Saturday, November 7, 2009

Adam Smith - The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Back in my grad school days at Notre Dame I took a course called Modern European Intellectual History. It was a small class, only 5 of us, and met on Friday afternoons. Each week our professor would assign each of us a reading centered around a theme. The next week we would have to present our reading and hand out a short precis of it to the other members of the class. The professor would tie them all together. It was one of the best classes I have ever taken. It started at 2pm and sometimes we didn't get out of there until 6pm, but I always felt jazzed afterwards. This is the first precis that I did.

Adam Smith - (1723-1790). Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Entered the University of Glasgow in 1737 (attended Francis Hutcheson’s lectures). Entered Balliol College, Oxford in 1740 as a Snell exhibitioner, stayed for 7 years. In 1748 moved to Edinburgh and became the friend of Hume and Lord Kames. Elected professor of logic at the University of Glasgow in 1751, exchanged logic for the professorship in moral philosophy the next year, an appointment he held for 10 years. Published Moral Sentiments (from his course of lectures) in 1759.

Sympathy - arises from our capacity to imagine ourselves in the situation of our fellows and form an idea of what they are going through by examining our own reactions to their situation, with the understanding that our emotions will not (in general) be as strong, since we are not actually in their situation. Smith believes that this fellow-feeling is something that we all desire, and that the fact that the spectator does not feel the emotions to the same degree as the participant or principal leads the principal to tone down their own emotional reaction, to be more in line with that of the spectator. This ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, as well as the need of mankind for the society of man, forms the basis of Smith’s moral philosophy.

Impartial Spectator - viewing ourselves not as we may appear to ourselves, but as we appear to others. Analogous to conscience. The standard of our conduct is held up against what is acceptable to society, with the understanding that society is composed of humans who have sympathy for each other. In evaluating the appropriateness of our own behavior, we should examine it in the light of the impartial spectator.

Virtue - born of the combination of the impartial spectator and the ability to feel sympathy for our fellows. The ability of the spectator to enter into the sentiments of the principal leads to the virtues of “candid condescension and indulgent humanity;” the ability of the principal to bring their emotions down to what the spectator can identify with leads to the virtues of self-denial, self-government, and the command of our passions.

Smith examines at some length three virtues:

Propriety - we judge the propriety or impropriety of the affections of other men by their concord or dissonance with our own. If we approve of the passions of another, we entirely sympathize with them, and if we don’t approve of them, we don’t entirely sympathize with them.

Prudence - concerned with the care of the health, fortune, rank, reputation of the individual, those objects upon which the comfort and happiness of this life are supposed to depend. This involves a certain amount of care and foresight - hence prudence.

Benevolence - the willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the greater good or public interest. Associated with the wisdom of the Deity.

These virtues, which arise out of sympathy and through the notion of the impartial spectator should, if practiced, lead to a just society, and Smith’s concept of justice.

Justice - the concept of the impartial spectator and the desire for the approval of our fellows leads us to behave in a just manner. Though we are, by nature, inclined to think of our own needs first and foremost, if we desire to live in the society of man, we must not act upon that inclination, where such actions would cause harm to others.

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