Francis Hutcheson. Lessons in well-being from the father to the Scottish Enlightenment…


364px-Francis_Hutcheson_b1694As we try to establish human well-being at the heart of social and economic policy in Northern Ireland, I think we must search for a relevant local heritage. In this way we counter those critics who suggest that something benign but grandiose and alien is being imposed from outside.

So I will point out how the conditions for human well-being were the concern of one magisterial writer whose roots lay deep in the County Down countryside, just a few miles from here. Before Jeremy Bentham made good use of the famous phrase, local thinker Francis Hutcheson had crafted the following maxim –

‘That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.’

Although his choice of the word ‘happiness’ may conjure up notions of gratification and self-absorption, I believe that for the word ‘happiness’ we might readily deploy the word ‘well-being’ so as to indicate the civic and personal goals which this Scots-Irish philosopher had in mind.

Hutcheson went from Ireland to be a professor in the University of Glasgow. As a respected author and the tutor of Adam Smyth and David Hume, he merited the title ‘father to the Scottish Enlightenment’. His philosophy explored the norms which he felt were necessary for the establishment of human happiness (or well-being) on a global basis.

He was born in 1694 in the vicinity of Saintfield and was educated in a dissenting academy in Killyleagh. Some of his most creative years were spent in Dublin, moving in a brilliant circle of thinkers and writers that included Jonathan Swift. Hutcheson’s emphasis on the paradigm of happiness was tied strongly to his belief that human beings do tend to care deeply about the well-being of their fellow creatures.

He argued that we are often ‘employed about the state of others’ rather than seeking our own ‘private good’. He observed that most of us like to make a contribution to those who are around us and that we often ‘measure our own self-esteem by the benefits we bestow on others’. He was convinced that humankind was ‘insensibly linked together and makes one great system by an invisible union’ and claimed that this invisible system is a ‘secret chain’ that binds us all to one another.

This philosophy was rooted in the belief that within us all there exists a faculty called the ‘moral sense’ which is as real as all the other senses. When we employ this ‘moral sense’ we often exercise a ‘natural disposition’ to ‘desire the happiness of any known sensitive creature’. We know that Hutcheson clearly meant to encompass not just humans but animals too.

Hutcheson noticed with delight the distinctive, attractive aspects of childhood, explaining how children have ‘a constant propensity to action and motion… grasping handling, viewing, tasting everything, with an implanted instinct towards knowledge.’ He was fascinated by the way that children ‘are ever in motion while they are awake, they observe whatever occurs and remember and inquire about it.’ He observed that ‘kind affections soon break out toward those who are kind to them.’

Drawing conclusions about human nature from such observations, Hutcheson suggested that ‘we are born with a view to the general good’, no matter how much that instinct may be perverted in the course of life.

In his most well-known texts this remarkable moral philosopher went on to claim that a society which is founded on the human urge to contribute to the general good is one which will flourish. He argued against the belief that humans are self-serving, self-seeking creatures, as some of the writings of Thomas Hobbes had suggested. Such beliefs, when acted upon by government, confine  the power of the human spirit and waste human potential.

As the descendent of dissenting clergymen, Hutcheson was situated at the heart of an Irish Presbyterian culture that was beginning to interact with the values of the Enlightenment. His era witnessed a struggle to be free of the bloodshed and horror of a 17th century which was too often lodged in religious war, ethnic strife, intolerance, massacre and reprisal. Ireland had been brutally damaged. County Down had not been spared. Nor had the Scotland to which he travelled to be a significant teacher.

Yet despite his undoubted acquaintance with such realities, for Hutcheson, goodness and kindness lay at the heart of life. Too many other thinkers had tried to ‘twist self-love into a thousand shapes’ in order to argue for a politics of constraint. He re-iterated that in all human affairs ‘there is an entirely different principle of action from self-interest or self-love’ and argued that we should place some trust in this ‘secret sense’ which so often influences us to the ‘love of others’.

There is, in fact, ‘a universal determination to benevolence in mankind, even towards the most distant of the species.’ And because humanity has a nature that is ‘designed for the good of others’, a healthy society is one where the capacity for ‘public love’, dedicated to the ‘public good’, is allowed to function and to bear fruit.

If at one end of the ‘secret chain’ proposed by Hutcheson is the urge to love and respect others, then at the other end of the chain is a hunger for their love and respect for us.  Another Irish philosopher, the contemporary scholar Philip Pettit, poses some relevant issues about this particular end of the ‘secret chain’. He argues in a book co-authored with Geoffrey Brennan that our economic models are flawed because they do not acknowledge the role played by the psychology of esteem in human behaviour.


He suggests that a desire for recognition and regard by colleagues, peer groups, family and friends – and even the approval of imagined future generations – often trumps the desire for personal wealth and material gain. Many of our policies in the capitalist world fail to take this into account. And so humanity is often debilitated by being told to strive towards an unnatural norm of material acquisition and ‘success’.

The literary critic Terry Eagleton has taken a close look in one of his essays at the quite understandable opinion that the opinions expressed by Hutcheson are rooted in an unworldly optimism. He ponders whether Hutcheson was ‘unknown to himself a utopian thinker, discerning at the very root of our nature a set of values which could only be realised in a transfigured future…’

But then Eagleton goes on to remind us that even if this is the case, we should recognise that to ‘project utopia upon the present ….is to cherish its creative potential, redeeming those values which cut against the grain of its dominant ethos…’

So if there is even a degree of truth in Hutcheson’s vision and we try to ‘project’ his writings upon the present, how do we think that a belief in a universal moral sense should affect governance in Northern Ireland – a moral sense that underlies and can give rise to a starkly varied array of moral codes?

And is there a ‘secret chain’ that links us to one another? If so, how can it be discerned? For Hutcheson this chain links us to all sensitive creatures, not just humans. How might what Hutcheson calls the ‘kind affections’ be carefully cultivated and rewarded both in children and in adults?

On the other hand, what are the forces that ‘bend self-love into a thousand shapes’?

Hutcheson argued that we are all ‘born with a view to the general good’ and if there is even some truth in that judgement, then what must we do to establish that general good at the heart of political striving in a divided society such as ours?

And how do we unpack Hutcheson’s belief in ‘public love’ across the hermeneutic gulf of three centuries – what does ‘public love’ look like? In what civic spaces would it operate, with what legislative imperatives and with what benign results?

I have presented you with some evidence that Hutcheson’s pursuit of well-being is rooted in a benign view of global human nature, or at least in a conviction that there is a rich, universal human potential for good. But if policies based on well-being are to be implemented in Northern Ireland, do the policy-makers  need to be in possession of the conviction that we are ‘born with a view to the general good’ rather than born evil, inherently prone to personal gratification and murderous hate?

It is hard for me to see how a politics which is founded on sectional interest and which possesses a bleak, rule-bound outlook on human nature can live comfortably with the transition to a paradigm of well-being in Northern Ireland or anywhere else. I believe that a bleak politics follows from a bleak view of human beings.  A shared future becomes almost impossible to achieve.

Philip Orr is a historian. This is an address he gave  on 10th June. the Carnegie UK Trust held a conference at Crumlin Road Gaol in partnership with Queens University Belfast. The title was ‘Towards a Wellbeing Framework – taking the next steps’.

Speakers focused on several key areas, including the importance of setting wellbeing as collective goal in our society and the need to align all tiers of government in pursuit of the goal.


This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.