|Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations - developed as part of a course on moral philosophy|
We were pleased to welcome Professor Alexander Broadie of Glasgow University, a leading scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment, to Ramsay Garden last month.
He last addressed IFF at one of our early meetings in November 2001 when he questioned our quest for a ‘second enlightenment’ on the grounds that the first was not yet over. His after dinner speech - 'Do we need a Second Enlightenment' - is available here.
On this occasion he took as his theme the question of what it means to be a ‘good citizen’. His inspiration came mostly from Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith – drawing as much on their moral vision as on the theoretical underpinning for ‘public zeal’. He made a powerful case for the relevance of their thinking today.
Broadie began with Ferguson, a man who even today seems to have ‘an air of modernity’ about him. He took from his Calvinist upbringing an awareness of man’s corruption and the need to hold that in check. From Presbyterianism he took the bottom up governance of the Kirk, the importance of the voice of the laity. He was also a Gaelic speaker, familiar with clan life and loyalty. His scholarship found a home for all of these influences in what became his ‘Big Idea’: classical republicanism.
Most Enlightenment scholars, Broadie told us, chose Athens as their favourite state. Ferguson chose Sparta – a military society (Ferguson had been an army chaplain) cherishing the virtues of obedience, loyalty and ‘zeal for the public’.
To these Ferguson added the importance of the Forum. This was a place for citizens to exercise their role in society: disputing in public so that all decisions were informed by ‘the public use of reason’. This was the role of the good citizen: to participate, to argue, to demonstrate ‘zeal’ for the public interest.
Notions of citizenship in the 18th century were thus derived from ideas developed many centuries before. But they were revived by thinkers like Ferguson because these earlier virtues seemed to have suffered as the simple idea took hold that ‘if there is more economic activity then life is better’.
This was the cue for Broadie to introduce the work of Adam Smith. He reminded us that Smith developed his work on economics in the context of a course on moral philosophy. For Smith the first question to be asked of any idea was a moral one. If that idea were systematically applied to human society, what would the consequences be? Any economic idea had to be examined from the moral perspective of justice, humanity, human rights and so on. Both Homo Economicus and Homo Moralis had to be considered, and the position of Homo Moralis was more important.
Taking on Smith’s persona at this point, Broadie delivered a powerful message: ‘The values of Homo Economicus lead to a fragmentation of society and a fragmentation of the individuals who make up society. As Homo Economicus gets a grip on a man’s soul, so he starts to see other people as potential sources of profit. But the overarching questions in dealing with other people should be about their humanity. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can be justified as economic activity that is not also moral activity.’
This is where Smith’s notion of ‘sympathy’ comes in – the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. Don’t stand in judgement. Dispel your ignorance about them, challenge your assumptions, see things from their point of view, see them as fellow human beings.
And so education in Smith’s view becomes a necessary defence against inhumanity. And because the private sector might not provide it, this becomes a responsibility of the state (Broadie pointed out that while Smith has been taken as a hero by those advocating market forces and small government, in practice he was arguing for a very substantial role for the state).
A second defence – Ferguson’s major interest – was an active citizenry able to discuss and dispute ideas in the public domain. Ideas needed to be examined before ‘the tribunal of reason’. The citizenry was not there to vote, but to be a nuisance. Ferguson predicted the emergence of a ‘political class’ and warned against it. Classes close in on themselves, become self-referential. He wanted everyone to have a ‘political’ life, acting from the spirit of society rather than their own interest. In that sense ‘society is the political class’.
‘We need citizens who are obstreperous in public… sometimes even violent’, Broadie concluded, channelling Ferguson. ‘Unanimity is a kind of sickness. Disagreement is healthy. Corruption at the top of any society is inevitable – unless there is a vigorous republican element’.
Naturally this led to a lively discussion elaborating on these themes. For example:
I was left with two strong impressions on the session as a whole. The first was the theme of ‘corruption’ used in its wider Shakespearean sense. We have heard a lot about corruption in politics, or in banking, or – most recently – the police. But this 18th century view put the spotlight on us, the citizenry, and the extent to which we too have become corrupted.
I was also struck by the power of Alexander Broadie’s address. He was able to channel Smith and Ferguson’s moral passion – which made him sound at times more like a preacher to the contemporary ear than a moral philosopher. I wonder why we hear so little of that tone today, including from our politicians? It seems as if we have delegated this register to the clergy. But as Broadie argued, the role of the citizen has always been a moral one: to act in sympathy, walk in the shoes of another and ‘love your neighbour’ – especially if he or she is your enemy.