(Partial) Summary of A Theory of Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith is best known for being the father of modern economics with the publishing of his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations. Far fewer people know about his second most famous book A Theory of Moral Sentiments (which, incidentally, is where the term “invisible hand” actually comes from). While the book is nominally about moral philosophy, I think it would be more accurately described as a work of psychology: Smith is trying to explain how morality arises from the workings of our minds. Much in the same way that The Wealth of Nations still seems surprisingly insightful today, I posit that A Theory of Moral Sentiments accurately described aspects of human psychology that were not appreciated until much later. I enjoyed listening to the EconTalk book club on ToMS as well, if you want to have a lively discussion with lots of background and historical context.

[Editor’s note: this is only a partial summary of the book, consisting of the first five out of seven parts of the book. I believe this covers the bulk of his theory, as the sixth chapter acts as something of a restatement of the previous sections, and was added in a later edition, and the seventh chapter is about comparing his moral philosophy to that of other thinkers of the day. I will also note that this was one of the very first book summaries I did, dating back at least three and a half years, so the style is quite different from the ones I’m writing today. Without further ado…]


Part I: Of the Propriety of Action

Section I: Of the Sense of Propriety

Chapter I: Of Sympathy – Smith posits sociability from the beginning; sympathy is the result of our mental model of others, of putting ourselves in their shoes, which is ultimately a product of our own perceptions and imagination, meaning they do not necessarily correspond to those we are sympathizing with.  Our sympathy can thus be entirely illusory, for instance sympathy with the dead.

Chapter II: Of the Pleasure of mutual Sympathy
 – Once again, Smith basically posits that we want our sentiments to coordinate, and that this provides happiness even with negative sentiments (wherein sympathy is all the more important).

Chapter III: Of the manner in which we judge of the propriety or impropriety of the affections of other men, by their concord or dissonance with our own – The title says it all, the degree to which our sentiments correspond will determine sympathy, which in turn drives our sense of propriety.  We judge the actions of others both on the motivating cause as well as the effect it produces, and the measure by which we judge others is our own sympathetic reaction to their sentiments.

Chapter IV: The same subject continued – Smith differentiations between sentiments regarding things unrelated to our situation, and those particularly affecting us.  The former is essentially reserved for the objective world, and correspondence to (our perception of) reality is the measurement by which we judge the sentiments of others, but disagreement is largely tolerated.  The latter involves our particular situations, which have a personal impact on us, and here a lack of sympathy is taken personally.  The lack of knowledge about the particulars of each person’s situation result in an imprecise mental model, a discordance of sentiments, which causes our sympathetic response to be less than the feelings they actually experience.  They also realize this, since they view themselves as an external observer would view them (the impartial spectator), and thus they temper their emotional response to fit the observers.  (Note that this sets up a sort of give-and-take, that both parties have some responsibility to meet the other part way in seeking concordance of sentiments.)  The degree of separation determines how much knowledge is shared knowledge, and thus we compose ourselves most around strangers and least around our closest friends.

Chapter V: Of the amiable and respectable virtues – Smith distinguishes between virtue and propriety.  Virtue is essentially a superhuman effort.  There are two types of virtue: amiable virtues are those of the spectator who enters into the sentiments of another to an extraordinary degree, the awful/respectable virtues are those of the person principally concerned to exercise extraordinary self-restraint in expressing their passions.  In some cases, such as eating when hungry, perfect propriety requires effort that every human being can express, and thus it is not particularly virtuous.  There can also be considerable virtue even when perfect propriety is not attained, if one approaches nearer to perfection than can commonly be expected.

Section II: Of the Degrees of the different Passions which are consistent with Propriety – As already stated, the spectator can never feel the same violence of passion as the observed, but the discrepancy will vary by the type of passion.  Sympathy seems to be entirely dependent on the spectator’s ability to recreate the emotion in himself through his visualization of being another, which is difficult for particular cases.  Throughout this section I can’t help but feel that many of Smith’s assertions are based upon his particular culture, and don’t necessarily generalize, but I am not sure that invalidates much of his work.  (Klein states in the podcast that Smith is essentially sharing with us his own sensibilities.)

Chapter I: Of the Passions which take their origin from the body – These are things like hunger, pain, sexual desire, etc.  Relative to the violence of these passions we have very little sympathy, because we ourselves do not feel them nearly as intensely as the sufferer.  In contrast, passions originating in the imagination are much more in concordance, since we can do little to alter our own body, but our imaginations are ductile enough to mold to that of another’s imagination.

Chapter II: Of those Passions which take their origin from a particular turn or habit of the Imagination
 – As the title says, these are passions that are particular to the individual, that is, objects that we have “extravagantly disproportionate” value towards.  One example is loving a particular person – other people do not feel that same love for that particular person, and so cannot feel nearly the true violence of the passion.  Other things are our particular friends, job, community, etc., anything that isn’t a general, shared sentiment.

Chapter III: Of the unsocial Passions
 – These are passions derived from the imagination that divide our sympathy, for instance hatred or resentment.  We sympathize with the person who has been wronged, and wish to see justice done on his behalf, but we also put ourselves in the shoes of the person the anger is directed at, which creates fear and aversion.  Smith also brings up the seen and the unseen, saying that it is the immediate effect that determines the (dis)agreeableness of an action, while we fail to take into account remote effects or they are too distant to be salient.

Chapter IV: Of the social Passions – In contrast with the above, these are passions where we positively sympathize with both parties to the action, for instance things like kindness, generosity, compassion, etc.  These are good passions, and even in excess they are still rarely regarded with aversion.

Chapter V: Of the selfish Passions
 – By selfish Smith means solipsistic, these are passions that relate to our own personal (mis)fortune, things like grief and joy.  These will evoke less response, both positive and negative, since we’re only sympathizing with one party.  Smith notes that we are tolerant of small joys and large griefs – being excessively happy with one’s good fortune evokes envy in others, while being perpetually happy with the little things in life lifts the mood of those around you.  Although we obviously feel immense sympathy with great tragedy, constant complains over the slightest misfortune is grating – we wish to avoid negative sentiments, and when others have them around us we begin to sympathize with them, causing us reflected discomfort.  It seems to me like Smith has laid out some principles for interpersonal interaction – both parties have the responsibility to move towards concordance of sentiments, and we should attempt to be as happy as possible, both for our own mental health as well as to minimize everyone else’s exposure to negative sentiments due to contagious sympathetic responses.

Section III: Of the Effects of Prosperity and Adversity upon the Judgment of Mankind with regard to the Propriety of Action; and why it is more easy to obtain their Approbation in the one state than in the other

Chapter I: That though our sympathy with sorrow is generally a more lively sensation than our sympathy with joy, it commonly falls much more short of the violence of what is naturally felt by the person principally concerned – Approbation is essentially approval due to a perfect correspondence of sentiment.  Smith posits that the default state is to be in good health, out of debt and in clear conscience, and that anything additional adds little happiness.  This creates asymmetry in losses and gains, since you have little enough to gain and immensely more to lose.  This makes it more difficult for the spectator to sympathize with losses, since they have so much further to go.  He also praises again the respectable virtues, how restraining oneself from negative passions actually spares everyone around us.

Chapter II: Of the origin of Ambition, and of the distinction of Ranks – Building from this asymmetry, Smith says that our acquisitiveness is actually driven by the desire to display our good fortune, such that others can publicly partake in beneficial sympathy with us (similarly, the miserable attempt to hide themselves from the public eye).  However, entering the public eye also comes with some unfortunate consequences – the loss of your privacy and liberty.  Smith says that we take a particular interest in our superiors (in this case politicians, but I think any celebrity in general fits), and that our reactions to them are many-fold over that of any other man.  We feel compelled to submit to the superior and assist him in obtaining happiness, due to our “admiration of the advantages of their situation” rather than any expected benefits.  The superiors specialize in acting with complete propriety in all circumstances, and have almost no talent in any other respect – indeed, they avoid situations in which they would need to compete with others on this level, since they would fail and attention would be drawn away from them.  The inferior, in contrast, MUST distinguish himself through virtue: acquiring knowledge, industry, patience, etc.  Furthermore, if the superior falls out of the public eye, there is indeed nothing that can replace that widespread adoration, and their days will be lived out in misery, even if their lives are otherwise good by anyone else’s standard.  Smith then advises against seeking celebrity, but says that only the best (the wise and philosophers) and worst of mankind despise rank.

Chapter III: Of the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by this disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition – These propensities are necessary to create the distinction of ranks, although Smith thinks that they corrupt our sentiments.  Smith thinks that admiration should be reserved for wisdom and virtue, and contempt for vice and folly, but that instead it correlates to rank (despite the fact that people would never admit this, it is nonetheless man as he is).  Thus there are two different paths towards becoming the object of admiration.  For those of middling or inferior rank, Smith says that the pursuit of wealth and virtue are largely one and the same, that the success of these people requires the goodwill of their fellows.  Fortunately, this is the situation of the vast majority of all mankind.  For the superiors, in contrast, these two paths are not coincident.  In the courts of princes, success does not depend on virtue but upon the ability to serve and pleasure the superior, and this adoration and imitation allows them to set fashion (in a general sense, including morals, etc.).  In order to become a superior, the candidates will frequently stray from virtuous behavior (instead choosing the path of power), for if they are victorious they are often entirely above the law (while the failures are justly punished).  Smith says that even for the successful, the memory of their misdeeds haunts them for the rest of their lives, once again making the pursuit of rank seem like a poor choice.

Part II: Of Merit and Demerit; or, of the Objects of Reward and Punishment

Section I: Of the Sense of Merit and Demerit

Chapter I through Chapter V – I am comfortable lumping these together since Smith is just trying to establish and defend a string of propositions in turn, which basically boil down to the same thing.  Smith begins by pointing out that the sentiment from which action proceeds can be considered in two aspects, in the cause which excites it (which relates to propriety) and in the end it proposes or the effect it produces (which relates to merit), which this part explores.  Gratitude and resentment are the sentiments that most directly prompt us to reward or punish, in particular by our own hand (i.e. gratitude is not fulfilled by seeing your benefactor benefited by another).  He notes that if there is no (im)propriety in the action taken, then we don’t sympathize with the resentment/gratitude of the acted upon – by sympathizing with one party, we necessarily harden our hearts to the other if they are in disagreement.  Merit/demerit are thus compounded sentiments, consisting of direct sympathy with the agent (which is a necessary precondition) and indirect sympathy with the acted upon (which can be illusory – as mentioned in the very beginning, we sympathize with our mental model of others’ sentiments).  The footnote at the end of Chapter V covers many fascinating points, but Smith is primarily responding to potential objections that sympathizing with resentment is degrading.  Here Smith notes that his project is entirely positive, that he is describing man as he is and how he actually behaves, taking into account our imperfections.  He also makes the observation that Nature has endowed us with particular instincts in order to achieve particular ends (and thus all of our sentiments, including resentment, have a necessary function) – it does NOT rely on our conscious decision-making to achieve ends, it simply programs us to pursue them.  Furthermore, Smith points out that these ends are actually useful, that in essence humans are well-designed in order to produce and maintain society.  Although Smith posits a Director of Nature, it is easy to replace this conscious design with the unconscious process of evolutionary exploration through design space, which produces exactly the phenomena he observes.

Section II: Of Justice and Beneficence

Chapter I: Comparison of those two virtues
 – Beneficent actions are the proper object of gratitude, and unjust actions are the proper object of resentment.  Smith thinks that lack of beneficence is not positively evil and thus cannot provoke resentment (although it certainly can cause disapprobation), and that the presence of justice is not positively good and thus cannot provoke gratitude, which gives them some interesting properties.  Remember that resentment is the sentiment that inspires us to punish others, and since a lack of beneficence cannot generate resentment, equals cannot use force to extort beneficence.  On the other hand, we do not congratulate others for upholding justice (e.g. not killing your neighbor, not stealing his sheep, etc.), but violations of justice provoke resentment, which then cause us to punish the offender by force.  Note that Smith does say that superiors can, with universal approbation, force his inferiors to perform with a certain degree of propriety.  He gives the example of a parent and child, or the sovereign or civil magistrate declaring law.  However, despite giving superiors with authority, he does caution them in the use of these powers, saying this role requires great delicacy in order to execute with propriety (what does this mean, given that superiors also create propriety?), and that if they push this too far they will destroy all liberty, security and justice.

Chapter II: Of the sense of Justice, of Remorse, and of the consciousness of Merit – Smith begins with the observation that we all naturally care more about ourselves than about others, but moreover that we are also in the best position to take care of ourselves (local knowledge again!).  However, this does not give us the right to do harm to others in order to prevent harm to ourselves.  The impartial spectator sympathizes equally with the self-love of all men, such that no one is any more important than anyone else.  This means that the impartial spectator cannot enter into the sentiments which drive any particular person to harm another for their own benefit, and since all of us wish to obtain approbation by this impartial spectator, we must reduce the violence of our own self-love.  The spectator only goes along insofar as he allows us to be more concerned with our own situation and to pursue our own happiness with more passion than that of others – once we do harm to another, “the indulgence of the spectators is entirely at an end”, since they begin to sympathize with the resentment of the person you wronged.  There is also a hierarchy in the generation of resentment: murder being the worst, followed by breach of property, followed by breach of contract.  Smith finishes the chapter by talking about the response of the wrongdoer, how once his passions cool he begins to view himself as others now view him, generating remorse, which Smith calls the most dreadful sentiment.  Similarly, when one does good by another, they look forward to the being the proper object of love and gratitude, which is the consciousness of merit.

Chapter III: Of the utility of this constitution of Nature
 – Smith observes that man was created to live in society, that we require cooperation to survive.  Interestingly enough, Smith states that beneficence is NOT required for a functional society, that it may be upheld by “mercenary exchange”, even though it would be far less pleasant.  In contrast, a society without justice would utterly collapse, which once again points to the necessity of resentment.  Smith comes back here to the point he raised in the footnote, distinguishing the “efficient” and “final” causes of things.  He says he readily observe this distinction in the operation of bodies (digestion of food, circulation of blood, etc.), but not in that of the mind.  Indeed, we are instinctually driven towards particular ends, which our reason then recommends to us, and so we claim that our reason was the efficient cause of these drives.  In reality, we are programmed with particular ends in mind, and we are confusing the efficient psychological cause with the final evolutionary one.  Smith then begins refuting the idea that we value society and the utility it provides in and of itself, which is why we feel so strongly about protecting it.  He thinks that this is merely a rationalization for our deeper instincts, which arises because we need to provide some kind of argument to others (indeed, by even questioning these fundamental principles, it is implicit that your interlocutor does not share them, so you need to provide some reason for these feelings).  Smith then demonstrates that our fellow-feeling for individuals is summated to provide a fellow-feeling for the multitude, not the other way around.  This does, in fact, make it hard to punish an individual for crimes against the interest of the many (for instance a sentry falling asleep on guard duty being executed seems too severe).

Section III: Of the Influence of Fortune upon the Sentiments of Mankind, with regard to the Merit or Demerit of Actions – 
Just to be clear, fortune here refers to luck, not to wealth.  Praise or blame can belong to either the intention of the actor, the external action of the actor’s body, or the consequences of the action.  Smith says that it is an obvious and widely-held truth that praise or blame can only lie in the intentions of the actor, since the other two possible sources depend upon fortune.  And yet, Smith points out that we do, in fact, let the outcome of an action influence our sentiments regarding it.

Chapter I: Of the causes of this Influence of Fortune – Smith begins by saying that the causes of pain and pleasure immediately excite gratitude and resentment, even against inanimate objects.  However, something cannot be the proper object of these sentiments without being able to feel them itself, since we gratify our own sentiments by retaliation of the pain/pleasure in turn.  Even this is incomplete, however, since we also want to make the object of our sentiments conscious of the fact that this is deliberate repayment – but furthermore, they need to have given us these sensations out of design, otherwise we give them (dis)approbation and thus cannot feel gratitude/resentment.  This establishes three conditions for being the proper object of resentment or gratitude.  Fortune comes into play by determining the outcome of these intentions, and these outcomes will cause us pleasure or pain, which will immediately excite at least some gratitude or resentment regardless of the intentions of the actor.

Chapter II: Of the extent of this Influence of Fortune – When you have good intentions, the approbation is diminished if the result is bad or enhanced if the result is good, and vice versa with bad intentions.  Most of this chapter is Smith giving examples of each possible case, although some interesting things pop up along the way.  He talks about negligence, where we do not punish someone the same if their actions did or did not cause harm, despite it being luck which outcome was realized.  There are different levels of negligence, and we punish some, while others we do not punish, although if it results in a bad outcome there is still compensation.  When we accidentally harm others we sympathize with their pain, and personally rush over to make amends to appease their resentment, even though we could be considered no more at fault than any other bystander.

Chapter III: Of the final cause of this Irregularity of Sentiments – The reason we care about outcomes, rather than solely about intentions, comes down to the unobservable nature of intentions.  If intentions were all that mattered, and became the objects of punishment, then courts would turn into inquisitions.  No amount of good conduct would ensure others of your good intentions.  But furthermore, Smith points out that by linking sentiments to actions, it encourages people to make real changes in the world.  Instead of idly wishing everyone well, our sentiments cause us to take action, to actively better the circumstances of those around us.  It is even useful that accidental injury provokes resentment, since it causes us to revere the happiness of our fellow man, that it becomes something sacred, in a sense, not to be violated even accidentally.  Smith ends by saying that despite the importance of outcomes we do still sympathize with intentions, that we can mentally compensate for this irregularity, and provide some consolation to the actor.

Part III: Of the Foundation of our Judgments concerning our own Sentiments and Conduct, and of the Sense of Duty

Chapter I: Of the Principle of Self-approbation and Self-disapprobation
 – Interestingly enough, the first two parts of the book concern interpersonal judgements, and only now does Smith turn inwards.  We learn to judge things through observing the reactions of others, which causes us to become self-conscious.  (We ourselves feel particular ways towards people upon observing their behavior, and we realize that there is an analogous process happening in others, so we wish to avoid provoking negative feelings and to inspire positive ones.)  When we examine our own conduct, we separate ourselves into two persons: the agent undertaking the action, and an internal spectator which judges us as would another man.

Chapter II: Of the love of Praise, and of that of Praise-worthiness; and of the dread of Blame, and of that of Blame-worthiness
 – Smith begins by stating that we desire both praise and praise-worthiness (and dreads blame, etc.), and that these desires are distinct, even though they are often connected and blended together.  Praise-worthiness is our sense of our own conduct (how we think others ought to feel about us), based upon the observations of our behavior by our internal spectator.  Praise, in contrast, is external (how others actually feel about us), and essentially plays a confirmatory role of our own self-assessment.  Smith gives examples of one without the other – enjoying praise without praise-worthiness is vanity (most people would instead scorn the praise), while we still desire to be praise-worthy even when praise is not forthcoming (or will be after our death, when we cannot enjoy it).  Once again he says both of these instincts are useful, since one would only incentivize us to conceal our vices (praise/blame), but the other causes us to actively pursue virtue (praise/blame-worthiness).  Groundless blame can often wound us deeply, to think that others could think us blame-worthy.  He chalks up the asymmetry between groundless praise (we dismiss it) and groundless blame (we are mortified) again to the asymmetry between pain and pleasure – furthermore, we have incentives to dismiss blame (but not praise) and so others doubt our claims.  Smith also points out that the degree to which we are disturbed by the misalignment of our internal views and those of others is a function of how confident we are in our self-evaluation.  The praise and blame we receive from others are essential feedback regarding our own conduct – once again the knowledge problem comes up, where we are uncertain even regarding our own merit!  He says that very few men are satisfied by their praise-worthiness without some acknowledgement of that virtue (that is, praise) from others, but that no men are satisfied by not being blame-worthy unless they also avoid blame.  Ultimately, we appeal the judgments of the “man without” to our own “man within”, but our internal spectator can be shaken by the external response, and becomes far more hesitant to condone our behavior.  Smith ends by pointing out that if all else fails we can still comfort ourselves with the thought of a still higher tribunal, that of God, who is all-knowing, and thus can perfectly judge the propriety of our actions.

Chapter III: Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience – 
Smith says that it is only through the impartial spectator that we can ever make a comparison between our interests and those of others.  He draws an analogy with vision, how things that are massive but far away can appear smaller than things nearer to us, and it is only by moving to a third location that you can get a proper comparison of those objects.  He talks about how we would be sleepless if we lost a finger, but if an earthquake swallowed China we would sleep soundly that night – and yet, no one would annihilate China to preserve their finger.  We are naturally incredibly selfish in our passive sentiments, but when the well-being of others depends upon our behavior, we view the situation through the eyes of the impartial spectator and realize we cannot favor our selves at the expense of others.  On the contrary, when the well-being of others does not depend on our behavior, there is no need to restrain our selfishness or sympathize with their situation.  Smith then begins discussing two different philosophies that attempt to correct our passive feelings, that we should feel for others as we feel for ourself, or that we should feel for ourself as we feel for others.  Regarding the former, Smith points out that if we can do nothing for others, then it is only creating unnecessary and unhelpful misery for ourselves to sympathize with them.  Regarding the latter, he distinguishes between misfortunes to ourself and those nearest to us.  When it comes to our feelings regarding those close to us, he points out that having a deficit of affection is regarded as much worse than the excess.  As regards our own misfortunes, however, we can only rarely be too stoic.

He begins talking about self-command, how our control of our passive feelings must be acquired, by learning to regard the impartial spectator.  An infant has no self-command, expressing its emotions fully and attempting to gain attention.  As a child grows older and enters school, begins interacting with others, he finds they do not indulge his partiality, and so learns self-command in order to gain their approbation.  He speaks again of being around friends, or better yet strangers, in order to see things from their perspective and restrain our passions.  A weak man will, like the child, attempt to gain sympathy not through moderating his own sentiments but by calling upon others to extend them.  A slightly less weak man will moderate his sentiments, and gain approbation which in turn helps support his effort, but will soon tire of this and become at risk of abandoning his tranquility.  Smith notes that “modern good manners” are indulgent of human weakness, and forbid strangers from visit those under great duress.  In contrast, the man of “real constancy and firmness”, schooled in self-command, always considers the impartial spectator and really adopts those sentiments, regardless of the presence of others.  Self-approbation is proportional to the degree of self-command required to bring one’s sentiments in line with the IS, which allows for some compensation of the harm befallen – but this compensation is only partial, for if we could fully compensate ourselves, we would have no incentive to avoid destructive accidents.  Smith then goes on to talk about how we tend over the long run to return to a set point of happiness, but that we do not take this into account and thus exaggerate the difference between two outcomes, resulting in much misery and disorder.  He says situations can be preferred to others, but that it should never drive us to violate prudence or justice, and that happiness is always within our reach.  Smith notes that we recover more quickly from situations that are irreparable, that a wise man realizes immediately the tranquility he foresees will arrive eventually.  Instead, if we think we can remedy the situation (whether we can or not), we will worry about it for the rest of our days, rather than attempting to achieve that same tranquility.

Moving on, Smith says that the man of most perfect virtue is he who combines both amiable and respectable virtues.  He then makes a fascinating point – in order to learn self-command (which, indeed, requires practice to become habit), we must have been exposed to negative circumstances in life, (and yet, everyone naturally attempts to avoid these misfortunes).  The situations in which the amiable and respectable virtues can be best learned are, in fact, different (and in some sense, even opposed).  When one is at ease, it is easier to be benevolent – conversely, in difficult times, we often harden our heart to others out of necessity.  Indeed, one progressively loses one’s humanity if they repress it often enough, until they can violate justice without any emotional backlash.

Smith then begins to talk about situations where we corrupt our own moral sentiments, by having a partial spectator.  One example is when we are alone, where the impartial spectator can be awakened by an actual spectator.  When we are down, he suggests going out in the world rather than brooding alone; when we are up, he suggests being among those who are independent of us, rather than those who will flatter us.  Another example is that of one nation towards another: we only strive to obtain approbation with our fellow citizens, and pay no regard for the sentiments of nations at odds with us.  For this reason, justice is seldom ever observed in any international actions (war, diplomacy, etc).  More generally, any case of factionalism will result in a distancing of the impartial spectator – he points out that factions even attribute their own motives to God Himself, such that an impartial spectator appears nowhere in the universe, and that “rebels and heretics” just so happen to be the weaker party when events turn to violence.

Chapter IV: Of the Nature of Self-deceipt, and of the Origin and Use of general Rules
 – The chapter begins by Smith noting that the violence of our passions can induce our internal spectator to give us false authorization.  We examine our own conduct both before and after action, and we are apt to be most partial before the fact, when it matters most, unfortunately.  In the heat of the moment our passions seem entirely justified, but afterward we can assume a more indifferent view, when it is only capable of causing regret.  Indeed, since we do not like to think badly of ourselves, we often try to continue the deception ex post!  However, Smith notes that we do have a method of correcting for this partiality of the moment: our observation of the conduct of others (and the feelings it provokes within us) can lead us to form conclusions about “general rules” for behavior, which we commit ourselves to not violating, since we know the disapprobation it would invoke (conversely we create rules for good actions, too, which we strive to uphold, for approbation).  These general rules can become widely acknowledged, which are then appealed to as criteria in complex cases.  These rules are commonly cited as what is fundamentally just or unjust, which leads Smith to make the remarkable note that this has misled other philosophers into trying to build systems of morality from these general rules!  (To me, this describes the current state and problem of moral philosophy perfectly.)  Anyway, this rules can become fixed in our mind through habitual reflection, until they become inviolable principles capable of restraining the violence of our passions in the critical moment of decision.

Chapter V: Of the influence and authority of the general Rules of Morality, and that they are justly regarded as the Laws of the Deity – Our regard to these general rules is our sense of duty.  Smith points out that the sense of duty alone can actually cause people to behave with complete propriety, even if the sentiments which normally found these actions are absent.  Of course, he notes that such people will “fail in many nice and delicate regards”, that in merely upholding duty they will miss opportunities for excellence, and so are second-best to those with genuine sentiments.  People without regard to general rules, on the contrast, are unreliable, and Smith thinks society could not exist if we were not so impressed by these rules.  Smith believes that this is tied to religion, that human beings ascribe their general rules to the gods, thus giving these rules sanction on a very visceral level (he points out that we then created rationalizations for these rules using our slow and uncertain reason).  He talks about how the words good/bad/right/wrong/etc. are ultimately defined as simply those things which appeal to our apparent moral faculties.  Once again he raises the point that these moral faculties are actually very useful for promoting the happiness and well-being of mankind (which he again ascribes to the Author of Nature), in that it causes virtue to be met with its proper reward (albeit with some noise, but it works in the long run).  Interestingly enough, though, this outcome is not suited to our natural sentiments: we wish to reward virtues and punish vices in proportion to their merit or demerit.  (The example is the industrious knave versus the indolent man of virtue in cultivating the soul.)  Since humans don’t have the ability to completely implement their will on reality, we instead appeal to heaven, that God will address these injustices.  The general rules are thus ascribed to the Deity, becoming sacred in that regard, and our self-interest in order not to be punished will help to enforce these rules.  This is how religion reinforces the sense of duty, and the reason we are disposed to place more confidence in religious folk, since we imagine they “act under an additional tie.”

Chapter VI: In what cases the Sense of Duty ought to be the sole principle of our conduct; and in what cases it ought to concur with other motives
 – There are two circumstances which influence this decision: the agreeableness of the sentiment prompting us to action, and the precision of the general rule in question.  For the social passions, action should proceed from the passion as much as from duty – indeed, we might need to use duty to instead restrain ourselves from going too far.  For the unsocial passions, we should try to punish out of duty rather than vengeance.  The selfish passions occupy a middle ground, they should normally flow from duty but occasionally we should be animated by passion.  We should be prudent in daily life through habit, by laying down rules for how we live our life, not through miserliness, where we worry over every single penny – yet, when pursuing some extraordinary goal, we should strive to do our best and display some earnestness.  The second factor is the precision of the general rule in question: Smith makes it very clear that almost all general rules are loose, vague and indeterminate, and that an exact answer cannot be generated for any possible case (note that this is entirely contrary to the usual goal of moral philosophy).  In these cases, we should be directed by propriety, to consider the ends which the rule is meant to achieve rather than the rule itself.  There is, in fact, only a single rule that is clear and precise, and that rule is justice.  Smith points out that as soon as we depart in any way from this rule, we cannot be trusted, and any behavior becomes possible.  He then compares the loose, vague and indeterminate rules to aesthetics, to the rules a critic uses to evaluate a composition, while the clear and precise rule of justice is akin to grammar.  Only justice can prescribe exact actions, while prudence, beneficence, etc. can only act as guidelines, as something to aspire towards.  (Incidentally, I think this is an excellent treatment of the negative versus positive liberty debate.)  Smith ends the part by saying that we can make mistakes about our duty, but that normally false notions of religion are the only way to seriously corrupt our natural moral sentiments.

Part IV: Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation

Chapter I: Of the beauty which the appearance of Utility bestows upon all the productions of art, and of the extensive influence of this species of Beauty
 – Basically, the utility of an object is pleasurable because it suggests the pleasure or convenience that the object could provide, and this effect can be more pleasurable than the use of the object itself.  Smith then criticizes this on a number of levels, talking about how we burden ourselves with “trinkets of frivolous utility”, and on a more serious level, that the pursuit of convenience can be a major motivating force in human life.  He talks about how a poor man will work himself into the ground to pursue the convenience of wealth, when he could have just enjoyed himself.  He says that trinkets and wealth are little different in utility, only that spectators sympathize more with wealth.  It is not even that the spectators think the rich man is happier, only that he has the means to happiness.  Smith talks a bit here about how our worldview is affected by our circumstances (age, health, etc.), that when we’re feeling bad our imagination is confined to ourselves and these things seem petty and trivial, but when we’re feeling good our imagination extends and we see how wonderful everything could be.  Then, despite all of this, he points out once again that this “deception” is extraordinarily useful, since it spurs the industry of mankind into action, causing productivity to rise and allowing a greater number of people to live on the earth.  Smith points out that the wealthy cannot actually consume all of the food their land produces, so they sell it to others, and they provide wages to their workers, which serve to distribute the necessities of life (and furthermore, they would not have received it at all through the rich man’s benevolence, but only through his “luxury and caprice”).  He then goes on to tie this principle into public policy, that people want to see society functioning well and maximize social welfare, and that this is the sole use and end of government.  Interestingly enough, we are motivated by a genuine wish for the system to function well, public spirit, not through any kind of self-interest, which is actually very much what we observe in reality (non-farmers support farm subsidies, etc.).

Chapter II: Of the beauty which the appearance of Utility bestows upon the characters and actions of men; and how far the perception of this beauty may be regarded as one of the original principles of approbation – A person’s character will also “promote or disturb the happiness both of the individual and of the society”, and thus falls under this consideration of utility.  (Smith here notes that “government is but an imperfect remedy for the deficiency” of wisdom and virtue.)  Smith disagrees with Hume that the utility of virtue which is our principle source of approbation, and thinks he came to this view by considering these qualities in the abstract, rather than particular manifestations, which actually excite our merit and demerit.  He says the qualities most useful to us are reason (so we can discern remote consequences) and self-command (to shift happiness into the future), and that the union of these two is the virtue of prudence.  He makes a very interesting argument for essentially zero discount rates, by saying that your enjoyment is equally as interesting to the impartial spectator today as it is at any point in the future.  The qualities most useful to others are humanity, justice, beneficence, public spirit, etc.  Smith distinguishes humanity (which I read as the amiable virtues, entering into the sentiments of another) from generosity, where you make a personal sacrifice to better another, in some sense preferring him to yourself.  Public spirit is the same, where you would give your life in service to your country.  Smith argues that in these cases our approbation arises out the uncommon effort these people make, that the utility of their actions only occurs to us as an afterthought, through reason, not through immediate appreciation.

Part V: Of the Influence of Custom and Fashion upon the Sentiments of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation

Chapter I: Of the Influence of Custom and Fashion upon our Notions of Beauty and Deformity
 – Custom is basically founded upon the association of two things, that when they seem to appear together we in turn imagine them together, and there is impropriety in their separation.  We can become “accustomed” to certain things, Smith notes that people who are used to seeing things in good taste are more disgusted by the sight of bad taste.  Particular styles of “furniture or dress” can arise, which seem absurd to strangers but completely natural to the people used to them.  Fashion is the style of the superior, those of high rank.  The greatness of the superior creates a halo effect, lending some of that influence to whatever the superior wears or does.  Smith notes that the turnover in fashion is proportional to the durability of the item in question (a coat vs. a chair vs. a painting vs. a castle, etc.), and that since we don’t see much variation in our lives we cannot judge impartially between styles past and current, but instead we believe our judgments reflect objective truth and reason.  (In my view, he sees these are Schelling points, and is pointing out the arbitrariness of picking any particular point in a large possibility space.)  These customs can change when given a sufficient push, “the excellencies of an eminent master recommend his peculiarities”.  He also notes that what appears beautiful for any given thing is the average of that group of things, basically that any parameter too far outside the normal range appears ugly, which means that to judge anything appropriately we need to have seen many examples of that thing.  He applies this to human societies and norms (on the coast of Guinea, he points out, a fair complexion is a deformity, thick lips and a flat nose are beautiful).  He ends this chapter by talking about how our sense of beauty does not rely entirely on custom, that utility is beautiful, that certain colors are more agreeable than others, smoothness is desired to roughness, variety more than uniformity, patterns over chaos, etc.  Yet in the last sentence he basically says that there is nothing so naturally beautiful that it can go entirely against custom.

Chapter II: Of the Influence of Custom and Fashion upon Moral Sentiments
 – Smith actually starts off by saying that custom and fashion have much less impact on moral sentiments – while our perception of beauty is a function of imagination, and thus “may easily be altered by habit and education,” our moral sentiments are deep-seated and instinctual.  That said, being accustomed to good or bad conduct will certainly change our relative perceptions of each, and the vices of the superior appear better and the virtues of the inferior appear worse to us due to the halo effect.  Smith also talks about how different professions, or different stages of life, or different cultures, habituate us towards different passions and behaviors.  The proper degree of any quality varies according to how usual that quality is, or rather, what degree of that quality is found in respected individuals.  Here again Smith notes that civilized cultures are habituated towards the amiable virtues, with fewer opportunities to endure hardship, while savages and barbarians require a high degree of self-command, and have enough of their own trouble that they can spare little to sympathize with the troubles of their neighbors.  Civilized cultures are allowed to be more emotionally expressive without drawing disapprobation – we interact with others as we would friends rather than strangers.  Smith notes that civilized people are less able to conceal their emotions, this openness actually makes them more honest and sincere; barbarians, in contrast, learn to control their reactions, giving them the ability to dissimulate.  In general, the style of manners in any given culture is that which is most suitable to its circumstances.  He then returns to his original point, saying that in general, or in things of the greatest importance (like truth and justice), custom cannot completely corrupt our sentiments – such a society could not survive.  At worst, the duties of one virtue encroach upon the precincts of another, like the amiable and respectable virtues above.  That said, however, custom can allow specific immoral practices to continue: Smith ends with a discussion of infanticide, how it can be justified in extreme circumstances, but that the Ancient Greeks preserved the tradition nonetheless.

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