What Makes a Human?
Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks
Part 1 of a #ReadWithMe of Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society.
I confess I know more about Adam Ferguson from secondary sources discussing his relation to and influence upon Adam Smith than I do from his own work. Happily, this summer’s Online Library of Liberty Virtual Reading Group is affording me the opportunity to enjoy a cover-to-cover read of his History of Civil Society. In this and in posts to follow, I’ll share my reading journey with you. (And, by the way, if you've not participated in one of our VRGs, you’re missing out on a super rewarding-and fun!- opportunity.)
The first part of the Essay explores the “General Characteristics of Human Nature.” I see the shadows of Smith, Montesquieu, and the American Founders most clearly in this section.
Ferguson’s project here obviously closely parallels Smith’s in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He is explicit about his “science” of man project. Looking for universal tendencies in human nature, Ferguson also adheres to a stadial theory of history. What constitutes progress for Ferguson is something I would like to learn more about. He rejects the state of nature other than an imaginary construct, and focuses his discussion of human’s inherent sociality on interest, self-love, the common good, and dissension (which also includes war). Ferguson’s taste for virtue runs toward the martial, as opposed to the commercial bent of Smith, and especially Hume. That said, Ferguson acknowledges that moral sentiments prevail even in commercial societies, or even when contrary to one’s material interest. Love and compassion, he insists, are more powerful, if less constant, than (self) interest. (Note: nowhere in the text have I thus far found Ferguson using the term “self-interest,” but only “interest,” hence my parenthetical.)
Ferguson spends a good bit of time on the concept of happiness, noting that despite its ubiquity, it is a relatively unexamined concept. Indeed Ferguson seems to believe that people are “happy” most all the time- even while they’re complaining. We think we more often experience pain and unhappiness, all as we whistle while we work. (Yes, he does use that as an example.) I’m not sure how many behavioral economists reference Ferguson, but now I want to find out. One idea that particularly struck me was Ferguson’s suggestion that we pursue happiness through planning. (p 46) Hayek of course came to my mind here. I will be interested to see if Ferguson draws a distinction between micro- and macro-level planning later in the text.
In the meantime, here are some of the questions this section left me with, and which we were able to explore in the first session of our VRG.
- What should we expect from a study of the character of man?
- How does Ferguson define (self) interest compared to self-love?
- How would you characterize Ferguson’s impression of commercial societies?
- Ought the prime focus of moral sentiment be the individual or the community? What constitutes the common good, or public utility, for Ferguson?
- Ferguson tells us the most important function of virtue is “to communicate and diffuse itself.” (p. 42) This to me suggests an educative function for virtue. Does it follow then that virtue can be taught? If not, how does the individual acquire virtue?
- What does Fergsuon see as the best way to pursue happiness, and what is an end state of happiness like for the individual? For society?
- Politics for Ferguson is the realm of rivalry. (p. 62) How can we reconcile politics with what he deems the foundations of “national felicity”- peace and unanimity?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Whether you couldn’t make this VRG, you didn’t hear about it in time, or you just weren’t sure it was for you, we’d love to open up the conversation with you here.