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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.1 (2000) 103-110

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Hutcheson's Moral Sense and the Problem of Innateness

National University of Ireland

Francis Hutcheson's philosophy arguably represented a delicate, and at times precarious, synthesis of positions laid out by John Locke and the third Earl of Shaftesbury. From Shaftesbury, whose influence he acknowledged explicitly in the title page of the first edition of the Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), Hutcheson gained an appreciation of the dignity of human nature, reflected in sociable instincts, benevolent impulses, and the moral sense. From Locke he adopted the bias of empiricism, placing moral philosophy on an observational footing, ostensibly free from a priori assumptions.1 The challenge posed by integrating the work of these two mentors arose from their deep incompatibility, evident in Shaftesbury's declared opposition to Locke's mode of philosophizing and rejection of his disagreeable representation of human nature. Nowhere was Hutcheson's combination of Locke and Shaftesbury more difficult to sustain than over the issue of innateness. Locke was intent on jettisoning innate ideas, but Shaftesbury remained keen to rescue them.

Of course there are different versions and definitions of innateness at stake here: on one account, it entailed the possession of particular, specifiable ideas or conceptions, somehow inscribed in the soul which might or might not require the trigger of experience to emerge (for example, ideas of God, good and, evil); on another, a predisposition to hold certain beliefs and make certain judgments, provided that 'normal' conditions of maturity and rationality have been met; finally, a faculty, that is, an inborn structure enabling the subject to experience the world in a moral way, and to register ethical responses to it, whatever they may be.2 All of these orientations on innateness impinge on Hutcheson's approach to the problem. On the one hand, he conceded Locke's critique as consistent with modern philosophizing, but he restricted its force to innate ideas or propositions, leaving the moral sense conveniently exempt from the [End Page 103] objection. On the other hand, Hutcheson was determined to reintroduce the content of innate ideas if not the name, assigning the moral sense a familiar, normative role in underwriting perceptions and judgments.

The intricacy of the issue has led critics to arrive at contradictory assessments of Hutcheson's outlook on innateness. Stephen Buckle and Knud Haakonssen take Hutcheson at his word and argue that he abandoned innate ideas altogether.3 David Fate Norton agrees that Hutcheson found Locke's critique persuasive, at least against neo-Platonic theories of ethics (such as Cudworth's), but elsewhere Norton maintains that Hutcheson sets up the moral sense as an "innate and independent" moral faculty.4 Charles Taylor, meanwhile, stresses the dispositional inclination of Hutcheson's argument: "Goodness and generosity are natural to us. He might have been tempted in an earlier generation to say 'innate,' but he has internalized enough of the Lockean psychology to shy away from this. So he claims that these sentiments are ones we naturally grow to have, just as we develop to our normal stature and shape."5 Given the disparate of conclusions drawn by historians of philosophy, the issue clearly merits reinvestigation. Differing lines of interpretation have emerged precisely because Hutcheson frequently changed his tack. His shifting strategy appears both in the revisions he made to later editions of the Inquiry, and in the development of his work over the course of his career. Closer attention to these considerations offers an insight into the predicament of moral philosophy in the early decades of the eighteenth century.

In the critique of innate practical ideas launched in the first book of the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke took a sceptical view of Stoic assertions about human uniformity and the existence of "common notions" indicating moral consensus around the world.6 Evidence drawn from contemporary travelers suggested the absence of any moral agreement of this kind; Locke based his conclusion on an investigation of human practice influenced by techniques...


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