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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The moral sense is a distinctive conception of moral
judgment formulated by Francis Hutcheson and fol-
lowed, with some modification, by David Hume. By
the word “sense” they meant feeling; the moral sense
is the capacity to experience feelings of approval and
disapproval, and the theory of the moral sense is to
be contrasted with the view that moral distinctions are
perceived by reason. The expression “moral sense” has
been used by other philosophers with less precision.
An explicit theory of a moral sense can be attributed
only to Hutcheson and Hume, and is to be understood
within the context of an empiricist epistemology and
as standing opposed to rationalist theories of ethics.

1. Shaftesbury. The actual term “moral sense” was
first used by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of
Shaftesbury, in An Inquiry concerning Virtue (un-
authorized edition, London, 1699; corrected version
included in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions,
London, 1711). In Shaftesbury the expression is
purely casual and has no more special significance than
the phrase of ordinary language, “sense of right and
wrong,” which Shaftesbury uses much more frequently.
It would be going too far to say of Shaftesbury, as one
can say of Samuel Clarke, that the use of the word
“sense” for moral discrimination is not to be taken
seriously at all. Clarke is a firm advocate of rationalist
ethics but is nevertheless able to write, like Shaftes-
bury, of the “sense men naturally have” of the differ-
ence between right and wrong. Shaftesbury's use of
the term means more than that—but not much more,
for Shaftesbury feels no difficulty in accepting also the
phraseology of the rationalists, when he speaks of
“knowledge” of right and wrong, of the use of “reason”
in moral judgment, and of “eternal” and “immutable”
virtue. Hutcheson took the expression “moral sense”
from Shaftesbury and used it as a definite name for
a definite theory, but the detail of that theory itself
owes little to Shaftesbury.

This is not to say that Hutcheson's ethical thought
owes little to Shaftesbury. The most important feature
of Shaftesbury's moral philosophy is the linking of
ethical and aesthetic judgment. That link remains an
important feature of the moral philosophy of both
Hutcheson and Hume, and in Hutcheson's first book
it is, as in Shaftesbury, the central feature. There is,
however, no intrinsic connection between a compari-
son of virtue with beauty and a theory of moral sense.
The former goes back to Plato and continues in many
philosophers, both rationalist and empiricist.

Shaftesbury influenced Hutcheson in one other re-
spect that is more relevant to the moral sense, namely
in the notion that reflection upon motives is a necessary
condition of moral approbation. Hutcheson makes
some use of this idea, but not a great deal. It was
emphasized more by Bishop Butler in his account of
conscience, which is emphatically not a theory of moral

Shaftesbury, then, contributed the name of “moral
sense” and the general background of an analogy be-


tween moral and aesthetic judgment, but little of the
actual content of the moral sense theory.

2. Hutcheson. The moral sense theory proper is best
seen in the first two books of Francis Hutcheson, An
Inquiry into the original of our Ideas of Beauty and
(London, 1725), and An Essay on the Nature
and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. With
Illustrations on the Moral Sense
(London, 1728). In
Hutcheson's later work, notably the final version of his
lectures as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow
(posthumously published as A System of Moral Philoso-
Glasgow and London, 1755), his original distinc-
tive views are overlaid with ideas derived from Butler.

The primary aim of Hutcheson's initial thoughts in
moral philosophy was one which he shared with Butler
but which he pursued in his own way. It was to refute
an egoistic interpretation of ethics, recently revived
by Bernard Mandeville. Hutcheson presents arguments
for the view (1) that men can have disinterested mo-
tives, i.e., that they can act for the sake of the good
of others and not merely for their own advantage, and
(2) that they can make disinterested practical judg-
ments, i.e., that they can think an action good for
reasons other than that it will serve their own advan-
tage. The disinterested motive with which Hutcheson
is chiefly concerned is benevolence, and the disinter-
ested form of judgment that is relevant to ethical
theory is the expression of approval and disapproval.
Hutcheson's view is that a feeling of approval is the
natural reaction of a spectator when he sees a man
act from the motive of benevolence. This feeling of
approval is what Hutcheson calls the moral sense. A
contrary feeling of disapproval would arise naturally
towards the motive of malevolence, but disinterested
malice, Hutcheson believes, is hardly possible for
human nature; hatred is usually the effect of self-love,
and in such circumstances self-love is disapproved,
though self-love in itself is neither approved nor disap-
proved, neither virtuous nor vicious. Virtue for
Hutcheson is the motive of benevolence approved by
the moral sense, and vice is a motive (usually partial
to self or to a narrow circle) that overcomes benevo-
lence and is accordingly disapproved by the moral

According to Hutcheson, the reactions of the moral
sense are akin to the kind of love or admiration that
naturally arises towards beauty. Virtue therefore is a
sort of beauty, moral beauty; and to say this is simply
to express the thought that our warm reaction to
benevolence is like our warm reaction to physical
beauty in being natural, immediate, and a species of

As Hutcheson's theory developed, however, it turned
into the first explicit statement of utilitarian ethics in
the following way. Benevolence aims at the happiness
of others; a wide benevolence is approved more than
a narrow one, and a universal benevolence is approved
most of all. Therefore “that action is best which pro-
cures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.”
Strictly speaking, this conclusion departs from the
original moral sense theory, for it makes ethical judg-
ment, the judgment of what is best, depend on the
thought of consequences and not on an immediate
reaction of love for the motive of benevolence.

Hutcheson speaks of a moral “sense” because he
accepts the empiricist theory of knowledge. John
Locke had said that all ideas come from sensation and
reflection. Hutcheson thinks the word “reflection” can
mislead in suggesting only reflection upon ideas that
come to us originally from the external senses, and so
he prefers Locke's alternative expression, “internal
sense,” which clearly means a source of ideas that is
additional to the external senses. In his second book
Hutcheson distinguishes several internal senses. They
are all different species of pleasant and painful feeling:
the sense of beauty (or “the pleasures of the imagina-
tion”), the public sense (sympathetic pleasure and pain
with the happiness and misery of others), the moral
sense (the pleasant feeling of approval and the un-
pleasant one of disapproval), the sense of honor and
shame (pleasure at the approval of our actions by
others and pain at their disapproval), and perhaps a
sense of decency or dignity (a nonmoral esteem or
approval of some pleasures over others). While in his
first book Hutcheson had been arguing chiefly against
egoistic theory in order to establish the disinterested
character of moral action and moral judgment, in the
second book he defends the empiricist assumptions of
his account against the views of rationalists. He argues
that justifying reasons are concerned with means to
presupposed ends and that the approval of ultimate
ends must be a function of “sense,” i.e., feeling.

3. Hume. Hutcheson's argument against rationalist
ethics gave David Hume the initial impetus to develop
the implications of empiricism not only in ethics but
over the whole range of philosophy. Hume's contri-
bution to the theory of moral sense was made in Book
III of A Treatise of Human Nature (London, 1740) and
in An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals
(London, 1751). In both works Hume uses the word
“sentiment” more commonly than “sense,” but the
meaning is the same. In the Treatise the titles of the
first two sections of Book III state that moral distinc-
tions are not derived from reason but are derived from
a moral sense. Here the expression “moral sense” is
retained from Hutcheson, and the issue raised in these
sections is probably the point from which the whole
of Hume's philosophy originated.


Hume continues but does not add significantly to
the analogy between ethical and aesthetic judgment
that had been drawn by Shaftesbury and Hutcheson.
The importance of Hume's contribution to the moral
sense theory lies in three things. First, he works out
an extraordinarily powerful development of Hutche-
son's criticism of rationalist ethics. Secondly, where
Hutcheson had taken the moral sense or sentiment of
approval to be simply an original datum of human
nature, Hume explains it as being the result of sympa-
thy and thereby makes it seem less mysterious and more
clearly connected with a utilitarian approach to ethics.
Thirdly, while Hutcheson had supposed that the object
of moral approval is always a species or consequence
of benevolence, Hume distinguishes between benevo-
lence and justice as “natural” and “artificial” virtue
respectively, and recognizes that the approval of justice
by the moral sense cannot be so simple and
straightforward as the approval of benevolence.

Hume's view of the respective functions of reason
and feeling in moral judgment is essentially that of
Hutcheson: reason shows us means, sentiment selects
ends. But Hume supports the position with a battery
of arguments which together constitute as damaging
an assault as can be found anywhere in the history of
philosophy. In the Treatise they are all the more mem-
orable for being stated with trenchant epigram and
wit. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the
passions”; “an active principle can never be founded
on an inactive”; if immorality were telling a lie in
action, as one rationalist contends, then immorality
could be avoided merely by concealment, e.g., by
closing the shutters when seducing a neighbor's wife;
a “small attention” to the difficulty of deducing ought
from is “would subvert all the vulgar systems of moral-
ity.” Hume's chief argument is that reason cannot move
to action, as passion can, and since moral judgment
is a motive to action it cannot be an expression of
reason. This argument is supplemented by taking in
turn each of the functions that can be attributed to
reason and showing that none of them can suffice for
moral judgment. As in aesthetics, when reason has done
all that it can do to ascertain the facts, sentiment or
taste must supervene to produce an idea of value,
which is nothing objective but the expression of a
spectator's reaction to the objective facts.

The reaction of the moral sense or sentiment, how-
ever, need not be left unexplained as an ultimate in-
stinct of human nature. It is the effect of sympathy
with the feelings of those who are affected by an action.
Benevolence aims at giving happiness or removing
pain, and usually it succeeds in its aim. A spectator
of a benevolent action feels a sympathetic pleasure
with the pleasure of the person benefited, and this gives
rise to the particular kind of pleasant feeling that
constitutes moral approval. Similarly disapproval is a
particular kind of unpleasant feeling arising from sym-
pathetic pain with the pain of those who are harmed
by actions termed vicious or morally bad. Hutcheson
had connected the moral sense with the sense of honor
by saying that the latter is a form of pleasant feeling
which results from the observation that we are ap-
proved by the moral sense of others, but he had left
the moral sense and the public sense (sympathy) as two
independent and ultimate features of human nature.
Hume connects them in the sort of way in which
Hutcheson had connected the moral sense with the
sense of honor, and in consequence there is now a chain
of causation for all three; sympathy causes approval,
and the knowledge that one is approved causes pride
(Hutcheson's sense of honor). A further advantage of
Hume's supplement to the theory of moral sense is that
the connection between approval and utility becomes
more evident. Approval is not simply a quasi-aesthetic
reaction to the beauty of benevolence; it is the result
of sympathetic pleasure with the effect of benevolence,
namely the happiness of one's neighbors, and so it can
be generalized into pleasure at the happiness of man-
kind. In Hume's view, approval is directed both at the
immediately agreeable and at the useful.

So much for the approval of “natural” virtue,
benevolence, and its usual consequences. The approval
of justice is more puzzling, for the stern countenance
of justice lacks the beauty of benevolence, and yet the
rules of justice are approved even when, in particular
instances, they oppose utility. Hume treats justice as
“artificial” virtue; approval of it does not depend on
human nature alone, as does the approval of benevo-
lence. The rules of justice are a man-made device,
necessary because a feature of human nature, selfishness
and limited generosity, is combined with a feature of
the human situation, the scarcity of goods in relation
to men's wants. The rules of justice give men protection
for their share of scarce goods. Self-interest leads each
man to support the rules, and sympathy with the gen-
eral interest adds moral approval. The feeling of
approval, which was originally directed towards the
utility of the rules, becomes attached by association
to the rules themselves and remains even in instances
where the application of the rules is not useful. Thus
a sense of duty can lose contact with sympathy, the
original natural basis of approval, and can become an
inflexible approval of rules as such.

In this way Hume takes account of a feature of
morality that had impressed rationalist or natural law
theorists. He also allows that moral and aesthetic judg-
ments are made from a general point of view. They
do not express actual feelings, which vary with varying


circumstances. As in his theory of knowledge, Hume
attributes to the imagination the generalizing activity
that others would attribute to reason. In the end,
therefore, his theory shares certain insights of the
rationalists, though undoubtedly explaining them in a
different spirit, within a different framework of ideas.