The global crisis wrought by the Coronavirus has made us aware of some of the most important things in life: good health, effective healthcare, supportive relationships, and wise governance.
Self-isolation and fear have shown us just how much we depend on companionship for strength and well-being, while our dependence on the dedication of those who care for us when we are sick, frail, or aged has never been more evident.
Perhaps it is time to invoke the wisdom of the locally born philosopher and teacher, Francis Hutcheson: three centuries ago, he proposed the importance of a ‘moral sense’ that resides in each one of us. He argued that this ‘moral sense’ is what motivates us to take an interest in and care for one another.
Hutcheson believed that unless we exercise this innate capacity for love and kindness, we will be much the poorer for it. What is more, unless a society enables its citizens to offer and receive that generosity, it is doing them a disservice.
So, who was Francis Hutcheson? Born in 1694 in the vicinity of Saintfield, he was educated in a ‘dissenting academy’ in Killyleagh which catered for the needs of Presbyterians. He studied divinity in Glasgow then returned to Ireland, where he taught in Dublin during the 1720s when he produced some of his best work as a writer of philosophy.
After this, he travelled back to Glasgow University and became an exceptional teacher and mentor as well as an influential scholar who helped lay the foundations of the progressive period known as the Scottish Enlightenment. Among his most illustrious students was the economist Adam Smith, whose face adorns our £20 banknotes.
Throughout his writings, Hutcheson worked hard to convince his readers and students that in our hearts we are not primarily motivated by self-interest or greed. He claimed that there is a ‘secret sense’ – not unlike the other five senses – which ‘influences us to the love of others.’ He called this faculty a ‘secret chain’ that enables us to feel deep sympathy with others. This often extends even to total strangers and people we have never met.
Rather than being motivated mainly by our own needs, we have a ‘natural disposition’ to be ‘employed about the state of others’. We often ‘desire’ their ‘happiness’ as much as our own, especially in the case of family, neighbours, colleagues and friends. In one of his most memorable expressions, the Scots-Irish philosopher referred to this wonderful faculty as a capacity for ‘public love.’
Hutcheson went on to suggest that we would be miserable creatures if ‘there were no society, no love or friendship.’ Faced with other philosophers who argued that a government’s job is to muzzle or channel our capacity for selfishness and destructiveness, Hutcheson made the case for taking love and friendship into account. He claimed that his task was to ‘recover the ordinary affections of men’- affections which are naturally benign.
And if, as Hutcheson claimed, our ‘human nature is formed for universal love and gratitude’ then a government that is overly focused on human competition and acquisitive individualism is inadequate and harmful. Hutcheson’s poignant advice to those who make such bleak, materialistic assumptions is that we are all ‘born with a view to the general good end’ and that this human tendency can and must be built upon for a society to flourish.
Given this capacity for everyday acts of goodness, Hutcheson bade his readers and students re-evaluate what heroism is. He declared that it is ‘not only the prince, the statesman, the general’ who is ‘capable of true heroism’ but ‘the hospitable neighbour…the tender husband…the affectionate parent….the cheerful companion…the promoter of love and good understanding.’
It is not hard to see the truth of Hutcheson’s insights in our time of pandemic danger. Out of a powerful sense of ‘public love’ and ‘public good’, medical professionals, nurses, carers, teachers, workers in the voluntary sector and thousands of others in un-glamorous but risky service jobs have continued to meet the needs of others.
We have seen heroism manifested not on a military battlefield, a sports field, or a cinema screen but in the intense and often underpaid labours of a nurse clad in inadequate PPE or an immigrant care home worker. Some of us have been deeply impressed by the sight of an old man raising money for the NHS by walking up and down his garden hundreds of times.
Maybe some of us have learned afresh the ancient wisdom that it’s not our possessions or our status but the love we give and receive that enables us to handle the bad times.
A recent survey conducted by the Cornwall-based Eden Project uncovered a huge increase in the number of people who were chatting to their neighbours, conversing with strangers and helping others during the ‘lockdown’, restoring a sense of community that many felt they had lost in recent years.
Hutcheson was too wise a man not to recognise that there is another impulse in the human heart that involves cruelty, intolerance, and exploitation. He grew up under the tutelage of a Scottish clergyman grandfather who knew all about the bloodthirsty religious wars of the 17th century.
In the County Down where he received his earliest education, there were deep folk memories of the brutal rebellion of 1641 and the bloody Williamite wars. Maybe it was in the context of such memories that Hutcheson was aware of the need to advocating tolerance, kindness, and hope – the qualities that in a later century, President Abraham Lincoln would name as ‘the better angels of our nature.’
But it is not only in his emphasis on ‘public love’ that Hutcheson sheds light on the present moment. He berated governments that permitted or instigated injustice and he helped promote a ‘civil society’ which punishes wrong-doing and cruelty as well as stimulating the deep human capacity for goodness.
In an era of complacency about the slave trade the Scots-Irish philosopher spoke out vehemently against its evils. He wrote that wherever we see injustice, we should remember that ‘no endowment…can give a perfect right to assume power over others without their consent. In fact, action is required to remedy the wrong, for ‘the people have the right of defending themselves against the abuse of power.’
For Francis Hutcheson, the ancient motto attributed to Cicero still held true- that ‘the safety of the people is the supreme law.’ The current health crisis has been a time for saluting human goodness but also for asking questions about the moral quality of our governance. Hutcheson labelled those who fail to exercise that power in a wise, just, caring manner as ‘perfidious trustees.’
He is a philosopher with local roots and fresh, wide relevance.