Scottish Moral Enlightenment Thinkers

Today we look at a course present by The Modern Scholar – The Enlightenment, Reason, Tolerance, and Humanity – by Professor James Schmidt.


Professor James Schmidt


Prof James specializes in the history of European political and social thought from the eighteenth century to the present.

This course taught by Prof James Schmidt and the subject matter is on one of the most controversial periods in history. The Enlightenment caused Revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics; these revolutions swept away the medieval world-view and ushered in our modern western world.

On lecture 11 of this course called “The Scottish Enlightenment and the Origins of Social Theory”.

We move away from the French enlightenment and concentrate on the Scottish Enlightenment. Here we look at the development of Moral theory and thought. Two famous Scots were mentioned in this lecture David Hume and Adam Smith, but this lecture concentrates more on Adam Smith’s theories and contributions to Moral philosophy.



David Hume

There seems to be a tradition in this period in Scotland that many Scottish thinkers concentrated on Moral philosophy.

Other names are mentioned in this lecture for instance Bernard Mandeville and his idea that to introduce morality into society does not work and that vices are almost good in themselves.



Bernard Mandeville

Mandeville wrote a 2 volume book “The fable of the bees”. The poem is talked about in more detail.

Prof James looks into What is the message of Mandeville’s the poem?

It seems that it is Vices that make society, the government should not try to make citizens moral.

However there were criticisms of this poem by other great Scottish thinkers. One of them was Francis hutcheson

This lecture even stated that someone even claimed mandeville was more like “man devil” (laugh)

Anyway, Prof James looks into Francis criticism of Mandeville Moral theory and poem



Francis Hutcheson

Francis Critical of mandeville’s account of human nature. He feels that Bernard contradicts societies role. He feels that the bees are egoist bees. The bees Seems clever, but they are overly rationalistic. As humans are sociable beings, our actions are driven by social virtues. We are naturally benevolent human creatures. Our sociability unites us, although our rationality may make us individual at times.

Francis Second criticism is that he feels that mandeville is traditionalist, calling something a virtue as promoting the public good. He just relies on too much a traditional idea.

The lecture looks at how Francis now begins to counter act this moral theory and how he starts teaching moral philosophy. He is the founder of Scottish moral philosophy. Then the course moves on to David Hume is linked to this school. It talks about The classic book “The treaty of human nature”, which did not do so well at the time.

Adam smith, political economist and the author of “The wealth of nations”, however he did write a moral philosophic book, which is mentioned in some detail in this lecture.

The one thing that brings all these famous Scottish moral thinkers together is that the feel that socialising is the approach to moral questions and that they avoid religious sentiments. They share a faith through the sciences you can bring order to chaos in society. He mentions Newton is their inspiration. Their ideas are heavily scientific, but they share an awareness of the weakness of reason in order to unite society.

The lecture then examines David Hume’s famous quote

Reason is the slave of passions

Prof James Schmidt then talks about The theory of moral sentiments by Adam Smith. He examines how Adam tries to make sense on how we judge and make moral distinctions. Adam Smith’s book tries to look at the rules of how we reason. We seem to evaluate others then we move to evaluate ourselves. Here he mentions how Adam smith tries to explain our we relate to others experiences and how we share the emotions of other peoples experiences using moral judgements.

Adam smith


Adam Smith

We learn from others in order to judge and look at ourselves, however there is a limit. Sympathy can only go so far for each of us.

The lecture then looks at how one sympathies about an of earthquake happening in China, which killed thousands

How a European man would feel a bit sorrowful and discusses how such an earthquake would effect Europe, however what would happen if this man would loose his finger? Then his emotions and sorrowfulness would increase 10 fold.

Still amazingly Adam Smith finds this behaviour natural in humans.

Our passions seem to allow us to be impartial, but why? The impartial spectator. The man within, what does society give us? We look at ourselves from another prospective.

Adam feels that It is from society that we gain our conscience, we avoid the original sin, our moral sentiments is strengthened from society.

Other peoples self interest can in some way help preserve us, but not in the language of benevolence. Adam smith begins to look at other things which binds society together, he now begins to look at how wealth and economy can play in society. The idea of “The invisible hand”. How the market can function unimpeded without too much interference from the state.

James Schmidt looks into how Adam looks into the making of a pin and how productivity can be increased when parts of the work is divided, but creativity becomes lessened if they do thing again and again. The wealthy that command the respect and attention from society while the poor becomes less visible. Eventually the poor joins religious cults and this makes things even worse for the poor as they become even more distant from life.

James Schmidt talks Adam Ferguson and about the problem of liberty as if he feels society thinks liberty is given to them, rather than fought for.

With this lecture, you get the added bonus with a student asking the lecturer a question. In this lecture a student asks the following.

Question : was there attention between intellectual scientific discoveries and their religious feelings?

Yes, I know the question is a little long winded, but the answer provided by James Schmidt is almost as enlightening as the subject matter itself. This lecture runs for around 30 minutes and is very easy going. The Enlightenment is not an easy subject, but for philosophy and history. It is quite crucial to learn.