Adam Ferguson on Love, Self-Interest, and Pleasure

Adam Ferguson

Found in An Essay on the History of Civil Society

In Part 1, Sect. 2, of An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Adam Ferguson reflects on how love leads us to a sort of satisfaction which goes beyond what mere self-interested pleasures can give us:

Love is an affection which carries the attention of the mind beyond itself, and is the sense of a relation to some fellow-creature as to its object. Being a complacency and a continued satisfaction in this object, it has, independent of any external event, and in the midst of disappointment and sorrow, pleasures and triumphs unknown to those who are guided by mere considerations of interest.

The tension between higher aspirations and self-interested pursuits—and indeed the role the moral sentiments (like love) play in resolving this tension—is a common theme in Ferguson’s Essay and much of the British moral sentimentalist tradition (e.g., Adam Smith and David Hume).

Here, we might read Ferguson against a nearby contemporary, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who infamously argued that there was no difference between higher and lower pleasures. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) sums up Jeremy Bentham’s infamous position by the oft-remembered quip that, for Bentham, Push-pin (an old English children’s game) is as good as poetry.

Ferguson seems to fall squarely in-line with Mill insofar as he claims that love “carries the attention of the mind beyond itself,” which leads to a kind of pleasure qualitatively higher than pleasures derived from self-interest.