“Never to be forgotten” is how Adam Smith described each of the two men who influenced him most, and only those two: his best friend David Hume and his Glasgow teacher and mentor Francis Hutcheson. Huge hearted, Hutcheson was larger than life, the warm soul of the Scottish Enlightenment in the decades preceding his death in 1746.

In a reading group on his Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Latin 1742, revised 1745, and English 1747), we came upon a passage worth calling attention to.

The work is not lengthy, yet the benevolent Hutcheson felt need to explain at length the moral justification of domesticating, breeding, and eating animals. His arguments remain pertinent. He justifies current practice but we might expect that he would object to certain methods today.

I have cleared away editorial apparatus; what follows is the 1747 English text. I hope you find it of interest.

There’s indeed implanted in men a natural kindness and sense of pity, extending even to the Brutes, which should restrain them from any cruelty toward them which is not necessary to prevent some misery of mankind, toward whom we must still have a much higher compassion. But men must soon discern, as they increase in numbers, that their lives must be exceedingly toilsome and uneasy unless they are assisted by the beasts fitted for labour. They must also see that such beasts of the gentler kinds and easily tameable, whose services men need most, cannot be preserved without the provident care of men; but must perish by hunger, cold, or savage beasts: nor could men unassisted by work-beasts, and over-burthened in supporting themselves, employ any cares or labour in their defence. Reason therefor will shew, that these tractable creatures fitted for labour are committed to the care and government of men, that being preserved by human care, they may make a compensation by their labours. And thus a community or society is plainly constituted by nature, for the common interest both of men and these more tractable animals, in which men are to govern, and the brute animals to be subject.

Such tractable animals as are unfit for labours, must make compensation to men for their defence and protection some other way, since their support too requires much human labour; as they must have pastures cleared of wood, and be defended from savage creatures. Men must be compensated by their milk, wool, or hair, otherwise they could not afford them so much of their care and labour.

Nay, if upon the increase of mankind they were so straitened for food, that many must perish by famine, unless they feed upon the flesh of brute animals; Reason will suggest that these animals, slaughtered speedily by men for food, perish with less pain, than they must feel in what is called their natural death; and were they excluded from human protection they must generally perish earlier and in a worse manner by hunger, or winter-colds, or the fury of savage beasts. There’s nothing therefor of unjustice or cruelty, nay ’tis rather prudence and mercy, that men should take to their own use in a gentler way, those animals which otherways would often fall a more miserable prey to lions, wolves, bears, dogs, or vultures.

Don’t we see that the weaker tribes of animals are destined by nature for the food of the stronger and more sagacious? Were a like use of inferior animals denied to mankind, far fewer of these animals fit for human use would either come into life or be preserved in it; and the lives of these few would be more exposed to danger and more miserable. And then, the interest of the whole animal system would require that those endued with reason and reflection, and consequently capable of higher happiness or misery, should be preserved and multiplied, even tho’ it occasioned a diminution of the numbers of inferior animals. These considerations abundantly evidence that right of mankind to take the most copious use of inferior creatures, even those endued with life. And yet all useless cruelty toward the brute animals is highly blameable. (Hutcheson 1747/2007, 134-135)



Daniel Klein is economics professor and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center, at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation (OUP, 2012) and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.