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Moral Sense or Sentiment—Moral Instinct

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Francis Hutcheson introduced the notion of “moral sense” or “moral sentiment” (Hume), the feeling one has of approval or disapproval of a human act. The moral sense is not arrived at by reason as the rationalists would have, it is noted empirically, by observation and experiment. It is a feeling, a passion or an emotion, the feeling we have as part of our human nature that a deed is right or wrong. It implies that:

  1. Human beings can act out of reasons other than self interest, for the good of others. In particular, we can act out of benevolence—kindness, compassion, altruism, generosity, magnanimity—the lovingkindness of the Jews or the love of the Christians.
  2. Humans consequently can approve of deeds that they feel are right, they are kind, and disapprove of those that they feel are wrong, they are spiteful or simply thoughtless.

It is tempting to see malevolence as the opposite of benevolence, and sometimes it is, but Hutcheson did not think it was usually the case. Our instinct is to help bond with others for our mutual benefit by being kind to each other. The idea of an evolutionary bonding mechanism makes sense for social animals like humans. A disruptive mechanism makes no sense. Our inclination to be kind has been selected over hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer, because we stand better in the face of our rivals for food by working together. Any antisocial mechanism cannot benefit us. It tends to put us back in the state of individual, solitary hunter gatherers, with naught but antagonism between us, and no chance therefore of the co-operation that has allowed us to thrive. It follows that we disapprove of apparent acts of malice for this reason, but that any such acts are unlikely to be persistent now, having been selected out, one hopes, long ago.

Hutcheson concluded that the failing was not one of active malice but one of the absence of sufficient inclination to be kind, and the main reason for that was “self love” taking the place of love of others. Disapproval of selfishness and greed—acts based on putting regard for oneself before that of deserving others—was aroused in spectators because of their sympathy for the “victim”, the member of the group who was deprived through another member’s greed. Sympathy or compassion is at the core of our group bonding instinct, and its arousal when we see an unfortunate colleague stiffed.

Those of whom we approve we consider virtuous, while those with a reputation for unkindness we disapprove of as vicious. Virtue is the approval of others earned by having a reputation for generosity and kindness, and vice is disapproval of others earned by having a reputation for miserliness and unkindness, stemming from self love. Those who love themselves are attracted to vice because self indulgence is harmful to others in some respect, and all such acts are gathered under the label of vice. The humanity of such people is not fully developed in some way, either because they lack the moral instinct, or it is weak, or, perhaps more commonly, having had no cause to use it through being able to indulge themselves throughout their lives without disapproval, they have got used to neglecting it. They become mean by a form of auto conditioning. They reward themselves through self gratification and thereby weaken the instinct to do right. Such people, persistently failing to act morally in the formative stages of the group, would eventually have aroused intense hostility among group members, who would have taken stern measures, evicting the freeloader or even eliminating them all together.


Hutcheson’s theory of the moral sense as the social approval of kindness became an important pillar of Utilitarianism—mutual benevolence makes the members of the group feel secure and happy. Once everyone was happy, by definition they lived in a happy community. The Utilitarians therefore sought to do those acts which yielded the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people in society. The flaw in it is that it seems to be ready to condone unhappiness in a substantial portion of society as long as the majority is happy. That portion of society could be notionally up to a half and yet be a minority, even if hardly. Any such society could not be stable. The minority would have to be kept suppressed, and in fact any small minority could be habitually oppressed by a majority, yet that society would meet the Utilitarian criterion. So, on the face of it Utilitarianism can justify the oppression of minorities, and that cannot be right.

Moreover, it removes the motivation for being benevolent, the direct approval of one’s peers, in favor of assessing the consequences for the majority, something that might not be known until way down the line. It is the spontaneity of kindness and its social approval that makes it work so effectively. Spontaneity needs no thought. It is done instinctively, and is instinctively approved. One does not need a philosophy of happiness for this number or that, lovingkindness will lead to social happiness—spontaneously! The benefits of greater happiness and a stronger society are consequences of it all right, but indirectly. The whole point about love and kindness is that you do not have to think of the consequences, you just get them.


Hutcheson was an empiricist, and a moral instinct is a phenomenon of the real world, which can be observed and tested. A sense is thought of as a physical means of being able to know what is happening outside our bodies, but senses tell us what is happening inside our bodies too. We feel a headache and a stomachache. We also “feel” emotions. We see a sharp slap in a drama and say, “Wow! I felt that”. When we have that sort of feeling, it is sympathy, and it can be much more subtle—the sadness of a mother who has found her child dead. If we are human we want to cry too. We have all experienced such emotions unless we are psychologically defective in some way.

David Hume did not think the human moral sense was a mystery, because sympathy with the feelings of others explained it adequately. A spectator of a benevolent act sees happiness produced as a result of it, and by sympathy the spectator also feels pleasure, and that brings moral approval. The one who does the benevolent deed will feel the approval of their peers as honor or pride, while those who act selfishly will feel disapproval as shame and guilt. All presuming they are not psychologically defective or damaged.

The source of all this in the primitive human group is scarcity—the scarcity of food. Security, caring and sharing are the motives for prehumans to band together. Food was not always abundant, and, when it was scarce, sharing it was a vital reason for sociality, and a necessary act of bonding. The band were foraging socially, that is to say, different groups of them would go foraging separately but when someone made a desirable discovery, they neither kept it for themselves, nor tried to get an advantage by selling it to someone in the group for the highest bid. Whatever they gleaned, they shared. It is natural for a normal human being to want to share. They knew they were expected to share it, as they expected anyone else who made such a find to share it with them. It was the done thing, because by so doing, they were held in esteem by the rest of the group, and could feel proud of the admiration. It is the origin of benevolence.

Had they tried to keep the find to themselves, or even tried to keep an unfair portion of it, they would not have been approved but would have been frowned upon and treated with disdain, inducing guilt and shame. A persistent offender would have been expelled from the group. Of course, there would be cases of dispute, and then the community, under the guidance of the leader, would have to decide the outcome. Whence the issue of fair shares led to the need for justice.

A Criticism

Adam Smith, being more focused on the individual than the group, thought it impossible that everyone had the same sense of sympathy, and that was sufficient to discount any moral sense universal among human beings. In arguing his case, however, Smith begs the question by referring to the sense of propriety of a “normal” man, from which his ideas of virtue, merit and duty derive. If Smith allows that a “normal” man can have a “normal” sense of propriety, there is no reason why he should not allow him a “normal” sense of morality. Normal does not have to mean identical, any more than saying a normal US woman lives 86 years means they all live to the same age. Humans have an evolutionary experience stretching back 200,000 years, a period that covers the time when we lived in small hunter gatherer groups, and evolved our common moral instinct. We no more have the identical same moral instinct than we all live to the same age, or all have the same height, but qualitatively, it is the same in all of us, differing only in degree. Smith’s argument is therefore merely nit picking.

It is because human beings, all of us or at least the vast majority, have inherited the moral instinct with their genes, that something which is entirely a subjective personal experience can be treated as a universal human emotion, and therefore as something true for us all. God did not have to imbue us all with a moral sense because we developed it through our evolutionary experience, notably the experience of coming together to live in groups rather than remaining solitary and fending only for ourselves. Human morality was not handed down as a universal truth, it became universally true because it was necessary for us to evolve the way we did—communally.

As our sociality is essential to our being human, and our moral instinct keeps us social, to lose or ignore our moral instinct will destroy our communities and then our humanity will be destroyed too. That is the importance of morality and sociality. Why are we ignoring them?

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on Philosopher in a Phonebox and commented:
    The Evolution of Hutcheson’s Moral Sense (by David Hume and Adam Smith) with reference to Evolution.


    8 August, 2014 at 9:05 am

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