Hutcheson, Smith, and Utilitarianism

By Carrasco, Maria A. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Hutcheson, Smith, and Utilitarianism


Carrasco, Maria A., The Review of Metaphysics


IN 1787, fifty years after having been a student of Moral Philosophy under Francis Hutcheson at the University of Glasgow, in his letter accepting the office of Lord Rector at the same university, Adam Smith still recalled and eulogized his former professor citing the exemplary dedication "to which the abilities and virtues of the never to be forgotten Dr. Hutcheson had given a superior degree of illustration." (1) From an author who rarely expresses his feelings, this gratuitous praise should not be overlooked. Yet, as Charles Griswold complains in his Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, "further philosophical study of Smith's relation to Hutcheson... would be very welcome." (2) Indeed, despite the abundant academic literature about the Scottish Enlightenment, scholarly interest has been more focused on the relationship between the moral philosophies of Hume and Smith than on Hutcheson's specific influence on his most outstanding disciple, isolating them, in a theoretical exercise, from Hume's unquestionable contribution to Smithean thought.

There might be several, very understandable, reasons for this omission. First among these, and possibly the most important, is Smith's categorical rejection of the foundations of Hutcheson's ethical system, in which benevolence is the only existing virtue and the moral sense the faculty by which we perceive it. (3) In fact, in their Introduction to Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (henceforth TMS), the editors D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie say that:

   Among contemporary thinkers Hume had the greatest influence on the
   formation of Smith's ethical theory .... Second in order of
   importance is the influence of Hutcheson, whose teaching directed
   Smith's general approach to moral philosophy .... The particular
   doctrines of the TMS, however, owe little to Hutcheson's actual
   theory, which Smith probably took to be superseded by Hume's more
   complex account. (4)

Nonetheless, Hutcheson's influence on Smith should not be dismissed so quickly. John Rae, in contrast to this last opinion, asserts that:

   The most powerful and enduring influence [Smith] came under at
   Glasgow was undoubtedly that of Hutcheson.... No other man, indeed,
   whether teacher or writer, did so much to awaken Smith's mind or
   give a bent to his ideas. He is sometimes considered a disciple of
   Hume and sometimes a disciple of Quesnay; if he was any man's
   disciple, he was Hutcheson's. (5)

Blackstone adds: "There is in fact little in Hume's moral philosophy that cannot be traced to Hutcheson. Smith, a pupil of Hutcheson at the University of Glasgow, was strongly influenced by Hutcheson in the development of both his moral philosophy and economic theory." (6)

Whatever the case, it is at least symptomatic that, despite Smith's complete refutation of the main pillars of Hutcheson's theory, and even in writings where he criticizes him, he always refers to Hutcheson in highly laudatory terms. (7) Moreover, it should not be forgotten that, on the one hand, Smith was Hutcheson's student long before he met Hume, and hence he received first-hand knowledge of his moral ideas; and on the other, that not a few of his statements of economic and political theories proceed from his mentor's work. (8) Consequently, to track Hutcheson's presence in Smith's TMS and to identify which of Smith's moral notions have their germs and inspiration in his teacher's lectures may not be an altogether worthless endeavor. Moreover, showing how the pupil reoriented these ideas in order to give a completely different account of morality might also shed some light on contemporary ethics.

Specifically, my thesis is that Smith took from Hutcheson's system some, let us say, secondary elements and developed them in an unexpected direction, which increasingly distanced him from the canonical Scottish sentimentalist tradition. Naturally, all this happened within a context where David Hume was a fundamental "third voice" working on the topic.

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