Humanist time for reflection at Scottish Parliament

March 20, 2018

On 20th March, Jonathon Ainslie, Humanist Society Scotland member and volunteer with our school visiting network delivered Time for Reflection at the Scottish Parliament, becoming the 9th humanist to do so.

You can watch Jonathon’s address in the video, or alternatively the text is available below.

Presiding Officer, Members of the Scottish Parliament, thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

On my way to parliament this morning, I walked past the Canongate Kirkyard, where Adam Smith lies buried. Just around the corner is the newly refurbished Panmure House, where Smith lived at the end of his life.

In his lifetime Smith witnessed industrial change, urban growth and the explosion of travel across borders. Like many Enlightenment writers, his work often concerned how to live a good life in a changing world.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote that morality draws upon our nature as sociable beings: “how selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

The key to the good life, for Smith, was “sympathy”: what today we would call empathy. He praised our ability to place ourselves in the situation of another man, “conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, entering as it were into his body, becom[ing] in some measure the same person with him”.

The great challenge for sympathy was the remoteness of so much of the world’s suffering. “If [a man] were to lose his little finger to-morrow”, Smith wrote, “he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren”. The question is therefore how to extend our moral circle to those unknown to us.

Smith’s answer came in two parts. The first was conscience: the truly virtuous person is an impartial spectator of their own conduct as well as the conduct of others. The second was justice: we formulate rules of conduct that every member of society agrees to abide by, even if they disagree.

Individual conscience and the justice of society reinforce each other; one cannot survive without the other. Together they allow us to extend our sympathies to people we have never met, perhaps even people we have been taught to fear.

Today once again live in a changing world. But Scots today are the lucky heirs, not only of Smith, but of all the men and women whose thought contributed to the Enlightenment and can still guide us today.

Thank you.

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