Utility and Moral Sense: A Short History of a Philosophical Disagreement from Hume to James Mill
In this paper I address the thesis that a discontinuity exists between the philosophy of David Hume and the moral and political ideas of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. It is a thesis that derives from the influential work of scholars who have argued that Hume was a moral sense philosopher: that the origin and the inspiration of his moral and political philosophy derive from the work of his senior contemporary, Francis Hutcheson.
I argue that Hume made a belated and very qualified attempt to align his moral philosophy more closely with Hutcheson’s; there is no reason to believe that his attempt was successful. The origin of Hume’s philosophy is found in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) in the experimental method of reasoning and in an understanding of morals and politics that endorsed the principle that justice and other virtues are approved because those qualities of character are useful and agreeable. This formulation was restated with greater force in An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Hume was perceived by Thomas Reid and other philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment to be a defender of the principle of utility: in the absence of a moral faculty or an idea of conscience, Reid perceived Hume to be an Epicurean in morals and politics.
Jeremy Bentham was astonished that Hume, from whom he had learned that the principle of utility regulates morals and legislation, also endorsed the theory of a moral sense. James Mill was still more adamant that utility and moral sense cannot be reconciled. His dispute with Sir James Mackintosh on this issue forms an epilogue to the paper.
Biography and Publications
James Moore is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department of Political Science at Concordia University. His general area of research is the history of political thought in the era of the Reformation and enlightenment. He attempts to trace the ways in which the philosophers of the enlightenment in Scotland and Reformed Europe responded to the theological, moral and political doctrines of the age of the Reformation. He has held visiting appointments at Calgary, McGill, Edinburgh, Manchester, Groningen, Australian National University and Princeton Theological Seminary.
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