Adam Smith's moral philosophy

by Rob Horning

9 January 2007


There seems to be a movement afoot among conservative thinkers (okay, maybe it’s just P.J. O’Rourke and economic journalist David Warsh) to rehabilitate Adam Smith (as if this were necessary), protect him from various accusations of shallow and simplistic thinking about human behavior and present him as more than a mere tool for capitalist ideologues by directing attention at his earlier work, Francis Hutcheson. Since humans are endowed with innate moral sense, we can automatically detect right from wrong instinctually—thus humankind is basically benevolent, not the malevolent brutes of Hobbesean’s scheme. How do we know good? We feel it as a quasi-Platonic form of beauty: Beauty and virtue are inherently aligned, thus one can demonstrate one’s virtuousness by becoming a connoisseur of beautiful things. The man of feeling is essentially a connoisseur of beautiful sentiments—pity, sacrifice, charity, etc.—instrumentalized to demonstrate an inner worth that justifies either his social position or his right to social mobility. The moral sense also manifests in polite behavior, which is the public, social expression of the moral sense in action—this transforms the upper class habitus into an elaborate demonstration of inner nobility and the inherent refinement of the aristocratic inner character. The commoner’s lack of understanding of morals is not so much a lack of training as a lack of innate moral sense.

Since our instinctual emotions are benevolent, the stronger we feel them (and thus the more ostentatiously we display them) the more virtuous we are. From this point of view morality is a reaction rather than a process of judgment. There is no need for a method of moral reasoning; what’s needed instead is practice in responding immediately with one’s heart in the proper histrionic way to various highly emotional events—death, the suffering of the poor, the orphaned children, women in distress, abandoned women, etc. Society life thus became a systematic pursuit of occasions to exhibit one’s moral “sensibility” as it soon became known. Sensibility was similiar to the Renaissance notion of sprezzatura, an instinctual charisma and propriety, but was more passive, with more emphasis on finely wrought feelings in response to witnessed situations. Sensibility is a matter of spectatorship and reaction—which is what relates it to modern entertainment industry, which thrives of passive spectatorship and the delectation of contrived emotional experiences for their own sake.

Hence the development of the commercial novel: Novels capitalized on the fantasy of being able to find oneself in situations that called for strong and unrestrained expression on one’s emotions and offered many opportunities to demonstrate a “feeling heart” by vicariously identifying with the fictional character’s sufferings. Weeping over a book, for a time, served as proof of one’s goodness, was seen as a kind of emotional charitableness. Novels became testing devices—if your heart didn’t respond, your moral sense might just be weak and you might not be as moral as you hoped. Of course, the converse always happened—it was all too easy (and satisfying) to let the novel provoke sympathetic tears and prove your inner worth (a process which in turn provoked much mockery from skeptics—often dramatists, essayists and reviewers). Every aspiring novelist (and readers too) learned the grammar of emotional prose, the key words and scenarios which were to trigger feelings in the reader.

What permits this whole system was the magical property of sympathy, by which we automatically relate to another person’s feelings, feel them ourselves and act accordingly.  Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments ties into the story here, because it adopts the property of sympathy (defined as an instinctive, vicarious appreciation for the observed feelings of others—the natural and irresistible human ability to put oneself in another’s shoes) as its fundamental principle. This differs from the innate moral sense in that Smith sees sympathy as a product of reasoning your way into the feelings of others through a comparison with what you yourself would feel in the same situation. And what is good is a matter of consensus—intimations of what will become “spontaneous order.” Following Hutcheson, Smith’s innovation was to attempt to fuse the Hobbesan view of man’s innate selfishness with Shaftesbury’s view of human benevolence and yield enlightened self-interest. Because we can’t help but feel what others feel, it becomes part of our selfish interest to make them feel good—Smith even opens his work with the observation that despite what may be convenient to us, our own feelings are invariably mixed up with what we perceive of others’ feelings, so essentially we have an inescapable interest in the emotional lives of our fellow men.

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

This creates a kind of proto-panopticon scenario: Since how we all affect each other by the kind of feelings we display, it behooves us to imagine someone is always watching us, and to act with that cool impartial observer’s likely reactions in mind.

The process of continual comparison with others, along with the assumption of a constant observer who embodies our ideal (likely modeled on the sort of person society most praises—the privileged person with all the manners of polite society) provides a rationale for what will become, in Veblen’s terms, invidious comparison, where one measures one’s own prosperity against that of peers and yields perpetual dissatisfaction—the hedonic treadmill. We compare ourselves to those above us (or now, the lifestyle celebrated in ads and entertainment) and ceaselessly strive to catch up to it, but it keeps moving beyond us. In generalMoral Sentiments supplies a guide to the psychological framewrok necessary to sustain not just a capitalist society but a consumer society; it advocates conformism and a habit of spectatorship as premises of its moral system, and tries to rationalize selfishness as reasonability. It also promotes endless striving for the approval of others on the grounds of material comparisons (once emotions are reified) as the meaning of life. It’s not too hard to see the ways these ideas have mutated and survived in our own culture.

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