Theory of Moral Sentiments

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About the Author:
Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1723, Adam Smith delivered a series of public lectures in Edinburgh beginning in 1748. The success of these lectures led ultimately to Smith's election to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1752, where he distinguished himself as a teacher. Every morning of the term, Smith lectured his high-school-age audience in natural theology, ethics, and jurisprudence. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a re-working of the ethics segment of his yearly cycle of lectures.
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Adam Smith is invoked today as the father of economic liberalism. Economic liberalism's doctrine maintains that the inherently selfish and competing interests of individuals can never be reconciled by an interfering government except through the free allocation of resources and rewards in the marketplace. By contrast, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith derives political order, social conformity, economic progress, and moral behavior from the network of sympathetic relationships binding individuals to one another. How is this apparent contradiction to be resolved? A full appreciation of Smith's political and economic ideas requires study of this important text in the canon of British moral philosophy. It offers a wide-ranging examination, embedded in the experience of everyday life and illustrated by historical examples, of the psychology of moral judgement. Drawing on the work of Frances Hutcheson and David Hume, Smith makes an original contribution to the empiricist tradition within ethics by elaborating notions of imaginative sympathy and the impartial spectator. In addition to the merit of its arguments, The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a fascinating window on eighteenth-century Scottish thought and society, and it invites the reader to reflect upon his or her own feelings and conduct towards others.

Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1723, Adam Smith was the only child of Margaret Douglas (his father died before his birth). He attended the University of Glasgow from 1738-1740 and studied under Frances Hutcheson. Smith spent the next six years at Balliol College, Oxford, where, though his teachers were idle, he himself busily read classical works andFrench literature. Upon returning home to Scotland, thanks to the patronage of Henry Homes (later Lord Kames), Smith delivered a series of public lectures in the city of Edinburgh beginning in 1748, the first on rhetoric, and then further talks on the history of philosophy and law. The success of these lectures led ultimately to Smith's election to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1752. There he distinguished himself as a teacher and administrator for the next twelve years. Every morning of the term, Smith lectured his high-school-age audience in natural theology, ethics, and jurisprudence. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a re-working of the ethics segment of his yearly cycle of lectures, first published in 1759.

Smith was the archetypal absentminded professor. One anecdote, of many, has him in his dressing-gown one Sunday morning, absorbed in thought in his mother's garden in Kirkcaldy and wandering fifteen miles to the town of Dunfermline to be awoken from his reverie only by the church bells calling the townspeople to service. In 1764 he resigned his academic post to become the tutor of the young Duke of Buccleuch on his grand tour. Residing in Toulouse, Geneva, and later Paris, Smith became acquainted with the writer Voltaire, had stimulating discussions with the economist Quesnay, and made the most of Parisian social life. Returning to Britain in 1766, he was occupied with the writing of The Wealth of Nations. After it finally appeared, to much acclaim, in 1776, he took up residence in Edinburgh, participating in the social and intellectual life of the city and accepting an appointment as Commissioner of Customs. Despite failing health, he made extensive changes to what was to be the sixth edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, some of the revisions in the final months of 1789 reflecting his apprehension of the gathering storm of the French Revolution. He died at the age of sixty-seven the following year.

The life and work of Adam Smith epitomize the Scottish Enlightenment, the remarkable literary, scientific and philosophical movement that vitalized the city of Edinburgh and the Scottish universities for much of the eighteenth century. In the dining rooms and convivial taverns of the city, gentry, merchants, and professionals rubbed shoulders, enjoying each other's company and acquiring polite knowledge. Smith himself belonged to many clubs - the Select Society, the Poker Club, the Oyster Club - whose members included the chemist Joseph Black, the medical researcher William Cullen, the philosopher David Hume, the geologist James Hutton, the sociologist Adam Ferguson, and the historian William Robertson. With his friends and fellow literati, he was animated by civic pride and public-spiritedness in the quest for scientific knowledge, economic development, and a system of morals and manners appropriate to a progressive commercial society. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the work of a "civic moralist" educating and exhorting but also reflecting the values of the middling ranks of that provincial city.

The moral ideal that underlies the work is the refinement of self-control and sentimental feeling. Although admiring of the Stoic goal of "secure tranquillity," moral perfection for Smith did not entail a cultivated indifference to pleasure and pain nor resignation in the face of the misfortunes of this world. Selfish feelings were to be moderated and corrected not eradicated. Instead of aiming for contemplative detachment, nature's prescription was for active engagement in the duties of family, friends, and country and the cultivation of a heightened sensibility to the feelings of others. Wisdom and virtue could never be achieved in solitary retreat, but only amidst the "bustle and business of the world" where justice was demanded, benevolence expected, and our own partiality made visible through the eyes of others.

Although individuals were most immediately and intensively excited by their own feelings, they were also naturally disposed to sympathize with the feelings of others. Smith used "sympathy" in the general sense of "fellow-feeling with any passion whatever." As commentators note, Smith did not mean by the term the sentiment of compassion, but an agreement or harmony of feeling. This natural correspondence of feeling involved more than the involuntarily inducement of emotion from one person to another, like the infectious merriment of partygoers. Sympathy, for Smith, was characterized by an "imaginary change of situation" whereby we put ourselves in someone else's shoes, attempting to understand their situation and replicate their emotional state.

Our moral convictions about what is right and wrong derived for Smith from this act of imaginative sympathy. The conduct of other people was evaluated by comparing their emotional response to a situation with our own imagined response. If their real and our imagined feelings coincided, it implied that their feelings and the actions that flowed from them were proportionate to the circumstances, and their conduct was judged to be proper or right. A parent's heartfelt grief at the death of a child, for example, would elicit direct sympathy and an approving judgement from other mourners at a funeral. Disapproval of the actions of an angry man beating his dog had its source in the disharmony between the sentiments of a sympathetic spectator and intemperate dog owner.

Sympathy held society together in a mesh of mutual emotional connections. Despite a spectator's best efforts, the imaginative change of situation could only imperfectly reproduce the complex contextual details and vivid emotions of another person. The emotional gap was narrowed, however, by the sufferer's cognizance of the inevitably weaker and reflected sympathy of the spectator. The person enraged, or in love, or in physical pain was naturally inclined to tone down, in the presence of others, the intensity of their original passion. At the same time the humane neighbor or colleague would endeavor to heighten their sensibilities. By these means shared sentiments were more closely harmonized. The scrutiny and adjustment of our own conduct followed a similar pattern. "We suppose ourselves spectators of our own behaviour," anticipating, in the mirror of society, how others will view and judge us. Society was "the great school of self-command" where we learned and internalized the approval and disapproval of others, installing within ourselves an inner judge. Smith's account of the formation of conscience thus anticipates some aspects of Freud's theory of the super-ego.

The device of the "impartial spectator" in Smith's theory secured some degree of objectivity in moral judgement. Given the problem of partiality and self-deceit, it was the approval or disapproval bestowed on human actions by an impartial spectator, the well-informed but disinterested standpoint of an imaginary observer, that served as the ultimate check and corrective to our behavior. The distance of that position from our own helped our exercise of self-control, for it brought into perspective the relative attraction of present and remote pleasures (TMS, IV.2.6). The impartial spectator represented a societal ideal, to which the inner court of conscience strived to conform. Were standards of moral judgement socially relative for Smith? In a section dealing with the influence of custom and fashion on moral sentiment, Smith noted different standards of propriety between savage and civilized societies. Though acknowledging that "[h]ardiness is the character most suitable to the circumstances of a savage; sensibility to those of one who lives in a very civilized society," nevertheless, he assumed there to be a "natural propriety of action" that was independent of particular perverted practices (e.g., infanticide) sanctioned by custom in some societies.

While locating the immediate perception of right and wrong in sympathetic feeling, Smith conceded to reason the task of formulating general rules of morality. Through induction our experience of approval or disapproval in particular situations was ordered into a system of general maxims to regulate our judgements and behavior. The virtuous man was he who had refined, by habitual reflection, his natural hunger for the approval of others into a steadfast desire not for mere approval (often lavished upon pretended qualities), but "a desire of being what ought to be approved of." Thus in the face of unmerited social blame or when praise was unfairly withheld, the man of virtue was sustained by his own self-approbation that conformed with the view of the impartial spectator. Self-love was thus overawed by a stronger force: "It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct."

An alternative explanation of moral approval that Smith gave attention to was that of utility. While he agreed with Hume that approval and positive utility often accompanied each other, he thought the agreeableness of useful actions to be distinct from and supplementary to our sympathetic moral approval of them. The beneficial consequences of an action added merit to its propriety. Smith did believe, however, that an aesthetic fascination with the efficient functioning of (rather than the end produced by) a useful device was an extremely important factor in people's motivation. Whether it be the mechanism of a pocket watch or the complex functioning of society itself, "it is the ingenious adjustment of those means to the end for which they were intended, that is the principal source of …admiration."

At some level, commercial societies were magnificent machines founded upon a great deception of nature. The admiration of the lower and middling ranks of society for the wealthy and the powerful had its source in the confusion of real contentment with the "numberless artificial and elegant contrivances" made to procure superior ease and pleasure. But mistaking real happiness with higher status and ingenious convenience had beneficial consequences for society as a whole. The distinction of ranks and the order of society rested upon deference for and emulation of the great and powerful. The ambition to better one's position "rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life." The wealthy, in their turn, seeking only the "gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires" consume, in the end, only what their stomachs can hold, but in putting thousands to work in the process they inadvertently "divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements."

Thus, as in The Wealth of Nations, beneficial outcomes are achieved, not by an appeal to the benevolence of individuals, but by the direction of the self-interested actions of individuals by an invisible hand. Although, according to his moral theory, wisdom and virtue were the attributes in a person most worthy of admiration, Smith was resigned to the fact that it was a corrupt and frivolous aristocracy that captivated the attentions of society. Given, however, that the "great mob of mankind" lacked a discerning eye, nature had wisely founded social order upon "the plain and palpable difference of birth and fortune, than upon the invisible and often uncertain difference of wisdom and virtue." Despite bad role models and mistaken expectations, ambition drove the other orders to work vigorously, to play fairly, and to live modestly. Thus, Smith was reassured that "[i]n the middling and inferior stations of life, the road to virtue and that to fortune. . .are, happily in most cases, very nearly the same."

It is reported that Smith "always considered his Theory of Moral Sentiments a much superior work to his Wealth of Nations." Be that as it may, Adam Smith the philosopher has been overshadowed by his close friend David Hume, and Smith's achievements in philosophy have been overshadowed by his contribution to economics. Up until the 1830s, The Theory of Moral Sentiments was re-published many times in English, as well as appearing in French and German translations. It was first admired by Smith's contemporaries, then engaged and criticized by professional philosophers as an account of moral judgement. Its popularity declined with shifting fashions in philosophical enquiry. A later preoccupation with Smith as a political economist generated much interest in The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a key to understanding his economic ideas. Most recently, intellectual historians of the eighteenth century, and of the Scottish Enlightenment in particular, have returned to the work. As a penetrating investigation, an astute apology and an exacting critique of the morals and manners of his own society, The Theory of Moral Sentiments remains an exemplary work of an important Enlightenment philosopher.

Pat Moloney is senior lecturer in Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Rutgers University, and his research in the history of ideas focuses on theories of colonization and the representation of non-European peoples in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
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    A volume for your "Cultural Literacy" bookshelf.

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