The Two Adams of the Scottish Enlightenment and Political Economy, Part 2

scottish enlightenment political economy david hume wealth of nations theory of moral sentiments adam ferguson adam smith

Max Skjönsberg for AdamSmithWorks


While Adam Ferguson was broadly sympathetic with Adam Smith's ideas regarding political economy (with notable exceptions), in contrast, Ferguson was rather harsh on Smith (and David Hume's) moral philosophy.  Thinking about the sympathetic as well as hostile reception of Smith's ideas can help us make better sense of a range of thinkers and the variety of beliefs in the Scottish Enlightenment period.   

June 8, 2022
This is part two of a series; Part one is here.

In an earlier essay, I demonstrated that Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson shared certain key principles in their approaches to political economy. They were both committed to free trade and the theory of unintended consequences, and tended to be skeptical about centralized economic management and planning on the part of the government. Crucially, however, they were both convinced that economic activity needed protection from the government. Like Smith, Ferguson believed that the state had a crucial function in protecting property and industry under a system of law. In some limited cases, Ferguson also believed that the state could also encourage commerce, chiefly by 
 
‘facilitat[ing] communications by commodious highways, inland and sea navigations, and every other conveniency that tends to lessen the difficulty of removing commodities from the place in which they are produced to that in which they are wanted.’ (Principles, ii.426.) 
 
 Government was also necessary in the coinage of money and in controlling the money supply. What is more, Ferguson highlighted that there was a single, but important, exception to the general principle of free trade, namely 
 
 ‘where in the course of trade advantages may arise, or inconveniences may be incurred, respecting the safety or defence of the commonwealth, in every such case, safety is to be preferred to profit’. Ferguson thus highlighted that maritime nations needed to encourage seamanship and all states ‘the manners of a brave and ingenuous people’ (ibid. ii.430). 
 
 Smith would have agreed wholeheartedly, and in this vein he supported the Acts of Navigation, even though he acknowledged that they were unfavorable to foreign commerce. Smith wrote: ‘As defence…is of much more importance than opulence, the act of navigation is, perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.’ (WN, i.464-5).
In some circles, Ferguson, like Smith, has acquired a reputation as an extreme advocate of laissez faire on the basis of some sweeping statements in the Essay, such as ‘The Statesman…can do little more than avoid doing mischief.’ (138). But such assessments must be tempered, and new archival evidence presented in a forthcoming edition entitled Adam Ferguson’s Later Writings: New Letters and an Essay on the French Revolution, which I am co-editing with Ian Stewart, shows that Ferguson viewed himself as more favorable than Smith towards government intervention. When expressing his support for a national board of education in 1801, he wrote to his friend Sir John Macpherson (1745-1821):
Smith in pursuit of his general Principle of Free Trade would explode universities as well as limitations of Commerce, leaving every age to fund Education as well as Trade suited to the exigency of its own affairs. But I apprehend the Public must take some charge of both at least to check fraud & folly, and give a beginning at least to what once experienced will make way for itself.
This letter not only shows that Ferguson, at least by 1801, was opposed to Smith’s specific proposal to deregulate education, but also that he viewed this position as part and parcel of a systematic anti-regulatory and anti-interventionist position. This may be unfair as a careful perusal of Book V of the Wealth of Nations as well as much recent Smith scholarship inform us. It may be viewed as particularly unwarranted since Smith certainly realized the importance of widespread education. Yet it is noteworthy because it tells us a great deal about how Ferguson thought about Smith’s legacy at the start of the nineteenth century, and how he positioned himself in relation to it. 
As we saw in my previous essay, Ferguson was of course deeply impressed by the Wealth of Nations, and its influence can be traced in the pages of the Principles. But when the new evidence is placed alongside Ferguson’s writings, it becomes evident that he was continuously mulling over the subject and that in the end there were other aspects of Smith’s great work that troubled him besides the treatment of militias. This also indicates that Ferguson appreciated the expanded role of the state as a result of wars against Revolutionary France in the 1790s and 1800s.
Ferguson’s appreciation of the expanded state, largely as a defensive measure against the French, is also discernible in his support for an income tax, expressed in the same 1801 letter. William Pitt the Younger had imposed an income tax for the first time two years earlier. Ferguson wrote in the letter to Macpherson that he had ‘long since declared to you’ in favour of the measure. Though the vocabulary of an income tax is not present in any of Ferguson’s published writings, the Principles contains arguments that can be mustered in its favour. In the Principles, he had stressed the importance of the whole burden of taxation not falling entirely ‘upon one class of the people’ (ii. 437-8). He further supported staggered taxes, rather than flat rates of taxes which he regarded as oppressive. As he put it: ‘It were absurd to exact no more from the rich than the poor can pay. And it would be cruel to extort from the poor as much as the rich may without inconvenience afford.’ (ibid., 440-1). Even though Smith identified problems in taxing wages, Ferguson’s general sentiment was in line with the spirit of Smith’s political economy, according to which the rich should be taxed ‘something more than in proportion’ to their wealth. (WN, ii.842).
Ferguson did not only engage with Smith’s political economy and its legacy; his moral philosophy was critical of the attempt of modern philosophers such as Smith, who created intricate philosophical systems, to explain moral approbation and disapprobation instead of accepting the rules of morality as self-evident as the ancients had done. Ferguson wrote in the Principles: ‘[I]f moral sentiment could be…explained into any thing different from itself, whether interest, utility, reason or sympathy, this could amount to no more than theory.’ (i.161). Modern theories that sought to ‘[resolve] a first act of the mind into a second’ had not improved moral knowledge, but only worked to render the distinction of good and evil ‘more faint’. Smith’s emphasis on sympathy was singled out by Ferguson:

 ‘If sympathy is admitted as the principle of moral estimation, it is evident that we admit, as a standard of good, what may itself, on occasion, be erroneous and evil, or what ought not to be esteemed beyond where it is just and proper; limits which presuppose that there is a prior standard of moral estimation, by which even the rectitude of sympathy itself is to be judged.’ (Ibid., i.162).
  
Ferguson continued his criticism of Smith’s moral theory in one of the essays he wrote which remained unpublished in his lifetime, entitled ‘Of the Principles of Moral Estimation. A Discourse Between David Hume, Robert Clerk and Adam Smith’. David Hume’s biographer, Ernest Campbell Mossner, who brought this essay to attention in the 1960s, speculated that Ferguson’s essay was based on a real conversation which had taken place in Hume’s London accommodation in 1761. Meanwhile, Smith’s biographer, Ian Simpson Ross, suggested that while we have no evidence of Ferguson being in London in 1761, it is possible that he composed ‘a Boswellian report, that is, a conversation reconstructed from notes some time after it had taken place, to bring out nuances of character and the tenor of exchanges between individuals’ (1995, 189). But it is also fully possible that the conversation is entirely imagined by Ferguson, and that he is simply using the dialogue form to criticize key philosophical positions of Hume and Smith and to emphasize and express his own views.
In this unpublished essay, Ferguson uses the military leader General Robert Clerk (1724-97), who had served with Hume and Ferguson on an expedition to France in 1746, to challenge the moral philosophies of Hume and Smith. Hume’s chief mistake, according to Ferguson/Clerk, was to base morality on utility. But the strongest condemnation is saved for Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), a book which is uncharitably described in the dialogue as ‘a Heap of absolute Nonsense’. The challenge to Smith’s moral system is manifold, but the first and most substantial objection is that Smith has not properly explained how morality emerges without the existence of a prior moral principle. Ferguson has Clerk ask rhetorically: 
 
‘How can I be sure that a Person is in the right because I Sympathise with him’. When Smith in the dialogue responds: ‘No! I have cleared up that point…The well informed And impartial Observer will bring to view what the Ignorant or prejudiced would overlook’, Clerk responds that it ‘is convenient to bring Virtue itself to your Aid when actual sympathy fails…What is a well informed & impartial Observer: but a Virtuous Person whose Sympathy may be relied on as a Test of Virtue[?]’ (Merolle 2006: 210-11).  


Ferguson is confident in the decisiveness of this criticism: ‘Here then ends your System’, Clerk tells Smith.
In more recent times, philosopher Eugene Heath, who was a contributing editor on The Manuscripts of Adam Ferguson, has presented a critique of Smith in a similar spirit to Ferguson (Heath 1995: 447-66). According to Heath, Smith’s theory cannot take us from a stage without moral constraints to one of moral consensus but rather presupposes a community with a pre-existing standard of morality, without which the desire for mutual sympathy would lead to random attempts at satisfaction rather than provide the motivation needed for a moral consensus to develop. James R. Otteson argues, however, that Heath has misunderstood Smith’s intentions: TMS was never meant to explain the transition from an amoral state of nature to a society of shared moral standards. Since human beings have always been members of communities, starting with the families, all the moral development which Smith deals with takes place in such settings. For Smith, there was never a time when human beings were born solitary and confronted other individuals as adults without moral sentiments. Accordingly, 
 
‘The development Smith describes takes place on the level of one or more individuals interacting among other individuals who already have some habits, however rudimentary or unconscious, of behavior or judgement.’ (Otteson 2003: 131). 
 
In other words, Otteson argues that Heath’s question of how human beings have transitioned from an amoral community to one with a moral consensus was not Smith’s question at all.
To conclude, Ferguson’s broadly sympathetic yet changeable and not uncritical engagement with Smith’s writings on political economy along with his rather harsh treatment of Smith’s moral philosophy underline the eclecticism and variety of the intellectual milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith is, of course, today much more widely read, both as a political economist and as a philosopher, and deservedly so. However, thinking about the reception of Smith’s ideas, sympathetic as well as hostile, among his contemporaries such as his friend Ferguson, is essential for historians of ideas, and may also be useful for theorists, as this can provide new perspectives on familiar passages, and such comparisons are a helpful way to make sense of the thought of sophisticated and complex thinkers such as Smith.
 
 
Works cited:
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, ed. Oz-Salzberger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995 [1767]).
Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1792).
Eugene Heath, ‘The Commerce of Sympathy: Adam Smith on the Emergence of Morals’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 33 (1995), pp. 447-66.
Ernest Campbell Mossner, ‘“Of the Principle of Moral Estimation: A Discourse between David Hume, Robert Clerk, and Adam Smith”: An Unpublished MS by Adam Ferguson’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 21 (1960), pp. 222-32.
James R. Otteson, Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Vincenzo Merolle (ed.), The Manuscripts of Adam Ferguson (London and New York, 2006).
Ian Simpson Ross, The Life of Adam Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (2 vols., Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982 [1776]).
Ian Stewart and Max Skjönsberg (eds.), Adam Ferguson’s Later Writings: New Letters and an Essay on the French Revolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming).