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Francis Hutcheson’s early formulation of the principle of “the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers” (1726)

The Scottish moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) developed an early version of the utilitarian principle of “the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers” as a way of calculating the best action to take when faced with alternatives:

In comparing the moral Qualitys of Actions, in order to regulate our Election among various Actions propos’d, or to find which of them has the greatest moral Excellency, we are led by our moral Sense of Virtue to judge thus; that in equal Degrees of Happiness, expected to proceed from the Action, the Virtue is in proportion to the Number of Persons to whom the Happiness shall extend; (and here the Dignity, or moral Importance of Persons, may compensate Numbers) and in equal Numbers, the Virtue is as the Quantity of the Happiness, or natural Good; or that the Virtue is in a compound Ratio of the Quantity of Good, and Number of Enjoyers. In the same manner, the moral Evil, or Vice, is as the Degree of Misery, and Number of Sufferers; so that, that Action is best, which procures∥ the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions Misery.

VIII. In comparing the moral Qualitys of Actions, in order to regulate our Election among various Actions propos’d, or to find which of them has the greatest moral Excellency, we are led by our moral Sense of Virtue to judge thus; that in equal Degrees of Happiness, expected to proceed from the Action, the Virtue is in proportion to the Number of Persons to whom the Happiness shall extend; (and here the Dignity, or moral Importance of Persons, may compensate Numbers) and in equal Numbers, the Virtue is as the Quantity of the Happiness, or natural Good; or that the Virtue is in a compound Ratio of the Quantity of Good, and Number of Enjoyers. In the same manner, the moral Evil, or Vice, is as the Degree of Misery, and Number of Sufferers; so that, that Action is best, which procures∥ the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions Misery.

IX. Again, when the Consequences of Actions are of a mix’d Nature, partly Advantageous, and partly Pernicious; that Action is good, whose good Effects preponderate the evil, by being useful to many, and pernicious to few; and that, evil, which is otherwise. Here also the moral Importance of Characters, or Dignity of Persons may compensate Numbers; as may also the Degrees of Happiness or Misery: for to procure an inconsiderable Good to many, but an immense Evil to few, may be Evil; and an immense Good to few, may preponderate a small Evil to many.

But the Consequences which affect the Morality of Actions, are not only the direct and natural Effects of the Actions themselves; but also all those Events which otherwise would not have happen’d. For many Actions which have no immediate or natural evil Effects, nay which actually produce good Effects, may be evil; if a man foresees that the evil Consequences, which will probably flow from the Folly of others, upon his doing of such Actions, are so great as to overballance all the Good produc’d by those Actions, or all the Evils which would flow from the Omission of them: And in such Cases the Probability is to be computed on both sides. Thus if an Action of mine will probably, thro the Mistakes or Corruption of others, be made a Precedent in unlike Cases, to very evil Actions; or when my Action, tho good in it self, will probably provoke Men to very evil Actions, upon some mistaken Notion of their Right; any of these Considerations foreseen by me, may make such an Action of mine evil, whenever the Evils which will probably be occasion’d by the Action, are greater than the Evils occasion’d by the Omission.

And this is the Reason that many Laws prohibit Actions in general, even when some particular Instances of those Actions would be very useful; because an universal Allowance of them, considering the Mistakes Men would probably fall into, would be more pernicious than an universal Prohibition; nor could there be any more special Boundarys fix’d between the right and wrong Cases. In such Cases, it is the Duty of Persons to comply with the generally useful Constitution; or if in some very important Instances, the Violation of the Law would be of less evil Consequence than Obedience to it, they must patiently resolve to undergo those Penalties, which the State has, for valuable Ends to the Whole, appointed: and this Disobedience will have nothing criminal in it.

About this Quotation:

One normally associates the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” with the 19th century utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill. Here we have a much earlier formulation by Hutcheson from the 1720s. He was an important figure in the development of the Scottish Enlightenment since, as professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow to which he was appointed in 1729, he was able to influence an entire generation of students including Adam Smith (1738-39). According to Hutcheson, every person has an innate “moral sense of virtue” which guides them in making oral choices. When faced with having to choose between alternative courses of action (or what Hutcheson calls “regulating our Election among various Actions”) we have to “compute” which action will lead to the highest virtue which “is in proportion to the Number of Persons to whom the Happiness shall extend.” Interestingly, Hutcheson concludes this passage with the application of his “moral computing” to evaluating the virtue of obeying government laws and regulations and asks what one should do “if in some very important Instances, the Violation of the Law would be of less evil Consequence than Obedience to it?”

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