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Language: English / Gàidhlig

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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 20, 2024


Time for Reflection

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

Good afternoon. The first item of business is time for reflection. Our time for reflection leader today is Professor Michael Brown, who has the chair in Irish, Scottish and enlightenment history at the University of Aberdeen.

Professor Michael Brown (University of Aberdeen)

Presiding Officer and members of the Scottish Parliament, thank you very much indeed for inviting me here today.

In times of controversy, we often look to our collective past with a nostalgic glow. Times were better and less polarised then, and challenges were met with profound wisdom. An age of enlightenment is seen as one of reason and civility.

The 18th century was a golden age of Scottish intellectual life—a high-water mark when David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson shaped political science, economics and sociology and inspired the literature of Robert Burns, James Macpherson and Susan Ferrier. Edinburgh—the Athens of the north—was the centrepiece, but the enlightenment reached into Glasgow and Aberdeen, and it influenced thinkers in Europe and America.

Yet the enlightenment was also an age of disagreement. Hume fell out with his guest Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lord Monboddo and Lord Kames conducted a long-term academic feud, and Dugald Stewart and John Robison argued over the French revolution. The so-called rude enlightenment could be personal and unpleasant.

However, the Scottish enlighteners did not simplify things. They rejected models of human psychology that said that people are motivated only by greed, power or status. They understood that human life is complicated, contradictory and confusing. Humans like security and freedom. They collaborate with some people and conflict with others. They can act selfishly, but they can also be remarkably altruistic.

The Scottish enlightenment proposed that we are better people when we engage with others. We are improved by listening and reflecting. We are our best selves when we test our ideas and attitudes in conversation. Virtue is found in the dialogue between people. It is a characteristic not of a person but of an encounter. Virtue is action.

It was Francis Hutcheson who first suggested that virtue involves pursuing

“the greatest good for the greatest number”.

That phrase, which was made famous by Jeremy Bentham, makes a claim on our moral imagination. Hutcheson sought not to circumscribe our moral calculus but to expand it by including what he termed “universal benevolence”—the good of all.

Such an approach to moral life—acknowledging that people have mixed motives, that we are improved by those with whom we disagree and that all of humanity has a claim to our attention—suggests a way past the polemical divisions of the enlighteners’ age and ours. In thinking of the Scottish enlightenment, we can set aside nostalgia for a golden age and learn to manage our own disputes, with all our faults, by collaborating in pursuit of a common flourishing.