Jack Hillís Fulbright Year
Jack Hill’s quest to understand moral ethics has led him from the Rastafarians of Jamaica to storytellers of the South Pacific islands, but he returned to familial roots with a recent Fulbright-Scotland Visiting Professorship.
The professor of religion spent a recent academic year at the University of Aberdeen. He taught and wrote about the ethical premises of Scottish enlightenment thinker Adam Ferguson, who was the chair of moral philosophy at Aberdeen in the 18th century. Like Hill, Ferguson was interested in diverse groups of people.
Ferguson, an enlightenment figure, was multicultural (for a Scotsman). He grew up in the rural and Gaelic-speaking Highlands before moving to the more proletariat circles in Edinburgh. He ruminated on more primitive civilizations, which in his time included most outside of Western Europe. He spent his career reconciling the ideas shaping Western thought with the worldviews of people whose societies possessed less well-defined political, legal and economic practices.
Hill’s interest in Ferguson stretches back 10 years to the establishment of the TCU-in-Scotland program, designed to expose students to the intellectual excitement of the enlightenment. Living in the country, digging through old church records and lecture notes, and retracing Ferguson’s steps, even standing over his bones, brought Hill’s life’s research closer to full circle.
“I definitely feel like Ferguson’s way of doing ethics and dialoguing between indigenous and [then] contemporary European folks is an opening for trying to think, ‘how do you integrate Rasta ethics and Irish Catholic ethics’?” Hill said.
There are more similarities between the two thinkers. Hill appreciates the parallels between the 18th century, which ushered in the Industrial Age, and today, when humanity is again “on the cusp of this new construction of experience” at the dawn of the era of digital technology and limitless information.
As Hill spent weekends meandering through well-preserved historical Scotland, visiting places such as the fortress of Logierait and Neidpath Castle, a sense of the 18th century took shape.
Ferguson was born in 1723, the same year and same country as economist and fellow philosopher Adam Smith, who is considered the founder of modern capitalism. Rapid changes arrived daily on Scotland’s shores in the form of goods shipped from around the globe.
“Imports, for example, in the port of Glasgow … increased a hundred-fold between 1740 and 1760,” Hill said.
While Smith designed a philosophy of maximizing specialized human potential to create overall wealth, Ferguson grappled with the moral consequences of such rapid economic development.
“The whole problem was how are we going to maintain any sense of virtue with this burgeoning wealth?” Hill said of Ferguson’s musings on ethics.
“(Ferguson) saw it as very dangerous to the civic fabric of society,” the professor said. “One of his big themes was trying to figure out some way to reinforce the bonds of community in the face of the onslaught of all this new wealth.”
Hill wrote a chapter about Ferguson’s “Discourse on Rude Nations,” which is being reviewed for inclusion in the series of essays, Studies in Eighteenth Century Scotland (Bucknell University Press no date yet for upcoming pub). Ferguson had a keen interest in civilizations whose relationships with property were not as established as they were in the emerging capitalist enclaves of Europe, or the so-called “rude nations.”
The “rude” nations, Ferguson argued, were moral ones. Though humanity was never entirely peaceful, and different stations in life always existed, the people who owned less stuff found common bonds in their clans and villages and perhaps discovered the intrinsic value in operating as a community.
“Many of these references (to non-Western peoples) were used as way to critique contemporary developments in the Europe of [Ferguson’s] day,” Hill explained.
Ferguson identified with the common workers, fretted that perhaps industrial manufacturing would rob them of the creativity inherent in the human experience. Probably for this reason, Karl Marx referenced the Scotsman in his classic critique of capitalism, Das Kapital, to point out perceived flaws in the socioeconomic system, notably in its division of labor.
Ferguson, like Marx, believed that human motivation was more complex than gaining wealth or personal advantage, and both agreed that material growth did not necessarily have a corresponding increase in ethical behavior.
Ferguson, however, found economic progress to be a far more intricate issue than Marx did. He did not envision Marx’s final uprising of the worker. He saw mankind as fundamentally ambitious and driven to evolve. Further, Ferguson did not advocate for an egalitarian operation of society, instead accepting that certain hierarchies were natural and that inventors of tools provided more value than those who used them.
In examining Ferguson’s works, Hill found himself relating more and more to the Western foundations of ethics: perseverance, ambition, frugality, self control and personal responsibility. Neoconservative economists such as F.A. Hayek, on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from communist-leaning Marx, cite Ferguson as well to support their economic principles.
Ferguson’s appeal to such an assortment of economists and philosophers in the intervening centuries is one reason Hill wanted to delve into his mind. Building bridges between opposing ideologies could be crucial to reuniting an increasingly divided 21st-century world, the professor said.
Hill plans to write a book about the comprehensive, interdisciplinary nature of Ferguson’s ethical worldview. Lexington Books has accepted his manuscript proposal.
The professor finds present-day meaning in Ferguson’s grappling with the “confrontation with other worlds” – both geographic and philosophical. The disparities in today’s value systems can be overcome, Hill said. “But we have to somehow widen our capacity for hearing, understanding difference and engaging it in a way that makes us larger, rather than smaller.”
— Caroline Collier