency, reciprocity and simple trust.”

Hutcheson’s moral teaching about the need to disseminate happiness among the greatest number of people, is also starkly significant, says Orr, “given the huge gap in present-day Ireland, in many other western nations and all across the world, between the physical comfort and educational prospects of a secure minority, and the much more vulnerable and perilous fate of the rest of society.”

Some modern philosophers have dismissed Hutcheson’s philosophy as utopian. However his most famous pupil, Adam Smith, who is held up as the guru of free market capitalism, often agreed with him. In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (considered by its author to be superior to his  classic work on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations), Smith argued: “Howsoever selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Another Irish philosopher, the US-based scholar Philip Pettit, has argued in a 2004 book (co-authored with Geoffrey Brennan)² that our economic models are flawed because they do not acknowledge the role played by the psychology of esteem in human behaviour (echoing Hutcheson’s belief that “we measure our own self-esteem by the benefits we bestow on others”). Pettit suggests that a desire for recognition and regard by colleagues, peer groups, family and friends – and even the approval of imagined future generations – often trumps the desire for personal wealth and material gain. Many of our policies in the capitalist world fail to take this into account. And so humanity is often debilitated by being told to strive towards an unnatural norm of material acquisition and ‘success’.

Hutcheson’s teaching at Glasgow University, and the atmosphere of free intellectual inquiry it encouraged among the young Irishmen training for the Presbyterian ministry, served to make them amenable to revolution during the tempestuous Irish decade of the 1790s, argues Orr. “By the time of the 1798 rebellion, over 50 ordained and trainee Presbyterian clerics had decided on an insurrectionary remedy for a country in which the public good was being denied by an Anglo-Irish elite, backed by an exploitative and oppressive British government.” His ideas are most directly evident in one of the founding documents of the Dublin branch of the United Irishmen in 1791: “…there is not an individual whose happiness can be established on any other foundation so rational and so solid as the happiness of the whole community.”

Orr also claims that – through inheritors of his thinking like Archibald Hamilton Rowan in Ireland and William Goodwin (partner of the early feminist Mary Wolstonecraft) in England  – Daniel O’Connell was also greatly influenced by Hutcheson’s ideas. In O’Connell’s case, however, his “peaceful mass campaigns for Repeal of the Union were founded, not on insurrectionary violence, but on the conviction that change could be effected by enlisting public opinion behind a schedule of reform, binding vast groups of citizens together with ties of mutual affection and common purpose.”

We are very far from ties of mutual affection and common purpose either in Ireland or the insecure Western world of neo-liberal capitalism and parliamentary democracy today. We have a right-of-centre government which is almost entirely in thrall to the likes of Microsoft, Google, Apple, Pfizer and Allegran (albeit in return for the provision of high value jobs) and remains mired in unsustainable international debt (although there have been significant improvements on this front). We have a huge housing and homelessness crisis and deeply unfair health and education systems. Our sense of community and equality has been sorely tested by the post 2008 financial meltdown and a very partial post 2011 recovery which does not appear to have reached the majority of poorer people.

Is it time to rediscover the peaceful mass politics of O’Connell backed by the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest numbers’ philosophy of Francis Hutcheson?  Is this what, in their often aggressive and fractious way, the Trotskyists of People before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance are trying to do? (Or are they merely trying to set class against class?)  It would be a happy by-product for this still deeply divided island if in this way we might also marry the militant but peaceful politics of a visionary 19th century Kerry Catholic leader with the radical and benevolent thinking of a wise 18th century County Down Presbyterian philosopher.

¹The Secret Chain: Frances Hutcheson and Irish Dissent – A Political Legacy, by Philip Orr. TASC/The Flourishing Society, October 2011

² The Economy of Esteem: an essay on civil and political society, by Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

This entry was posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lessons from Ireland’s great forgotten philosopher: Francis Hutcheson

  1. Alan Ford says:

    Hmm. OK – granted he may well be Ireland’s greatest forgotten philosopher, but greatest philosopher? Surely Berkeley has a far greater claim?

  2. andypollak says:

    I accept your point about Berkeley being Ireland’s greatest philosopher. Perhaps I was carried away by my enthusiasm for Hutcheson!

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