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

Francis Hutcheson

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.

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?”