The term moralist as used here is historically and technically specific. It describes loosely related but mutually supporting intellectual positions in modern metaphysics and epistemology; in morality, civil society, and the law; in economic and political theories; and in cultural history. Therefore the group of Scottish thinkers who are individually and collectively called moralists, though without unanimity in the details of their beliefs, share, in a general and in identifiable ways, compatible views on the nature of philosophy, social science, and politics.
These thinkers are easily identifiable in part because their mature professional lives were spent largely in Scotland, particularly—though not exclusively—at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Furthermore, their ideas blossomed and their influence radiated from Scotland out to the major centers of learning in modern Europe and beyond roughly between 1740 and 1800. It was in these sixty years that the most influential works were published by the Common Sense philosopher Thomas Reid (1710–1796), the Skeptical philosopher and historian David Hume (1711–1776), the economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), the jurist and cultural historian John Millar (1735–1801), and the sociologist and political scientist Adam Ferguson (1723–1816). Others whose works were part of the moralist trend before, during, and after the sixty-year period and who are privileged for the sake of analysis include: Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), the jurist Henry Home, Lord Kames (1697–1782), the philosopher and biographer of Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), and the economist James Mill (1773–1836). Also worthy of mention are James Ramsey McCulloch, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Carlyle, William Robertson, James Boswell, James Hutton, Robert Wallace, and James Watts. Though born in Ireland to Scottish parents, the Utilitarian philosopher Francis Hutcheson is usually associated with the Scottish moralists because of his influence on Hume and Reid. Hutcheson’s impact at the University of Glasgow, where he taught for many years, was so profound that some regard him as a founding father of the Scottish Enlightenment.
When the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united under King James VI in 1707, Scotland was in the midst of a series of so-called Jacobinite revolutions: The first occurred in 1690, the second in 1715, and the last in 1745. These social and political upheavals left Scots not just with a sense of cultural and national instability but also faced with economic challenges that would prove transformative. In order to keep up with its English and French neighbors, Scotland was forced to modernize its economy.
But competition with England and France transcended the domains of the purely political or economic. Cultural issues were never far behind. For example, in England and France it had become a matter of national pride among philosophers, scientists, and playwrights to publish or produce in the national vernacular. It was therefore notable when, in 1729 at the University of Glasgow, Hutcheson became the first to give a lecture in English rather than Latin.
A transformed political culture, the search for economic prosperity through modernization in the context of international competition, and the emergence of a dynamic civil society—these are some of the key factors that account for the national, cultural, and class coherence that characterizes a significant number of the group of thinkers and theorists we call the Scottish moralists.
In its technical details, it is obvious that Scottish moral philosophy could not have been possible without Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, and Newton. The works of these men transformed not just what scientists studied but also, more importantly, the method of inquiry itself. The development of fact-based methods of scientific research—as opposed to idealistic speculative rationalism—directly paved the way for a new kind of philosophy: empiricism. As scholastic speculation and discourse became supplanted by physical observation, measurement, and mechanical experimentation, philosophers like Hume responded by developing a skeptical approach toward traditional metaphysical problems. Hume’s self-described “new” philosophy aimed to be grounded in, and reconciled with, the Newtonian and other mechanical and materialistic disciplines. For Hume, skepticism about the existence of the soul, causality, and the possibility of miracles were some of the natural results of his effort—to quote the subtitle of his Treatise of Human Nature —to “introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.”
One of the consequences of empiricist epistemology was antifoundationalism, not just in regard to interpretations of religious beliefs (like the belief in miracles), but also in the conceptions of popular morality and social ethics. Utilitarianism, inspired both by the empirical sciences and the new political sciences of writers like Hobbes, became a widely accepted perspective. Hutcheson was the first to use this term to mean “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” though he did so in response to Hobbes and Hume. Hobbes claimed that individuals acted, however indirectly, only out of self-interest and never altruistically. Hume’s own methodological and substantive skepticism led him to draw the conclusion that the foundations of both individual and social morality were merely customary and conventional: Neither religion nor metaphysics can guarantee that our ideas of the proper and improper, right and wrong, good and bad, or beautiful and ugly are transcendentally grounded.
Empiricism and utilitarianism combined to produce the doctrine that individuals merely act out of self-interest and to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The doctrine in turn made it possible to say that neither religion nor morality nor aesthetics required, for their explanations, theological or metaphysical foundations. Hutcheson, for example, argued that individuals naturally value society and therefore naturally work cooperatively to achieve it, simply because of their naturally based capacity for feeling or sympathy. It is sympathy that leads otherwise unrelated and self-interested individuals to think and act benevolently toward one another. The task of culture and civilization was merely to promote this fellow-feeling, so that in society persons not only compete but also cooperate for the common good. It is ultimately fellow-feeling and a sense of mutual belonging that leads to well-ordered civil society, national peace, and commercial prosperity. One of the obvious consequences of Hutcheson’s social and political philosophy is that being virtuous (e.g., doing what is proper, right, or good), because untethered from earlier theological and metaphysical moorings, amounts to a commitment in personal thought and action to increasing the “degrees of happiness” both for oneself and for all.
Empiricist and utilitarian theories also took hold in the sphere of economic thought. Adam Smith not only accepted the idea that individuals acted out of self-interest but also promoted this self-interest both as a particular kind of natural psychology and as a form of social rationality. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), a book considered the founding text of modern economics, Smith translated the original insights of utilitarian ethics into the argument that what is economically selfishly good for the individual is also generally good for the welfare of society. Smith notes: “As every individual … endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual value of society as great as he can” (IV, 2.9).
In his famous phrase, the “invisible hand,” Smith captured what he thought was going on in any prosperous economy. Dynamic and free commercial relations occur, in nearly mysterious ways, as a result of equilibrium between supply and demand. This equilibrium occurs not because individuals are acting selflessly, nor is it a result of heavy-handed government regulation or of business cartels and monopoly. Rather, market equilibrium is simply an empirical fact based on the psychology of the individual. The self-interested actor “neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it” (IV.2.9). Thus it is the mere effort to look out for one’s own economic interests (“he intends only his own security … he intends only his own gain”) that makes the actor automatically “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention” (IV.2.9). In even more colorful language, Smith anticipates objections to his observations by pointing out that it is “not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (IV.7.26).
Moreover, Smith believed that a society is worse off in a government-regulated economy. Market forces alone appear to successfully ensure that an individual, “by pursuing his own interest … frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it” (IV.2.9). Smith was, accordingly, entirely skeptical about any hope that “much good [can be] done by those who affected to trade for the public good” (IV.2.9). This position provides the reasoning behind the laissez-faire doctrine in classical economics, a doctrine whose origin is rightly attributed to Smith.
What stands out the most in the above-mentioned moral, social, and economic theories is confidence in the autonomy both of the individual and of society. This confidence translates into the belief that a society and its culture—its history—can be consciously made and remade. It inspired the moralist intellectuals to propose progressive theories of history. In their writings, the word development acquired an explicitly historical character. Against the feudal worldviews shaped predominantly by traditional attachments to class and land, in which social hierarchies were justified by religion and theology, the moralists proposed a conception of history as a domain controlled by autonomous individuals and their collective quest for rational self-determination. In addition to Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Lord Kames’s Essays on Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1751), John Millar’s Observations Concerning the Distinction of Ranks in Society (1771), Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), and William Robertson’s The History of Scotland (1794) were each in the forefront of developing the argument that rather than being fated by God or Nature to follow an inexorable path, any society, if based on the psychology of the individual, could be socially progressive and economically prosperous. The scientific study of society and history—in short, the rise as independent and empirical fields of research of such social sciences as psychology, economics, anthropology, sociology, legal history, and cultural theory—had its modern beginnings in many of the insights generated or expanded upon in the works of the Scottish moralists.
The moralists’ theory of history helps explain why it is not surprising to discover in some of their writings prejudice against cultures and societies perceived as “backward,” static, and nonprogressive. Their evolutionary view of society led them to try to determine the direction of universal progress and to position existing societies and cultures in hierarchical classificatory schemes, using what they supposed were empirical scales of measurement. Smith, for example, believed that societies and ultimately global history progressed through several stages, defined by economic and political activities: The series of stages begins with hunter-gatherers, then progresses through stages characterized by nomadic tribes, sedimentary farmers, feudal states, and mercantile societies, before culminating in industrial urbanization. The secret to industrialization, according to Smith, was division of labor, a method capable of producing the largest quantity of goods for the largest number of people by the most market-efficient methods.
Because of their evolutionary conception of societies, Scottish moralists were not disturbed by imperial expansion and colonial conquest. Imperialism and colonial conquest, in Ferguson’s view, for example, promoted commercial activities and transformed culturally and economically “primitive” nations into industrial or industrializing countries or trading partners. Indeed, because of its wide influence the work of the Scottish moralists cannot be decoupled from the contradictions that attended the development of modernity throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas: Even as the capitals and provinces of Europe and the Americas were championing the idea of historical progress and the “rights of man,” a great deal of the growth in the world’s local and international economies was based on slave trade and slave labor, imperialism, and colonialism.
The influence of the moralists on the transformation of Scottish society can easily be measured. On January 8, 1696, for example, a young man by the name of Thomas Aikenhead was executed for blasphemy. A university student, Aikenhead was successfully charged with “denigrating” the Bible. But public records of the proceeding suggest that Aikenhead was viewed to have committed something more offensive. Though he said he believed in the Holy Trinity, he also, by his own confession, believed that moral laws were “the work of governments and men” and had said to fellow students that theological arguments produced to show otherwise were “a rapsodie of feigned and ill-invented nonsense” (Hill N.D.). By 1755, however, Scotland itself had changed. This was the year David Hume was formally charged with an offense anyone might have considered far more grievous, namely, atheism. Moreover, like Aikenhead, Hume had published books arguing that morality was justified entirely by tradition and custom. Yet, the charges brought against him were dropped—for lack of cause.
Beyond Scotland, the moralists were at the cutting edge of the wider social and political movement known as the Enlightenment. In the decades 1740 to 1800 the Enlightenment movement both became a more universal phenomenon and took on local coloration not just in the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Paris, London, Berlin, and Philadelphia, but also in lesser-known centers of commerce and learning such as Bristol, Cartagena, La Fleche, Konigsberg, and Axum. In the same sixty-year period, three of the modern world’s most significant political transformations occurred: the American, the French, and the Haitian revolutions. The most direct connections between these revolutionary developments included the international evangelical and moral revivals represented by activist groups like the Society of Friends, popularly known as the Quakers. In London, influential Quakers formed The Meeting on Slave Trade and worked with Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in the cause of abolition of the slave trade. In the Americas, particularly Philadelphia, Quaker leaders of opinion like John Woolman and Anthony Benezet worked with atheists and believers alike—Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, among others—to found in 1775 and promote what became the first abolition society anywhere in the western world: the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. In Paris, revolutionary clerics like Abbé Grégoire formed complementary international abolitionist associations, including La Societé des amies des noirs, an organization which became influential as a source of moral and material support for the revolutionary black slave and ex-slave populations of the French colony of San Domingue, today’s Haiti. These international networks grew out of strong and deep grassroots moral awakening. For example, at its 1754 governing meeting in Germantown, Pennsylvania, Quaker representatives drafted and adopted a formal declaration that, in the language of the Enlightenment social movement, its members “shall never think of bereaving our fellow creatures of that valuable blessing, liberty, nor endure to grow rich by their bondage.” The document goes on to admonish the rest of the world that “to live in ease and plenty by the toil of those whom violence and cruelty have put in our power is neither consistent with Christianity nor common justice” (The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends 1754). The influential roles of the Quakers in the abolitionist movement and in the birth of modern world wide human rights campaigns have been chronicled by Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2006) and King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (2006).
In technical philosophic and scientific matters, the legacy of the Scottish moralists can be seen throughout the world in the subsequent development of philosophy and in the growth of the social sciences. The antifoundationalist tenor of their works provoked other thinkers to raise questions that had remained hidden. Immanuel Kant, for example, credits Hume’s skepticism for helping to awaken in him the questions he formulated and tried to answer in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781). The field of modern economics can hardly be said to exist prior to Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid’s Common Sense conception of truth and objectivity is echoed in the works of the twentieth-century American psychologist William James and the sociologist George Mead. In fact, in contemporary psychology and medicine, there is a distinct subfield called symbolic interactionism, in which it is argued that it is only in society that the most valued human qualities— e.g., our conceptions of the self and of the individual—are generated. In twenty-first-century philosophy, under the name extended mind or external mind, one finds equivalent social-environmentalism in the conceptions of consciousness and moral agency. Some of these newer research projects in this area draw on the strengths of moralist psychology and social theory while at the same time challenging their ethnocentric aspects.
Some aspects of twentieth-century existentialism also reflect prior developments in “moralist” conceptions of freedom and of history. For example, environmentalism notwithstanding, moralist ego psychology makes it possible to believe that though nature and society may predispose an individual to certain actions, it is only weakness of will or, in the case of illness, natural impairment that robs the individual of control over their decisions, or over the actions based on those decisions.
Finally, social theory from Nietzsche to Marx— specifically, moral psychology and political economy— benefited from the insights of the Scottish moralists. For both Nietzsche and Marx, hypocrisy and lack of transparency in moral and economic relations are “mystifications” that mask the realities of class values and class relations, which are erroneously conceived as products of nature rather than what they truly are: consequences of histories of taste and of social dynamics between individuals and groups within or across national boundaries.
SEE ALSO Atheism; Civil Society; Economics; Enlightenment; Hume, David; James, William; Liberalism; Marx, Karl; Mead, George Herbert; Mill, James; Morality; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Philosophy; Philosophy, Moral; Religion; Smith, Adam; Social Science
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"Scottish Moralists." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/scottish-moralists
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