Francis Hutcheson: Property as a Way to Virtue

property rights distributive justice incentives

Erik Matson for AdamSmithWorks

March 2 2022
The rudimentary conventions of property emerge in Hutcheson’s account, as they do for Adam Smith, as a consequence of our native moral sentiments.
Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) ranks among the founding fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment. His influence flowed from his teaching at Glasgow and especially his four early works:

Hutcheson’s contention that moral and aesthetic judgment derive from feeling, rather than reason, likely opened David Hume to what he described in a famous letter of 1734 as his “new scene of thought” (quoted in Burton 1846, 31). Norman Kemp Smith said: “Hutcheson’s writings were in fact the immediate awakening influence that started Hume off on his independent and revolutionary ways of thinking” (Kemp Smith 2005/1941, 24).
Hutcheson’s efforts in education reform at the University of Glasgow were remarkable, and his lectures were powerful. “I am called ‘New Light’ here [University of Glasgow],” he once said to a friend in correspondence (quoted in Scott 1900, 17).1 For Hutcheson moral philosophy (which included political economy) was not only an academic exercise but an effort in cultivating wisdom and virtue. The role of the university was to shape morally good men through instruction and example. William Leechman, whom Hutcheson helped secure an appointment as Professor of Divinity at Glasgow, said this of Hutcheson’s teaching:
As a warm love of liberty, and manly zeal for promoting it, were ruling principles in his own breast, he always insisted upon it at great length, and with the greatest strength of argument and earnestness of persuasion: and he had such success on this important point, that few, if any, of his pupils, whatever contrary prejudices they might bring along with them, ever left him without favourable notions of that side of the question which he espoused and defended. (Leechman 1755, xxxvi)

Supporting Leechman’s description, in 1787 Hutcheson’s best known student, Adam Smith, commented in correspondence on the superior “abilities and Virtues” of his teacher, whom he fondly referred to as “the never to be forgotten Dr Hutcheson” (Smith 1987, 309).
We have some sense of the content of Hutcheson’s lectures by way of his published textbooks: A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, Compend of Logic, and Synopsis of Metaphysics, and his posthumously published System of Moral Philosophy. These works, especially the Short Introduction and the System, were influential in their own right, perhaps especially in America (Robbins 1954). But they are also of interest in light of Hutcheson’s didactic method—his commitment both to teach what we would now consider social science and to continually emphasize the implications of those teachings for virtue and social practice. Hutcheson’s later works give us a sense of his understanding of the interpenetrations of—among other things—moral psychology, ethics, jurisprudence, and political economy. In so doing, they help point us towards the soul of early liberal thought, later enshrined in what Smith in The Wealth of Nations was to call “the liberal plan.”
A point of particular interest within the overlapping forays of Hutcheson’s thought is his account of property. The rudimentary conventions of property emerge in Hutcheson’s account, as they do for Adam Smith, as a consequence of our native moral sentiments: “When one by innocent industry […] procures for himself and those he loves the means of ease and pleasure, every good spectator is pleased that he should enjoy them, and must condemn the disturbing his possession and enjoyment immediately, without thinking of the effects of such injustice upon a community” (Hutcheson 1755a, 1:254). Hutcheson offers justifications of such sentiments—and by extension of the institution of property—by reflecting on our limited benevolence and limited knowledge. In light of these limitations, he presents private property as the most effective institution for serving the good of the many—both familiars and strangers. The point strengthens in Hutcheson through his analysis of the division of labor. Property facilitates exchange and specialization; exchange and specialization increase economic output, sustaining larger populations and leading to improvements and embellishments in living standards. There are striking anticipations in these arguments of ideas in Smith, especially in the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments.2
In the Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas Concerning Virtue or Moral Good (1723), Hutcheson had made a case for the “Rights of commerce,” which includes the right to “alienating our Goods” and the “Rights from contract and promises” (Hutcheson 2008, 188). His case there, as in his later writings, mainly revolves around ideas about limited benevolence and work incentives. He believed that we are principally motivated out of a desire to benefit our loved ones. In his inaugural lecture at Glasgow he declared: “when men are said to be seeking profit, or their own advantage, they are surely quite often serving their offspring and family” (Hutcheson 2006, 214). The point is repeated in the System (Hutcheson 1755a, 1:321). Without the institution of property, he goes on to argue, we will be unsure whether our efforts will in fact benefit our loved ones. We are much less motivated to work for the abstract good of society than we are for the concrete good of our friends and relatives. Schemes of collective ownership, Hutcheson concludes, disincentivize labor and lead to social decay. Such effects will be exacerbated through rent-seeking and opportunism, which further diminish incentives to industry: “Such as are capable of labour, and yet decline it, should find no support in the labours of others. 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” (Hutcheson 1755a, 1:321).
Hutcheson points to beneficial effects of our limited benevolence. These effects relate to our limited knowledge. In the Short Introduction he says that there are not many persons who “have either the abilities or opportunities of doing any thing which can directly and immediately affect the interest of all; and yet every one almost can contribute something towards the advantage of his kinsmen, his friends, his neighbours, and by doing so plainly promotes the general good” (Hutcheson 2007, 83). Hutcheson believes, as Smith does, that the contours of our somewhat narrow affections direct us to make a generally effective use of our slim understanding and even slimmer abilities to directly serve the needs of others (see also Hutcheson 2002, 188; cf. Smith 1982, 229 [TMS VI.ii.2.4]).
Hutcheson’s perspective on the limits of our understanding figures into his arguments for private ownership in the System. He admits that the argument for private ownership from a consideration of our limited benevolence would “not hold if a wise political constitution could compel all men to bear their part in labour, and then make a wisely proportioned distribution of all that was acquired” (Hutcheson 1755a, 1:322; italics added). But those conditions, of course, are fantastical. He continues: “Such constant vigilance too of magistrates, and such nice discernment of merit, as could ensure both an universal diligence, and a just and humane distribution, is not to be expected” (Hutcheson 1755a, 1:322). He continues, emphasizing the superior discretion of each individual in her local situation and the properness of reserving for each a sphere of sovereignty within which she can carry out acts of distributive justice as she sees fit:
What magistrate can judge of the delicate ties of friendship, by which a fine spirit may be so attached to another as to bear all toils for him with joy? Why should we exclude so much of the loveliest offices of life, of liberality and beneficence, and grateful returns; leaving men scarce any room for exercising them in the distribution of their goods? And what plan of polity will ever satisfy men sufficiently as to the just treatment to be given themselves, and all who are peculiarly dear to them, out of the common stock, if all is to depend on the pleasure of the magistrates, and no private person allowed any exercise of his own wisdom or discretion in some of the most honourable and delightful offices of life? Must all men in private stations ever be treated as children, or fools? (Hutcheson 1755a, 1:323)

We can imagine Hutcheson’s impassioned delivery of such remarks inspiring a young Adam Smith to write, some years later, in a similar mode:
The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society. (WN IV.ix.51)

Property leads to mutually beneficial engagements and, through the division of labor, facilitates economic development. Hutcheson’s remarks on the division of labor are not as extensive as Smith’s, but he anticipates Smith’s analysis to a great extent: 3
’tis well known that the produce of the labours of any given number, twenty, for instance, in providing the necessaries and conveniences of life; shall be much greater by assigning to one, a certain sort of work of one kind, in which he will soon acquire skill and dexterity, and to another assigning work of a different kind, than if each one of twenty were obliged to employ himself, by turns, in all the different sorts of labour requisite for his subsistence, without sufficient dexterity in any. In the former method each procures a great quantity of goods of one kind, and can exchange a part of it for such goods obtained by the labours of others as he shall stand in need of. One grows expert in tillage, another in pasture and breeding cattle, a third in masonry, a fourth in the chace, a fifth in iron-works, a sixth in the arts of the loom, and so on throughout the rest. Thus all are supplied by means of barter with the works of complete artists. In the other method scarce any one could be dexterous and skillful in any one sort of labor. (Hutcheson 1755a, 1:288–89)

What is the result of the division of labor? “Clearing forests, draining marshes, maintaining foreign commerce, making harbors, fortifying cities, cultivating manufactures and ingenious arts, and encouraging the artizans” (Hutcheson 1755b, 2:250).
For Hutcheson, property—in the final analysis—is an aspect of God’s plan for the flourishing of humankind. To attempt to collectivize ownership is to strive against “the manifest constitution of the Creator”; collectivization attempts to “root out what is so deeply fixed in the human soul,” namely each individual’s desire to provide for herself, her family, and her community (Hutcheson 1755a, 1:323). Hutcheson’s treatment of the division of labor highlights an additional aspect of the propriety of property, as it were, in the sense that it illustrates how shifting the good of humankind as a whole away from our focal attention in fact serves the whole. Perhaps we can say that Hutcheson’s work teaches that for most of us, the most effective way to serve the good of the whole is to cheerfully, humbly, and diligently focus on our part, with the understanding that our efforts are coordinated—by God, in his estimation—into a coherent fabric. Part and parcel of that teaching is Hutcheson’s justification and promotion of property and liberty—the institutional means by which our local efforts and disjointed bits of knowledge are drawn together into a harmonious order.
Studying Hutcheson’s ideas enables us to appreciate how little British jurisprudence and political economy in the 18th century were conceived of in terms of “soullessly rational calculation and the cold, mechanical philosophy of Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Newton” (Pocock 1985, 50). By the light of jurisprudential and economic analysis, the right of property gradually became viewed as “a way to the practice of virtue” (ibid). Such was the moral framework of early liberal political economy.

Related Links
Aeon Skoble, Smith and Locke on Property
Michael Munger, Division of Labor Part 2: A Beautiful Machine
Armen Alchian, Property Rights, in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Burton, John Hill. 1846. The Life and Correspondence of David Hume. 2 vols. Edinburgh.
Hutcheson, Francis. 1755a. A System of Moral Philosophy, In Three Books. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Glasgow: R. and A. Foulis.
———. 1755b. A System of Moral Philosophy, In Three Books. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Glasgow: R. and A. Foulis.
———. 2002. An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense. Edited by Aaron Garrett. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 2006. Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind. Edited by James Moore and Michael Silverthorne. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 2007. A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Edited by Luigi Turco. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 2008. An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises. Edited by Wolfgang Leidhold. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Kemp Smith, Norman. 2005. The Philosophy of David Hume: A Critical Study of Its Origins and Central Doctrines. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Leechman, William. 1755. “The Preface: Giving Some Account of the Life, Writings, and Character of the Author.” In A System of Moral Philosophy, In Three Books, by Francis Hutcheson. Vol. 1. Glasgow: R. and A. Foulis.
Matson, Erik W. 2021a. “God, Commerce, and Adam Smith through the Editions of The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Journal of Markets & Morality 24 (2): 31–50.
———.2021b. “The Edifying Discourse of Adam Smith: Focalism, Commerce, and Serving the Common Good.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought (forthcoming). Preprint at SocArXiv,
Pesciarelli, Enzo. 1999. “Aspects of the Influence of Francis Hutcheson on Adam Smith.” History of Political Economy 31 (3): 525–45.
Pocock, J.G.A. 1985. Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Robbins, Caroline. 1954. “‘When It Is That Colonies May Turn Independent:’ An Analysis of the Environment and Politics of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746).” The William and Mary Quarterly 11 (2): 214–51.
Scott, William Robert. 1900. Francis Hutcheson: His Life, Teaching and Position in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Skinner, Andrew S. 1995. “Pufendorf, Hutcheson, and Adam Smith: Some Principles of Political Economy.” Scottish Journal of Political Economy 42 (2): 165–82.
Smith, Adam. 1982. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 1987. The Correspondence of Adam Smith. Edited by Ernest Campbell Mossner and Ian Simpson Ross. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Taylor, W.L. 1965. Francis Hutcheson and David Hume as Predecessors of Adam Smith. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  1. This paragraph draws from Scott (1900, 65–67).
  2. I discuss these themes in Smith in (Matson, 2021b.; 2021a, 40–42)
  3. On Hutcheson’s influence on Smith’s economics, see Scott (1900); W.L. Taylor (1965); Skinner (1995); and Pesciarelli (1999).