He is thought to have been born at Drumalig in the parish of Saintfield, County Down, in Northern Ireland. He was the "son of a Presbyterian minister of Ulster Scottish stock, who was born in Ireland." Hutcheson was educated at Killyleagh, and went on to Scotland to study at the University of Glasgow, where he spent 1710 to 1718 in the study of philosophy, classics and general literature, and afterwards in the study of theology, receiving his degree in 1712. While a student, he worked as tutor to the Earl of Kilmarnock.
Facing suspicions about his "Irish" roots and his association with New Licht theologian John Simson (then under investigation by Scottish ecclesiastical courts), a ministry for him in Scotland was unlikely to be a success, so he returned to Ireland to pursue a career in academia. He was induced to start a private academy in Dublin, where he taught for 10 years, also studying philosophy and produced during 1725 Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. This writing is written as two treatises; the subject of the first is aesthetics (Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design), and the second, morality (Concerning Moral Good and Evil). In Dublin his literary attainments gained him the friendship of many prominent inhabitants. Among these was The Rt. Hon. and Most Rev. Dr William King, the Church of Ireland Lord Archbishop of Dublin, who refused to prosecute Hutcheson in the Archbishop's Court for keeping a school without the episcopal licence. Hutcheson's relations with the clergy of the established church, especially with Archbishop King and with The Rt. Hon. and Most Rev. Dr Hugh Boulter, Lord Archbishop of Armagh, seem to have been cordial, and his biographer, speaking of "the inclination of his friends to serve him, the schemes proposed to him for obtaining promotion", etc., probably refers to some offers of preferment, on condition of his accepting episcopal ordination.
In 1725 Hutcheson married his cousin Mary, daughter of Francis Wilson of Longford. Her dowry included extensive property holdings including the townlands of Drumnacross, Garrinch, and Knockeagh, in County Longford. They had seven children of whom only one survived, also called Francis.
While living in Dublin, Hutcheson published anonymously the four essays for which he is best known: Inquiry concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design, and Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil, in 1725, the Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense in 1728. The alterations and additions made in the second edition of these essays were published in a separate form in 1726. To the period of his Dublin residence are also to be referred the Thoughts on Laughter (1725) (a criticism of Thomas Hobbes) and the Observations on the Fable of the Bees, being in all six letters contributed to Hibernicus' Letters, a periodical that appeared in Dublin (1725–1727, 2nd ed. 1734). At the end of the same period occurred the controversy in the London Journal with Gilbert Burnet (probably the second son of The Rt. Rev. Dr Gilbert Burnet, Lord Bishop of Salisbury) on the "True Foundation of Virtue or Moral Goodness". All these letters were collected in one volume (Glasgow, 1772).