The Theory of Moral Sentiments

When I first started The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I was incredibly skeptical about Smith’s project; it seemed impossible to give some kind of normative account of psychology and emotions like this – even leaving obvious exceptions (like sociopaths) aside. Before anyone jumps down my throat, I am aware that the project is similar to Spinoza’s Ethics III, if one ignores the fundamental ontological overtones in Spinoza that are not present in Smith. In any case, any such attempt at describing human sentiment seems bound to fail: the plethora of motivations that inspire human emotion and action are so varied and dependent on the individual and ges* context that any such account could be dismissed as almost anecdotal. I’m taking it a bit too far – obviously there is some normativity and generalities in human sentiment – but I think the general point undermines the aim of the project, if not the project itself (I believe both Hume and Hutcheson identified a problem similar to this as they composed their own moral philosophies). Regardless, there are many things to learn and contemplate in this text.

Smith starts out by describing sympathy (very broadly understood), i.e. the judging of “the propriety or impropriety of the sentiments of another person by their correspondence or disagreement with our own…” For example, Smith says that we can only laugh when we see love expressed between others, because it is an emotion we cannot enter into: “all serious and strong expressions of it appear ridiculous to a third person…”**  What we enter into are the sentiments accompanying love: high hopes of happiness, fear of tragedy, anxiety, concern, and distress. In the same way that a lover is only good company to ges lover, “a philosopher is company to a philosopher only; the member of a club, to [ges] own little knot of companions.”

There are suggestions of an unjustified or at least weakly defended Thoreau-ian view, which I suppose is not unheard of in the philosophies of privileged white men: “For to what purpose is the toil and bustle of this world? what is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and preheminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? The wages of the meanest labourer can supply them… Do they imagine that their stomach is better, or their sleep sounder, in a palace than in a cottage? The contrary has been so often observed, and, indeed, is so very obvious, though it had never been observed, that there is nobody ignorant of it.” Perhaps easy to claim for a man who has never survived on ‘the meanest wages.’ For Smith, it is vanity – the love of admiration by our fellows – not comfort or pleasure that drives people to cherish riches.  Indeed, one of the more intriguing parts of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is Smith’s discussion of human motivation. He places significant emphasis on the human desire to be admired: “the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved…”

Moreover, Smith believes that by nature men are inclined to bow to the wishes of the rich and powerful: “That kings are servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature. Nature would teach us to submit to them for their own sake, to tremble and bow down before their exalted station, to regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services…” Assuming that rationality and philosophy are the reason behind revolutions and any temperament that isn’t disposed to Peter Pettigrew aka Wormtail-like levels of snivelry and brown-nosing, we would assume that, looking to Nature itself, we would find such behavior in animals that live in packs***.Of course this is not the case with most animals I’ve heard of; wild stallions often challenge the leader of a herd, as do gorillas, goats, and chimps. They remain in power so long as their strength allows it; loyalty or sentiment has little to do with it. Surely horses are not motivated by a desire to be admired? Oddly, Smith claims that we are most corrupted by this inclination to bow before the powerful and spit upon the weak, and not by the desire for admiration, power, or wealth****.

Quite captivating, particularly to those who read him as a promoter of selfishness, is Smith’s discussion of self-interest*****, and why we find ourselves often acting on or feeling altruistic impulses. He discusses the varying reactions we have to disasters based on their proximity to us: a person who loses a finger feels more sorrow for this than at the news that millions of people gee has never met, in a land gee has never visited, have died. Nevertheless, Smith maintains that there has never been a person so evil that gee would prevent the ‘paltry misfortune’ of losing a finger by sacrificing millions of ges unseen and unknown brethren. The reason? We are aware that we are only one in a multitude, and we love that which is honorable: “It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast… a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude… It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble…”

But lest you think Smith too sympathetic or concerned with masses instead of the individuals’ self-interest, he rebukes those philosophers who criticize those with abundant happiness or drunk with the joy of prosperity. The wealthy white man argues: “this extreme sympathy with misfortunes which we know nothing about, seems altogether absurd and unreasonable. Take the whole earth at an average, for one man who suffers pain or misery, you will find twenty in prosperity and joy, or at least in tolerable circumstances.” Sympathy for the child laborers who made your shoes is “absurd” and, horribly enough, makes conversation “impertinently dismal and disagreeable.” Smith’s reasoning is hardly factual, unless we seriously nitpick about what “tolerable circumstances” are (not dead?): the population of the world in his time period was 791,000,000; 628,000,000 (or almost 80%) of which did not live in Europe. Even allowing that every person in Europe lived in “tolerable circumstances” or better, given colonialism and general human shittery towards each other (eg slavery, rape, war, human sacrifice, witchcraft), it is unlikely that more than 5-10% of the rest of the world was living in “tolerable circumstances” or better, but giving him the benefit of the doubt I’ll assume that 50% of the rest of the world was doing ok. If that was the case, there would still be 314,000,000 people living in intolerable circumstances, or almost 44% of the world’s population. Hardly a ratio of 1:20.

But that’s not the only time Smith seems to live in a world where facts are only kind of or not really at all important. He writes, “Humanity is the virtue of a woman, generosity of a man… that women rarely make considerable donations, is an observation of the civil law.” Women are tender, but not generous. Of course, we are assured by history that such an observation occurred in a time period where women had equal claim to fortune and property, and indeed owned an exactly equal amount as men; moreover, we cannot help but acknowledge that generosity can be measured in donations alone. I am astonished by the genius of men in history, but even more shocked by their blatant stupidity, narrow-mindedness, and privilege, expressed through racism, sexism, and classism.

Smith does make an apt observation in recognizing the use of religion; when stripped of it’s ornamentation, divisiveness, and zeal, it can be of great use to men and society: “wherever men are not taught to regard frivolous observances, as more immediate duties of religion, than acts of justice and beneficence… the world undoubtedly judges right… and justly places a double confidence in the rectitude of the religious man’s behavior.” Religion also encourages a sense of duty in men, a virtue that is translated to life outside religion through expression in the civil sphere. (Though don’t mistake him for a atheist******.) He additionally stresses the dangers and sins of custom: even Plato in his writings never condemned the commom and accepted practice of abandoning or killing infants that were inconvenient. This is one “obvious reason why custom should never pervert our sentiments.”

Possibly the most intriguing aspect of this work was Smith’s conception of the ‘impartial spectator.’ The Smithian impartial spectator is how we ought to judge our actions and the actions of others; justice is known through the impartial spectator. The impartial spectator is an ideal; it is a person outside culture and custom, without bias or predetermined preferences. We ought judge the morality of our actions and sentiments by calling upon the impartial spectator. This is a useful tool even beyond practical use; it is a particular tool of moral and ethical philosophy that is controversial insofar as it moves judgment outside of even cultural contexts.

In a book of 400+ pages, there is much that I have (as usual) left out. The Theory of Moral Sentiments did not live up to my expectations after reading the Wealth of Nations a few years ago; however, I can certainly say I have a more holistic understanding of “Smithian” philosophy, even if it turns out that he was almost as dedicated to self-interest as I didn’t want to believe.

*After a recent conversation with a friend about the use of gendered pronouns in academic writing, I decided to come up with my own gender-neutral pronouns to use on this blog. If you don’t like them, that’s unfortunate because you don’t write this blog. If you already made gender-neutral pronouns for English twenty years ago and you want me to use yours because you were first, that’s unfortunate because you’re old and also you don’t write this blog. I’m using “gee” for he/she, “ges” for his/her, and “gir” for “him/her.” Don’t ask me how to pronounce them. This is a blog. I don’t have to pronounce anything. I’m doing this because I don’t like the statement made by using ‘she’ or ‘her’ and also I don’t like using ‘he,’ ‘his,’ or ‘him’ because fuck the patriarchy. In using either of these, certain queer and/or trans folk are left out. I realize that, in effect, my gender-neutral pronouns make the same or an even weirder statement/impression than using feminine pronouns would, but I had little else to think about on the bus today and also this is my blog.

**Someone better alert the romcom industry because this is terrible news for them.

***Unless you take Smith to mean ‘human nature’ rather than something like ‘the state of nature,’ or if you believe animals to have rational or philosophical capacities.

****”This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

*****”But though the ruin of our neighbor may affect us much less than a very small misfortune of our own, we must not ruin [gir] to prevent that small misfortune, nor even to prevent our own ruin. We must, here, as in all other cases, view ourselves not so much according to that light in which we may naturally appear to ourselves, as according to that in which we naturally appear to others… though it may be true that… every individual, in [ges] own breast, naturally prefers [gir]self to all mankind, yet [gee] dares not look mankind in the face, and avow that [gee] acts according to this principle.”

******”the very suspicion of a fatherless world, must be the most melancholy of all reflections; from the thought that all the unknown regions of infinite and incomprehensible space may be filled with nothing but endless misery and wretchedness… The administration of the great system of the universe, the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not man.”


2 thoughts on “The Theory of Moral Sentiments

  1. Pingback: Book Review #3 | Infidelworld

  2. Pingback: Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister | Watson Weltanschauung

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