The moral sense and the evolution of advertising, self-love

by Rob Horning

16 January 2007


More of what precisely no one has been clamoring for: amateur analysis of 18th century moral philosophy. Prompted by the sudden popularity of Adam Smith’s brand of morals (and the argument that it provides an ethical foundation for self-interested capitalism), I read An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, by Smith’s friend and fellow Scot, David Hume. This volume, a reworking of a portion from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, appeared in 1751, a dozen years before Smith’s own work of moral philosophy, and Smith was almost certainly influenced by it. In the Enquiry, Hume is anxious to do two things: (1) refute the Hobbesan argument than men are motivated entirely by self-love and all behavior can be reduced to selfishness of some sort, and (2) rescue moral behavior from religiosity (which he regarded as a source of human strife and division) and metaphysical notions of the soul (i.e., we are good so we can avoid punishment in the afterlife), and found it in the inherent sociability of humankind. Though he is skeptical of the soul, Hume is no strict empiricist, as he is willing to posit an a priori moral sense akin to the one Hutcheson and Shaftesbury argued for. Hume was adamant that emotions and not reason guided our behavior, and that our untutored emotions were basically benevolent.

Though reason, when fully assisted and improved, be sufficient to instruct us in the pernicious or useful tendency of qualities and actions; it is not alone sufficient to produce any moral blame or approbation. Utility is only a tendency to a certain end; and were the end totally indifferent to us, we should feel the same indifference towards the means. It is requisite a sentiment should here display itself, in order to give a preference to the useful above the pernicious tendencies. This sentiment can be no other than a feeling for the happiness of mankind, and a resentment of their misery; since these are the different ends which virtue and vice have a tendency to promote. Here, therefore, reason instructs us in the several tendencies of actions, and humanity makes a distinction in favour of those which are useful and beneficial.

He then rejects separating reason from emotion, and proclaims emotion to be the source of all morality: “The hypothesis which we embrace is plain. It maintains, that morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary. We then proceed to examine a plain matter of fact, to wit, what actions have this influence: We consider all the circumstances, in which these actions agree: And thence endeavour to extract some general observations with regard to these sentiments.” Reason enters this picture later, to rationalize the judgments emotion has already delivered. This sentiment has the bonus of being unmotivated by self-interest and is thus free of the taint of calculation: “Now as virtue is an end, and is desirable on its own account, without fee or reward, merely, for the immediate satisfaction which it conveys; it is requisite that there should be some sentiment, which it touches; some internal taste or feeling, or whatever you please to call it, which distinguishes moral good and evil, and which embraces the one and rejects the other.” He presupposes that virtue must be its own reward, and reasons backward from that to come up with a moral sense that transmits its findings to our consciousness without being distorted by our immediate interests; this allows our instinctual concern for a happy society to override our immediate selfish interests in personal pleasure.

For Hume, “sentiment” and “humanity” are basically synonyms, and both refer to that moral sense that makes us feel something about observed behavior, and our own behavior, as though we were observing it from without (which becomes the basis of Smith’s program). Because sentiment is so central to our humanity, those who can sharpen our sentiments—poets and the like—become crucial to social life. Here’s how Hume puts it:

Virtue, placed at such a distance, is like a fixed star, which, though to the eye of reason, it may appear as luminous as the sun in his meridian, is so infinitely removed, as to affect the senses, neither with light nor heat. Bring this virtue nearer, by our acquaintance or connexion with the persons, or even by an eloquent recital of the case; our hearts are immediately caught, our sympathy enlivened, and our cool approbation converted into the warmest sentiments of friendship and regard. These seem necessary and infallible consequences of the general principles of human nature, as discovered in common life and practice.

This is all well and good—a classic restatement of the humanist position that art is good for us and can illustrate morality. But I wonder whether this notion, were it widely distributed, would make us collectively susceptible to stimulation and excitation for its own sake, i.e. the blandishments that the contemporary entertainment industry provides (this was one pillar of reasoning behind my aborted dissertation). If anything that exercises our emotions and provokes a sentimental reaction makes our moral sense stronger, then the most sensationalistic materials are justified and should be preferred. Anti-intellectual culture is okay then as long as it moves us. Also, advertisements that manipulate our emotions are performing a good service for us as they persuade. Thus, we might accept that retail-friendly notion that it’s pleasant to be persuaded (the way P.T. Barnum assumed his customers enjoyed being tricked and duped) and antisocial to resist the emotional manipulation, vicarious indulgence, and fantasy mongering advertisements inspire. (Notably, Adam Smith seems to correct for this, conjuring the notion of an impartial observer whose judgments we should imagine when evaluating our own moral behavior. The vicariousness remains but is subtly shifted to something more panoptic and less pleasurable.) Anything with strong emotional content is good,for its own sake, regardless what other ends it may be trying to serve. Hume might have believed that nothing morally reprehensible could inspire positive feelings in us, but he wasn’t subjected to modern media’s power and reach, and the incentives that media provides to subverting our emotional reactions.

In his efforts to separate morals from self-interest, Hume rejects what he deems a false slander on the power of imagination, that it can mask from us the true selfishness that motivates our interests in others. (Hume would have no patience for Gary Becker-like arguments about human capital or the irreducible rational self-interest behind all behavior—for Hume, behavior is emotional and reactive first, then explained later.)

An EPICUREAN or a HOBBIST readily allows, that there is such a thing as friendship in the world, without hypocrisy or disguise; though he may attempt, by a philosophical chymistry, to resolve the elements of this passion, if I may so speak, into those of another, and explain every affection to be self-love, twisted and moulded, by a particular turn of imagination, into a variety of appearances. But as the same turn of imagination prevails not in every man, nor gives the same direction to the original passion; this is sufficient, even according to the selfish system, to make the widest difference in human characters, and denominate one man virtuous and humane, another vicious and meanly interested. I esteem the man, whose self-love, by whatever means, is so directed as to give him a concern for others, and render him serviceable to society: As I hate or despise him, who has no regard to any thing beyond his own gratifications and enjoyments. In vain would you suggest, that these characters, though seemingly opposite, are, at bottom, the same, and that a very inconsiderable turn of thought forms the whole difference between them.

Here Hume seems to suggest that character (“a turn of the imagination”) is inborn and immutable, which corresponds to the quasi-Calvinist notion, ironically enough, of some people simply being born with a maladjusted moral sense, of not being among elect. Hume refers to common sense to dismiss the sophistic idea that virtue is really selfish in deep disguise. But he relies on a fairly subtle argument of his own to ultimately reject self-interest as the source of all (the Archimedian point, the transcendental signifier, etc.):

there are mental passions, by which we are impelled immediately to seek particular objects, such as fame, or power, or vengeance, without any regard to interest; and when these objects are attained, a pleasing enjoyment ensues, as the consequence of our indulged affections. Nature must, by the internal frame and constitution of the mind, give an original propensity to fame, ere we can reap any pleasure from that acquisition, or pursue it from motives of self-love, and a desire of happiness. If I have no vanity, I take no delight in praise: If I be void of ambition, power gives me no enjoyment: If I be not angry, the punishment of an adversary is totally indifferent to me. In all these cases, there is a passion, which points immediately to the object, and constitutes it our good or happiness; as there are other secondary passions, which afterwards arise, and pursue it as a part of our happiness, when once it is constituted such by our original affections. Were there no appetite of any kind antecedent to self-love, that propensity could scarcely ever exert itself; because we should, in that case, have felt few and slender pains or pleasures, and have little misery or happiness to avoid or to pursue.

This is like proto-deconstruction: any self-interested motive needs to refer back to some previous source of enjoyment to have any meaning; there needs to be a self first to motivate self-interest, so self-interest can’t be at the root of things. There needs to be inborn motives toward fame, reputation, pleasure, etc., that precede self-interest and motivate us to construct the rest of the preferences that build up our character and our motivations. Then Hume suggests benevolence is one of these human inclinations that precede the formation of a self. We have to be able to love before we can be consumed with self-love, and if HUme is right, than we love others first and thereby learn how to love ourselves.

Brad DeLong links to this article by V.S. Ramachandran offering a neurological basis for our conceiving of others before developing a sense of self:

It is often tacitly assumed that the uniquely human ability to construct a “theory of other minds” or “TOM” (seeing the world from the others point of view; “mind reading”, figuring out what someone is up to, etc.) must come after an already pre-existing sense of self. I am arguing that the exact opposite is true; the TOM evolved first in response to social needs and then later, as an unexpected bonus, came the ability to introspect on your own thoughts and intentions.

Ramachandran’s explanation for this is, needless to say, complicated, involving analysis of different kinds of neurons and their functions, but it leads him to conclude “that two seemingly contradictory aspects of self — its the individuation and intense privacy vs. its social reciprocity — may complement each other and arise from the same neural mechanism, mirror neurons.” Pushing this further, reciprocity enables self-interest, and then selfishness. We need others to teach us how to love ourselves too much.

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