Moral Philosophy and Social Responsibility


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The Purpose of Moral Philosophy

A course on moral philosophy was a common element in the academic tradition of the West, with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as a popular text, and also influenced by Cicero's Offices. Francis Hutcheson taught this course at the University of Glasgow for many years and we have two versions of his lecture notes, which became important textbooks in their own right. We have records, for example, of their influence at early American  colleges.[1] In one of these textbooks, Hutcheson defines the purpose of the course:

The intention of Moral Philosophy is to direct men to that course of action which tends most effectually to promote their greatest happiness and perfection; as far as can be done by observations and conclusions discoverable from the constitution of nature, without any aids of supernatural revelation: these maxims, or rules of conduct are therefore reputed as laws of nature, and the system of collection of them is called the Law of Nature.[2]

Adam Ferguson also taught the course for many years, at the University of Edinburgh, and he also left two versions of his lecture notes. These show the influence of Hutcheson, but he tries to provide what he considered to be a more "scientific" approach, based on observations and history:

Before we can ascertain rules of morality for mankind, the history of man’s nature, his dispositions, his specific enjoyments and sufferings, his condition and future projects, should be known. From a proper collection of such materials, we should be able to ascertain what is best for mankind, and to assign to every particular in human life its comparative value, and real place in the estimate of human affairs…[3]

Thomas Reid relates this study to man's unique ability: "Man only, of the inhabitants of this world, is made capable of observing his own constitution, what kind of life it is made for, and of acting according to that intention..."[4] 


The course, as taught by Hutcheson and Ferguson, included, in addition to elements from the traditional Aristotelian ethics and politics, an introduction to legal principles and to what we would today call economics. We will discuss some of these topics in other sections of this website. Although these courses are not supposed to have recourse to "supernatural revelation" or religion, they freely refer to God, based on what they considered to be concepts that can be attained through reason, in what is sometimes called "natural theology", and in practice the Christian influence is evident.

The Moral Sense

In an early essay, written before teaching at Glasgow, Hutcheson introduced his concept of a "moral sense." On matters of morality, he wants to avoid complex reasoning, and he believes that we can rely on innate instincts that are available to everyone:

The weakness of our Reason, and the avocations arising from the infirmity and necessities of our nature, are so great, that very few men could ever have formed those long deductions of reason... The Author of Nature has much better furnished us for a virtuous conduct, than our moralists seem to imagine, by almost as quick and powerful instructions, as we have for the preservation of our bodies. He has made virtue a lovely Form, to excite our pursuit of it; and has given us strong affections to be the springs of each virtuous action.[5]

Thomas Reid, who also taught the moral philosophy course, is even more concerned about complex moral theories in that "men may be led into this gross mistake... that in order to understand his duty, a man must needs be a philosopher and a metaphysician."[6]

David Hume has provided what may be a more balanced comment on the relation between instinct and moral reasoning:

There has been a controversy started of late… concerning the general foundations of morals; whether they be derived from reason or from sentiment; whether we attain knowledge of them by a chain of argument and induction, or by an immediate feeling and finer internal sense… These arguments on each side (and many more might be produced) are so plausible, that I am apt to suspect they may, the one as well as the other, be solid and satisfactory, and that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions. This final sentence depends on some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species... But in order to pave the way for such a sentiment, and give a proper discernment of its object, it is often necessary, we find, that much reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained.[7]

The Common Good

A foundational concept of moral philosophy that helps in the understanding of social duties is that of the "common good", which has a long history in Western thought, developed by both classical and medieval thinkers. It is endorsed by our Scottish moral philosophy educators:

We should always repute it as our business in the world, the end and purpose of our being, our duty to our kind, the natural use of the powers we enjoy, and the most suitable testimony of our gratitude to our Maker the parent of all good, to contribute something to the general good, to the common fund of happiness to our species. [Hutcheson, 8]

The highest point to which moral science conducts the mind of man, is that eminence of thought, from which he can view himself as but a part in the community of living creatures; by which he is in some measure let into the design of God, to combine all the parts together for the common benefit of all; and can state himself as a willing instrument for this purpose, in what depends on his own will; and as a conscious instrument, at the disposal of providence, in matters which are out of his power.[Ferguson, 9]

As shown in the above paragraphs, Hutcheson and Ferguson feel free to include the concept of the service of God in a philosophic discussion about the social conscience. In his foundational social concepts, Reid includes the familiar Judeo-Christian "golden rule" without naming it: "In every case, we ought to act that part towards another, which we would judge to be right in him to act toward us, if we were in his circumstances and he in ours."[10] As mentioned above, these statements would be considered to be examples of "natural theology."

George Turnbull goes beyond the concept of the common good to a sense of fellowship that provides emotional satisfaction, and which the moral philosophy courses are also supposed to nourish:

Man must first be able to conceive a large whole, and to consider mankind as one family, before he can feel affection to his kind as such: but as one can hardly think at all without being led to perceive the common relation of men to one another as one kind… Hence it is that no person capable of reflexion is not touched with the distress of a man as man, without any other attachment; and does not, on the other hand, rejoice and perceive pleasure, even at the recital of happiness enjoyed in any part of the world, or at any period of time, however remote from all his private interests. Now this is the cement or attraction towards a common center, which together with the particular attractions between persons nearly joined and related, or particularly adapted and suited one to another, holds the whole system of mankind together, or by which it coheres.[11]

The notion of a public good, or of the universal happiness of our kind, is a complicated idea, which is not immediately apprehended so soon as one sees or feels, but requires some reflexion and a progress of the mind to form it… But nature has fitted the mind to form the idea of our kind, and of its general good; for every particular exercise of the mind in the benevolent social way, naturally tends to beget and establish such a prevalency of good humour, tenderness, and benevolence in the general temperature of the mind; as when it is formed, must naturally dispose it to seek for exercise and entertainment to itself in the most enlarged way; and thus the inclination to extend benevolence growing with every particular exertion of it, the idea of good to be pursued, will naturally expand itself, till it not merely comprehends our own kind, but takes in and embraces all beings in general, or the whole system of nature…[12]

Individual Responsibility

Adam Smith, who also taught moral philosophy at Glasgow after Hutcheson, has provided a very detailed book on this, where he is more emphatic about individual responsibility, which is in consonance with his work on economics, and he warns about the neglect of this responsibility:

The administration of the great system of the universe, however, the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension; the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country: that he is occupied in contemplating the more sublime, can never be an excuse for his neglecting the more humble department…[13]

Central among personal responsibilities, Ferguson highlights the instinctive inclination to self-improvement "Is not in vain, therefore, that man is endowed with a power of discerning what is amiss or defective in the actual state of his own inclinations of faculties [and] to apprehend a perfection far beyond his actual attainments."[14]

There is clearly an inherent tension in the two human dimensions of responsibility, self advancement and social needs, and the moral philosophy course attempts to cultivate in students a responsible balance.

Call to Action

Whether dealing with social or personal responsibility, the moral philosophy courses call for a concrete actions beyond the acceptance of principles:  "mere kind affection without action, or slothful wishes will never make us happy. Our chief joy consists in the exercise of our more honourable powers; and when kind affections are tolerably lively they must be the spring of vigourous efforts to do good." [Hutcheson, 16]

Ferguson concurs in that this obligation to act in society also provides the sense of fulfillment that most human beings desire:

The happiness of man, when most distinguished, is not proportioned to his external possessions, but to his exertion and application of his faculties: It is not proportioned to his exemption from difficulty or danger, but to the magnanimity, courage, and fortitude, with which he acts. It is not proportioned to the benefits he receives, but to those he bestows, or rather to the candour and benevolence with which, as a person obliging or obliged, he is ready to embrace his fellow-creatures, and to acknowledge or reward their merits.[17]

[1] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1971), 122-138.

[2] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: A Foulis, 1755), Vol. 1, 1.

[3] Adam Ferguson, Institutes of Moral Philosophy (Basil: James Decker: 1800), 10.

[4] Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (Edinburgh: John Bell and G.G.J and J. Robinson, 1788), 373.

[5] Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry Into the Original of our Ideas Of Beauty and Virtue (London: J. Darby et al, 1726), xiv-xv.

[6] Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 386.

[7] David Hume "An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals " in the Philosophical Works of David Hume, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1854), Vol. 4, 230-233..

[8]  Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, Volume 2, 116.

[9] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science, (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792) Vol. 1, 313.

[10] Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 375.

[11] George Turnbull, Principles of Moral Philosophy (London: John Noon, 1740), 190-191.

[12] Ibid.,191.

[13] Adam Smith, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" in The Works of Adam Smith, Vol. 1, 412-416.

[14] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science, Vol. 1, 225.

[15] Francis Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, 75.

[16] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science, Vol. 1, 185-186