The moral sense of Down man Francis Hutcheson
The forgotten Irish philosopher liked to think the best of people
Was he at odds also with the religious authorities?
“Hutcheson’s idea of the moral sense was inherently democratic. He once said that a beggar has as much sense of morality as any philosopher, by which he meant that ethical judgments were the consequence of natural faculties, and did not rely on prior instruction.
“This idea that human beings are capable of moral decisions without the need for religious instruction ran against the grain of Presbyterian thought. Traditional orthodoxy asserted that humans were sinful and redemption could only come through faith.
“Hutcheson’s optimism about people’s moral capacity led to questions about his suitability as a teacher of moral philosophy in Glasgow. However, his teaching was instrumental in creating a generation of Presbyterian ministers in the Church of Scotland who took a more positive view of humankind.”
By emphasising the need for governments to rule with the people’s consent, Hutcheson gave encouragement to nationalist movements. But did he regard himself as belonging to a particular nation, or as particularly Irish?
“In Ireland, Hutcheson’s influence extended through his colleague at the Dublin Academy in the 1720s, Thomas Drennan, to the rising of 1798. Drennan’s son, William, was a founder of the Society of United Irishmen and was influenced by Hutcheson’s ideas. However, Hutcheson politically thought of himself as either an Ulster-Scot or as broadly British.
“While he retained many emotional ties to Ireland after leaving in 1730 his primary identity was probably religious, and given that the Presbyterian community was subject to some penal laws in Ireland, Hutcheson was acutely aware that his faith was under prohibition in the country.”
Why did he like Dublin so?
“Dublin in the 1720s had a vibrant cultural life. Hutcheson’s patron, Robert Molesworth, viscount of Swords, was himself an author and supported a number of other writers, notably the free thinker John Toland.
“Hutcheson also enjoyed access to the court of the lord lieutenant, John Carteret, and encountered William King, the Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin whose An Essay on the Origin of Evil (1704) dealt with similar concerns to Hutcheson’s own thought.
“Dublin provided Hutcheson, a young Presbyterian teacher, with a fascinating, colourful and challenging set of contexts in which to think about moral life in a civil society, and he channelled these ideas into his ground-breaking philosophy.”
A walking tour of Hutcheson’s Dublin is being organised this evening by irishphilosophy.com, which will talk about his life and work. Numbers are limited; if interested make contact via the website or @cathyby on Twitter
ASK A SAGE
Question: Was Dublin City Council right to pull the plug on Garth Brooks?
Francis Hutcheson replies: “That action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.”