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Social Organization

Political interest was a common element of Enlightenment thought throughout Europe. In Scotland, this interest was accentuated by the issues relating to the unification with England. Pufendorf and Locke had provided the basic principles, derived from Greek and scholastic thought. In their lecture notes, Francis Hutcheson and Adam Ferguson provide a positive presentation in order to encourage good citizenship in their students. David Hume writes for a more general audience, and he is more questioning. All of these authors view social and political organization as inherent in human nature, resulting from basic needs:

'Tis never for itself agreeable to any one to have his actions subject to the direction of others, or that they should have any power over his goods or his life. Men must have first observed some dangers or miseries attending a state of anarchy to be much greater, than any inconveniencies to be feared from submitting their affairs along with others to the direction of certain governors or councils concerned in the safety of all: and then they would begin to desire a political constitution for their own safety and advantage, as well as for the general good…[Hutcheson][1]

It appears from the history of mankind, that men have always acted in troops and companies; That they have apprehended a good of the community, as well as the individual; that they practice arts, each for his own preservation, they institute political forms, and unite their forces, for common safety.[Ferguson, 2]

Man, born in a family, is compelled to maintain society from necessity, from natural inclination, and from habit. The same creature, in his farther progress, is engaged to establish political society, in order to administer justice, without which there can be no peace among them, nor safety, nor mutual intercourse...In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest.[Hume, 3]

Political Institutions

Given the need for government, how should it be organized so as to best achieve its purposes? All of our thinkers acknowledge the ideal values of democracy or at least public participation, but in the end they favor the constitutional monarchy that they are familiar with, as Ferguson remarks:

The history of mankind has confirmed our conjecture in this matter: It has abundantly shown, in the instance of republican governments, that the attainments of knowledge, ability, and public virtue, are proportioned to the concern which numbers are permitted to take, in the affairs of the community; and to the exertion of ingenuity and public spirit, which they have occasion to make in national counsels, in offices of state, or public services of any sort.[4]

In the result of this natural or instinctive course of things, small states are inclined to democracy, because a great proportion of the people is easily and frequently assembled. In states of greater extent, the nobles, or select class of the people, lay hold of the government, because they have leisure to attend to it, and are easily convened. In societies of every description, as often as men have consulted and have occasion to act in a body, there is required some undivided authority, of which the first and simplest form is that which is conceived in the person of a king or a prince.[5]

The Functions of Government

Hutcheson outlines the responsibilities of government, which continue to be the primary political functions to this day:

1. That of directing the actions of the subjects for the common good by laws requiring and rewarding whatever is requisite for this end, and prohibiting the contrary by penalties; determining and limiting more precisely the several rights of men, appointing proper methods for transferring or conveying them, as the general interest may require, and even limiting their use of them for the same general purpose.

2. Another power of the same class is that of appointing in what manner and what proportion each one shall contribute toward the public expenses out of his private fortune by paying taxes, tribute, or customs, as the state of the people will admit.

3. The power of jurisdiction civil and criminal in deciding all controversies among subjects about their rights by applying the general laws to them, and executing the penalties of the laws upon such as are guilty of crimes which disturb the peace of the slate…

4- The powers to be exercised toward foreigners are these two; the first, that of making war for defense of the state, and for this purpose arming and training the subjects to military service, and appointing proper officers to conduct them. And the second, that of making treaties, whether such as fix the terms of peace after a war, or such as may procure allies and confederates to assist in it.

These powers must necessarily be committed to governors in every civil slate, and they hold them in that extent which the original constitution or the fundamental laws have appointed. [6]

Human Rights

Since citizens lose some of their independence in being subject to a government, they expect that in return, the state will respect and safeguard their fundamental social rights. Hutcheson calls these perfect rights, but he also discusses other important rights that are more in the nature of moral obligations, such as charity:

[Perfect rights] ...such as every innocent man has to his life; to a good name; to the integrity and soundness of his body; to the acquisitions of his honest industry; to act according to his own choice within the limits of the law of nature; this right we call natural liberty, of which liberty of conscience is not only an essential but an unalienable branch. Society cannot subsist unless these rights are sacred.[7]

Imperfect rights or claims are sometimes indeed of the greatest consequence to the happiness and ornament of society, and our obligations to maintain them, and to perform to others what they thus claim, may be very sacred: yet they are of such a nature that greater evils would ensue in society from making them matters of compulsion, than from leaving them free to each one's honour and conscience to comply with them or not... Yet the boundaries between perfect and imperfect rights are not always easily seen...[8]

Ferguson's treatment of human rights is more complex, but he offers some very incisive comments on the freedom of speech and communication:

The conversation of good men very often takes the form of debate or controversy; and it is indeed in this form they are most likely to receive from one another mutual instruction and improvement of thought. The freedom of conversation, therefore, whether relating to matters of public deliberation or private concern, is at once a symptom of just as well as vigorous government...[9]

Political Leadership

Turnbull and Hutcheson celebrate the value of political, leadership:

That model or constitution of society must be the best which best protects and encourages well-employed industry: And those to whom we owe good models of civil government, and all the political knowledge necessary to found and preserve well-regulated societies; or to teach us how to prevent and how to remedy the diseases to which they are incident, by laying open to us their causes, their symptoms, their prognostics, and their antidotes— Those are the great souls to whom mankind are under the highest obligations.—Those are the true heroes to whom eternal glory is due. Those truly great men having studied human nature and human affairs, knew human happiness must be the effect of human industry skilfully and benevolently employed, and how the spirit of such industry must be supported  and promoted; what causes tend to abate or corrupt it, and by what methods these ought to be removed or checked.[Turnbull, 10]

'Tis also natural to men to esteem and admire any singular abilities discerned in others; such as courage, wisdom, humanity, justice, public spirit. They naturally confide in persons possessed of such dispositions and love them. They are willing to commit their important interests to their direction, and have a zeal to promote them to honorable offices and powers of managing the common concerns of society.[Hutcheson, 11]

On Political Change

According to his idealism, Hutcheson provides a very positive exhortation about preserving political institutions:

A good man's heart will always be zealous for the interest of any innocent association for a public interest , in which, by the Divine Providence, he is engaged; and will look upon this situation of his fortunes as the voice of God directing him to that part of his fellows who should be more peculiarly the object of his affectionate concern. And he will always remember, that in any tolerable constitution, he and his fellow-subjects owe innumerable advantages to the civil policy, to the laws, and to the whole body; even all their civilized education, their safety, their continual protection from innumerable injuries, and almost all accommodations and pleasures of life. They ought therefore to study the preservation and improvement of this constitution, and the general interest of this body, of which Divine Providence has made them a part, and recommended it to their zeal by all the generous principles in their soul.[12]

Hume and Ferguson are less idealistic about the prospects for good government, and they are very concerned about abrupt political change. It must be remembered that Scotland had been involved in several independence wars, and that the Great Britain had experienced a major social revolution (1642–1651) and a number of succession struggles.

It is not with forms of government, as with other artificial contrivances, where an old engine may be rejected, if we can discover another more accurate and commodious, or where trials may safely be made, even though the success be doubtful. An established government has an infinite advantage, by that very circumstance, of its being established; the bulk of mankind being governed by authority, not reason, and never attributing authority to any thing that has not the recommendation of antiquity. To tamper, therefore, in this affair, or try experiments merely upon the credit of supposed argument and philosophy, can never be the part of a wise magistrate, who will bear a reverence to what carries the marks of age; and though he may attempt some improvements for the public good, yet will he adjust his innovations as much as possible to the ancient fabric, and preserve entire the chief pillars and supports of the constitution.[Hume, 13]

Where changes of circumstance are gradual, corresponding changes of government take place; but sudden innovations of any sort, precipitate men into situations in which they are not qualified to act... Mixed descriptions of men, led by the variety of circumstances in which they are placed, have exhibited a corresponding variety of governments. And the issue in every case has been such, that where we cannot materially change the character and circumstances of the people, it would be folly to attempt any radical change in the form of government. In speculation, we form general views and look into distant consequences; but the first maxim of sound speculation is, where matters go tolerably well, to beware of change… A well informed understanding, in the worst situations, may secure some happy effects, though far short of the ideal perfection which the speculative are apt to look for in the affairs of men… [Ferguson, 14]

Civil Society

One of Ferguson's most celebrated contributions has been his development of the concept of a "civil society":

Prior to any political institution whatever, men are qualified by a great diversity of talents, by a different tone of the soul, and ardour of the passions, to act a variety of parts. Bring them together, each will find his place... and numbers are by this means fitted to act in company, and to preserve their communities, before any formal distribution of office is made... All who feel a common interest, are apt to unite in parties; and, as far as the interest requires, mutually support each other.[15]

Acknowledging Ferguson's foundational contribution, political scientist Michael Walzer has popularized the term in modern political discussions, defined as “the space of uncoerced human association and also the set of relational networks - formed for the sake of family, faith, interest, and ideology - that fill this space... The picture here is of people freely associating and communicating with one another, forming and reforming groups of all sorts.”[16]

These "intermediate" groups and organizations, which include churches, professional and civic associations, and labor unions, strengthen society and help protect against an excessive reliance on government.

[1] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: A Foulis, 1755), Vol. 2,  212-213.

[2] Adam Ferguson, Institutes of Moral Philosophy (Basil: James Decker: 1800), 197.

[3] David Hume, "Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary" [1742] in the Philosophical Works of David Hume, Vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Adam Black, Wiiliam Tait, and Charles Tait, 1826), 37-40.

[4] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792),Vol. I, 266.

[5] Ibid., 259.

[6] Francis Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: Robert and Andrew Foulis, 1753),

[7] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy Vol. 2, 257-258.

[8] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy Vol. 2,  213.

[9] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science, Vol. 1, 510-511.

[10] George Turnbull, Observations Upon Liberal Education (London: A. Millar, 1742), 191.

[11] Francis Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, 114.

[12] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy Vol. 2, 376.

[13] David Hume, "Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary," 561-562.

[14] Adam Ferguson, Institutes of Moral Philosophy, 224, 238-239.

[15] Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Dublin: Boulter Grierson, 1767), 93, 243.

[16]  Michael Walzer, “The Concept of Civil Society,” in Michael Walzer, ed., in Toward a Global Civil Society (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002), 7.