Scotland would seem a strange place for the emergence of a center of intellectual development that would influence the stream of ideas throughout the world. Scotland had been unified with England near the beginning of the eighteenth century. It was considered a “backwater” of European civilization.

Though he was a firm believer in revelation, he held that the best rules of conduct could be ascertained without its assistance.

Francis Hutcheson Undocumented Immigrants
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

But perhaps because of the strong nationalist sentiments and resentments that still lingered among many Scots, scholars and professors attempted to look beyond Great Britain for intellectual influences and associations outside the orbit and dominance of London. Thus, Scottish thinkers were familiar with, and often had personal ties with many of the leading intellectual figures on the European continent, including and especially in France.

But the emerging Scottish variation on the Enlightenment was not merely a shadow or reflection of Enlightenment ideas in France. It developed in distinct ways, especially in the circles around the universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Francis Hutcheson as Inspiring Teaching for Liberty and Against Tyranny

A major influence among these Scottish moral philosophers was Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), who taught at the University of Glasgow. Born in Ireland, he took up his position at the University of Glasgow in 1730 and held it until his death in 1746 during a visit to his native country.

Adam Smith was one of Hutcheson’s students in Glasgow, and his influence on Adam Smith was singularly significant, from everything from the importance of the division of labor and the role of private property, to the normative notion of a free society based on a “system of natural liberty.”

This was reinforced by Hutcheson’s talent as a teacher, which one of his contemporary’s recalled as “a happy talent, of speaking with ease, with propriety and spirit, rendering him one of the most masterly and engaging teachers that have appeared in our age.”

And another of Hutcheson’s contemporaries reinforced this impression by saying,

“If ever a Professor had the art of communicating knowledge; if ever one had the magical power to inspire the hearts of youth with an admiration and love of virtue; if ever one had the art to create an esteem for Liberty and a contempt for tyranny and tyrants, he was the man!”

Francis Hutcheson – Human Reason for Understanding Man and Society

His major and most influential work, A System of Moral Philosophy (1737), laid out many of the themes that later Scottish thinkers would pick up in one form or another. Though religious in his beliefs, Hutcheson argued that it is man’s human reason and his experiential understanding that could guide us in comprehending the reality of the world in which we live, and judging best the institutions that would further mankind’s condition.

But he believed that reason applied would also assist man in discovering God’s purposes and mission for his created creatures on earth. This was reinforced by his belief that man possessed an inherent and intuitive moral sense. Or as he argued,

“From the constitution of our moral faculty . . . we have our notions of right and wrong, as characters of affections and actions . . . The actions approved as right, are such as are wisely intended either for the general good, or such good of some particular society or individual as is consistent with it. The contrary affections and actions are wrong . . .

Or we may say more briefly, a man hath a right to do, possess, or demand anything when his acting, possessing, or obtaining from another in these circumstances tend to the good of society, or to the interest of the individual consistent with the rights of others and the general good of society, and obstructing him would have the contrary tendency.”

Like many thinkers before and after him, Hutcheson left an open and ambiguous question, which is: How to define “the good of society” other than in terms of the “good” of each individual as defined by him and in a societal context within which each respects the rights of all others to do the same through peaceful and voluntary association?

But, nonetheless, Hutcheson helped open the door to a political and social philosophy that emphasized the role and importance of human reason in mastering the nature of man and the world in which he lives, and reinforcing a justification of human freedom based on natural rights.

The nineteenth century historian, Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862), explained this aspect of Hutcheson’s outlook, though with admittedly some exaggeration:

“Hutcheson . . . did not fear to construct a system of morals according to a plan entirely secular, and no example of which had been exhibited in Scotland before his time . . . Though he was a firm believer in revelation, he held that the best rules of conduct could be ascertained without its assistance, and could be arrived at by the unaided wit of man; and that, when arrived at, they were, in their aggregate to be respected as the Law of Nature. This confidence in the power of human understanding was altogether new in Scotland and its appearance forms an epoch in the national literature.”

The Justice and Social Necessity of Private Property

Hutcheson was adamant on the justice and importance of private property rights. Property rights give individuals the means of pursuing their own happiness and the happiness of those whom they are most concerned about and interested in, especially family and friends. In addition, private property rights serve as the essential institution through which men have the motive and ability to apply their industry and efforts to improve their own circumstances, and through this, to indirectly improve the mutual conditions of all others in society, as well.

Hutcheson made this point in the following way:

“Universal industry is plainly necessary for the support of mankind . . . Whatever institution therefore shall be found necessary to promote universal diligence and patience, and make labor agreeable or eligible to mankind, must also tend to the public good . . . Now nothing can so effectually excite men to constant patience and diligence in all sorts of useful industry, as the hope of future wealth, ease, and pleasure to themselves, their offspring, and all who are dear to them.”

Hutcheson opposed various notions of communism and egalitarian sharing of what a “community” may produce. It would make the industrious the slaves of those who were the laggards in society. As Hutcheson put it: “If the goods procured, or improved by the industrious lye in common for the use of all, the worst of men have the generous and industrious for their slaves.”

Francis Hutcheson – The Danger and Arbitrariness of “Distributive” Justice

For this reason, he was critical of any general redistributive scheme as likely to reinforce the lazier members of society to expect to be able to live off the hardworking. Said Hutcheson:

“Such as are capable of labor, and yet decline it, should find no support in the labors of others . . . The most benevolent temper must decline supporting the slothful in idleness, that their own necessities may force them to contribute their part to the public good.”

He was also concerned and

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