Francis Hutcheson is considered a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Born in Ireland, he spent the last 17 years of his life as a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Through his books and teaching at Glasgow, he exerted considerable influence on Adam Smith, David Hume, and other 18th‐​century moral philosophers.

Hutcheson, following the lead of the German political and legal philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694), distinguished between two categories of rights: perfect and imperfect. He regarded perfect rights as enforceable moral claims. If a person violated this kind of right, then the victim might legitimately use force to either protect himself or seek legal redress. In his Inquiry Concerning Beauty and Virtue (1725), Hutcheson wrote,

Instances of perfect Rights are those to our Lives; to the Fruits of our Labours; to demand Performance of Contracts upon valuable Considerations, from men capable of performing them; to direct our own Actions either for publick, or innocent private Good, before we have submitted them to the Direction of others in any measure; and many others of a like nature.

In contrast to these enforceable rights to life, property, contract, and personal liberty—like John Locke, Hutcheson maintains that “each man is the original proprietor of his own liberty.” Hutcheson also categorized some rights as imperfect. These rights consisted of moral obligations that, although they tended to promote the public good, could not justifiably be enforced, but must instead be left to the conscience and free choice of individuals. Among these imperfect rights were kindness, charity, gratitude, and so on.

Adam Smith, who studied under Hutcheson at the University of Glasgow, employed Hutcheson’s terminology, as did many other moral philosophers. During the 19th century, as the term imperfect rights became less common (today these are simply called moral virtues or obligations), libertarian philosophers such as Lysander Spooner typically used labels like crimes and vices when making essentially the same point. Nonetheless, the distinction between perfect and imperfect rights was a crucial stage in the evolution of the libertarian doctrine that government should be confined to the protection and enforcement of individual rights. Hutcheson is best known for his defense of moral sense theory, which bore the influence of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury. In Hutcheson’s more systematic account, our approbation of moral virtue is a kind of perception that precedes rational analysis. The constitution of human nature is such that every normal person will feel pleasure and approval on observing a benevolent action. This moral sense, which is essentially a theory of conscience, is fundamental to Hutcheson’s theory of the natural sociability of human beings. It also is central to his secularization of moral theory.

Hutcheson was charged by the Presbytery of Glasgow with teaching the heretical doctrine that one can possess knowledge of good and evil without knowledge of, or belief in, God. His argument that atheists can lead virtuous lives, although unpopular in his day, was an important step in the movement for religious toleration.

Further Readings

Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. J. B. Schneewind, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983.

Hutcheson, Francis. Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. Wolfgang Liedhold, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2004.

Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.” Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie, eds. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1982.

George H. Smith
Originally published