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Making Sense of Moral Perception


The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that Francis Hutcheson’s moral sense theory offers a satisfactory account of moral perception. I introduce Hutcheson’s work in §1 and indicate why the existence of a sixth sense is not implausible. I provide a summary of Robert Cowan and Robert Audi’s respective theories of evaluative perception in §2, identifying three problematic objections: the Directness Objection to Cowan’s ethical perception and the aesthetic and perceptual model objections to Audi’s moral perception. §3 examines Hutcheson’s moral sense theory, focusing on his discussion of benevolence, the desire for the happiness of others. I deal with the unresolved issues in Hutcheson’s account by recourse to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary perspective on the moral sense in §4, arguing for the moral sense as the second-order faculty for judging benevolence. I return, in §5, to the objections, showing that moral sense theory solves all three problems and therefore offers a satisfactory account of moral perception.

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  1. See: “Some Reflections on Moral-Sense Theories in Ethics,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 45 (1944–1945), 131–166.

  2. See: Fellow-Feeling and the Moral Sense (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

  3. Hereafter: Hutcheson 2008.

  4. Hereafter: Hutcheson 2002.

  5. See: “Virtue and Reason,” The Monist 62 (1979), 336–342.

  6. Audi’s example matches McBrayer’s (2010: 9) example of identifying a woman and identifying a woman by the fact that she is wearing a dress almost exactly.

  7. A contra-standard property disqualifies a work from belonging to a particular category, e.g. motion for paintings (and guernicas).

  8. I have used the first edition of this work exclusively for this paper.

  9. I shall hereafter employ Hutcheson’s abbreviation for this sense, the internal sense, for the sake of brevity. It should be clear, however, that this sense is neither restricted to beauty, nor to the traditional association of beauty with nature and works of art.

  10. When discussing Hutcheson, “beauty” should be understood as including order, harmony, and design. See previous footnote.

  11. In the 1726 edition of An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, Hutcheson defined the moral sense in terms which are closer to the definition of the internal sense above, as the ‘Determination to be pleas’d with the Contemplation of those Affections, Actions, or Characters of rational agents, which we call virtuous’.

  12. Darwin was similarly uncertain about the origin of social instincts (1871: 82) and similarly maintained that a minimum level of intellect was required (1871: 71).

  13. See, especially, 2008: 88; 2002: 42, 49–50, 134, 506.

  14. Darwin also thought that such habits could be inherited. See 1871: 163–164.

  15. Hutcheson makes a similar point when he discusses the ‘Sense of Honour’ (2002: 18). His taxonomy of sensory modalities is not always clear and he may have believed that there were up to eleven discrete sensory modalities. I have restricted my inquiry to the five external senses which I take as uncontroversial and the two superior senses to which Hutcheson devotes the most space and for which he develops the most sophisticated arguments.

  16. This recalls Hutcheson’s reasons for the diversity of moral principles, mentioned in §3.

  17. Hutcheson made a similar observation, claiming that the bond of benevolence extended from the family to friends/neighbours to the nation and finally to all human beings—and would even extend to rational agents on other planets—although it weakened as it moved outwards (2008: 114).

  18. Harman employs this example to demonstrate that moral facts are actually facts about one’s ‘moral sensibility’ (1977: 122). For Harman, therefore, the perception involved is sensibility (VMP) rather than sense (EMP). I have nonetheless quoted him as the example is a paradigmatic instance of seeing wrongness. Harman also discusses proton perception and the relation between moral and proton perception.

  19. Interestingly, he also maintained that proof of variation in moral sense between nations would be evidence for rather than against the existence of the moral sense (1838–40: 330). Unfortunately, he did not return to this point in The Descent of Man.

  20. See: “Doubts about Moral Perception,” available on the author’s website at: <>.

  21. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 189–220.

  22. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at: Being a Human Being, Being a Person (Oxford, 2013); Understanding Value II (Sheffield, 2013), and the BSET Annual Conference (Cambridge, 2014). I am grateful to the respective audiences for their questions and suggestions for improvement.


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Correspondence to Rafe McGregor.

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McGregor, R. Making Sense of Moral Perception. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 18, 745–758 (2015).

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  • Charles Darwin
  • Francis Hutcheson
  • Moral perception
  • Moral sense theory
  • Sensory modalities