Hutcheson's Theory of Obligation

Journal of Scottish Philosophy 20 (2):121-142 (2022)
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In this article I argue that Hutcheson has a theory of obligation that is different in important ways from the views of his predecessors and that his theory may not be as problematic as critics have claimed. In section (I) I sketch a brief picture of the rich conceptual landscape surrounding the concept of obligation in the Early Modern period. I focus on the five figures Hutcheson explicitly references: Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, their French translator and commentator Jean Barbeyrac, as well as G. W. Leibniz and Richard Cumberland. In section (II) I offer an account of Hutcheson’s theory of obligation and illustrate that not only does Hutcheson have a view on what previous figures called the source, end, and object of obligation, he also focuses on the epistemological question of the origin of our idea of obligation as opposed to the metaphysical question of the efficient cause of obligation. Furthermore, although Hutcheson shares with his predecessors the idea that obligation implies a certain kind of necessity, he conceives of this necessity in a unique way, namely in terms of the necessity of a perception. In section (III) I defend Hutcheson’s theory of obligation against three objections: 1. that it makes a sham of obligation by locating its source within the human being, 2. that it is reducible to divine command theory, and 3. that, in the end, Hutcheson has no real or meaningful theory of obligation. My hope is that, at the very least, appraising these objections helps further clarify the theory of obligation that Hutcheson presents in his works.

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Michael Walschots
Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg


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