Human Dignity


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Moral philosophy has been part of Western thought since Aristotle. The Scottish philosophers made an important update to the moral philosophy heritage in the courses that they taught. Francis Hutcheson  (1694-1746) taught moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1730 to 1746. Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) taught moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from 1764 to 1785. In a sense, these courses taught how to live in a civil society.

Moral philosophy courses begin with an analysis of human nature. Adam Ferguson highlights the uniqueness of the human species: "There is a principle, in respect to which man differs from the other animals, not only in measure or degree, but totally, and in kind. This principle we term his intelligence or mind, intimately conscious of itself, as it exists in thought, discernment, and will.[2] This ability of self-consciousness allows an individual to take charge of his or her life, and to be responsible for its direction and improvement: "Man is endowed with a power of discerning what is amiss or defective in the actual state of his own inclinations of faculties [and] to apprehend a perfection far beyond his actual attainments."[3]

University of Edinburgh  Photo Source: © Wikipedia, Author: Kim Traynor

A natural consequence of this ability is a fundamental right to make individual life choices, as Hutcheson points out, a human being has "a natural right to exert his power, according to his own judgement and inclination, for these purposes, in all such industry, labor, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods."[4]

Human Rights

The Scottish moral philosophers saw human society and institutions as essential and natural elements of the human species, and an important element of its happiness, as stated by Ferguson: "Men are disposed to society. They not only associate together, but take part with their fellow-creatures, and consider general calamities as matters of regret, general welfare as matter of joy."[5]

But for a society to function, there are some fundamental rights that need to be respected for each individual. We owe to Hutcheson one of the clearest early statements of the basic human 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... For the ultimate notion of right is that which tends to the universal good. [6]

Francis Hutcheson
Photo source:  Wikipedia
(public domain)


In the next page we will discuss some details of social  responsibility which involves the larger communities, but before that, let us consider in this historical context the more immediate groups or associations that are organized for specific purposes or interests. This is what is usually highlighted in modern discussions about civil society. Adam Ferguson is often credited [7] with initiating the flavor of this discussion:

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.[8]

Ferguson drew on many social thought traditions. In particular, he was influenced by French intellectual the Baron of Montesquieu (1689-1755) who, as we stated in the Introduction, looked to the organized action of noblemen as an intermediate power between the monarch and the people.[9] Ferguson also looks for balancing power in the process of associating: "The safety of every individual, and his political consequence, depends much on himself, but more on the party to which he is joined. For this reason, all who feel a common interest, are apt to unite in parties; and, as far as that interest requires, mutually support each other."[10]

Adam Ferguson
Photo source: Wikipedia
(public domain)

Montesquieu and Ferguson lived under monarchies, and they believed that constitutional monarchies with a strong participation of enlightened groups were the best hope for good governments. Ferguson lived to see the democratic experiment in the United States, but it was in its early stages, and thus unproven.

The Common Good

Since human beings need to live in society, they need to foster the good of society. This issue has long being a consideration as we saw in our Introduction, and it is usually termed the common good. Hutcheson expresses this idea as a fundamental duty, derived from the human  social nature: "We should always repute it as our business in the world, the end and purpose of our being, our duty to our kind, the natural use of the powers we enjoy... to contribute something to the general good, to the common fund of happiness to our species."[11] So in addition to the duties that a person has to take care of his or her own welfare, there is also a responsibility for individual actions to preserve or advance the common good. This will be the primary subject of the next page.

The Dignity of Work

One of the fundamental elements of human dignity is the appreciation of human work in the development of self respect and social awareness. Thus, any social system must give priority to facilitating that every capable individual be able to contribute to his or her personal needs and the needs of society through appropriate work, including educational and traning opportunties.

[1] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Enlightenment and the American College Ideal (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1971), 122-138.

[2] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792), Vol 1, 48.

[3] Ibid., 225.

[4] Francis Hutcheson, Essay .

[5] Adam Ferguson,  Institutes of Moral Philosophy, (Basil: James Decker: 1800), 67. 

[6] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, Vol.1, 257-258, 266.

[7] Michael Walzer, "Introduction" in Michael Walzer, ed., Toward a Global Civil Society (New York: Berghahn Books, 2002), 1.

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

[9] Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, Thomas Nugent, trans., (London, George Bells and Sons, 1897).

[10] Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 243.

[11] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, Vol. 2, 116.