Saturday, 24 August 2013

And now, for a bit of maths...

For centuries, humans have been arguing about ethics and morals. Is it ethical to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving children? If you find ten quid on the sidewalk, is it moral to keep it for yourself? Luckily, in 1725, Scottish Enlightenment scholar Frances Hutcheson came up with a foolproof way to measure the morality of your actions. In true Enlightenment fashion, Hutcheson applied rational thinking to a topic that has traditionally relied on emotion or religion. He actually created several mathematical formulas that, when applied, could show whether an action is more or less moral. For instance, take one of his simpler equations:

Hutcheson says that B stands for Benevolence (how virtuous someone is), M stands for Moment of Good (the positive action you perform), and A stands for Ability (how able someone is to perform a positive action). Therefore, in Hutcheson’s equation, benevolence or virtue is equal to the moment of good divided by a person’s ability to perform a good deed. That means that if a person’s ability is greater than the moment of good (for instance, if a millionaire gives only 20 pounds to charity), then the virtue of the moment is fractional. Hutcheson’s formula does make sense. We do congratulate people who give more than their ability may allow (such as someone who works a full day at the office and then also volunteers at a soup kitchen), and shake our heads at those who don’t perform to the fullness of their ability. However, the modern reader may easily find issue with Hutcheson’s approach. People and situations are so many and diverse; can a standardized formula really assert something as ambiguous as morality? If you’re in this camp, keep reading. Hutcheson’s formulas do get more complicated.
Hutcheson continues by adding another factor into his math: self-interest. He notes that some benevolent actions may actually be advantageous to the do-gooder, while others have the potential to harm the person performing the action. For these scenarios, Hutcheson creates two new formulas. First:

This equation is similar to the first, only it represents an action that may benefit the person performing it. In this case, Hutcheson subtracts I, or self-interest, from the moment of good, in order to “find the true Effect of Benevolence, or Virtue”. This means that an action will be less virtuous if it provides too many advantages to its performer. For example, if a student brings their teacher an apple to try to get a better grade in class, this action is less virtuous. On the other hand, Hutcheson also provides a formula for “laborious, painful, dangerous, or expensive Virtue”:

This represents an action which not only does not benefit the performer, but that is even potentially destructive. In this way, self-interest is contrary to benevolence, such as when a person donates their winter coat to a homeless person. Self-interest would dictate that the person should keep the coat to warm themselves, while benevolence says the opposite: give the coat away to someone less fortunate. In this equation, self-interest is added to the moment of good, and increases the virtue of the action.

Interestingly, even in Hutcheson’s rational, scientific approach, we can still see traces of emotion and religion. Even the language he uses—virtue, benevolence—is reminiscent of biblical lessons on morality. Studying theories like Hutcheson’s can show us a mixture of two great ideals in Scotland: religious and scientific enlightenment. We’ve seen Hutcheson take a conventionally religious experiment and modernize it into a mathematical experiment. But we may still be left with questions that can’t be answered with a simple experiment. This raises some questions: how far were the Enlightenment scholars from their religion? And how much did they actually lean on their religious teachings in order to scientifically advance Scotland?

Hutcheson’s ideas and equations can be found in the Innerpeffray Library’s copy of An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, pages 168-170. 


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