A Non-religious Grounding of Morals: Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment

  • Iain McLean


The weak church and the weak state had a double impact on the Scottish Enlightenment. They made it possible to exist at all. A generation before Hutcheson and Hume the threat of heresy or blasphemy trials had been very real. In 1693 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which was entitled to pass binding law on its own account, had enacted ‘An Act against the atheistical Opinions of the Deists’. Under this Act, the Scottish Privy Council searched bookshops for pamphlets containing deist or atheistical opinions. Their agents found pamphlets by an unfortunate student called Thomas Aikenhead,1 who was convicted and hanged for blasphemy in 1697 (Broadie 2003, pp. 14, 34; Herman 2003 pp. 2–7). But the collapse of church and state power and intellectual authority that made the Enlightenment possible also forced its thinkers to develop alternative accounts of morals. Smith’s version, in TMS, owed a great deal to his teacher Hutcheson, although Smith’s moral theory is not the same as either Hutcheson’s or Hume’s.


Invisible Hand Sixth Edition Moral Sentiment Christian Theology Impartial Spectator 
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© Iain McLean 2006

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  • Iain McLean

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