Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

71. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 1

Note: This post is the seventy-first in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week's post is on the book, 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments' by Adam Smith.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a long rambling book, and I only plan to cover a small part of it here. Much of the book is taken up with Smith's argument that sympathy is one of the prime motivators of our moral senses, whether positive sympathy with other people's happiness and well being and benevolence, negative sympathy with their anger and fear and hatred or a more muted sympathy with their more personal emotions such as grief and joy.

What I want to spend more time on this week is Smith's comment that, "The great division of our affections is into the selfish and the benevolent." Accordingly, he has a chapter on each.

First up is selfish affections. Here are a few quotes from Smith, who treats 'prudence' as the name for all the properties that lead a man to his own benefit.

"The preservation and healthful state of the body seem to be the objects which Nature first recommends to the care of every individual."


"As he grows up, he soon learns that some care and foresight are necessary for providing the means of gratifying those natural appetites"


"Though it is in order to supply the necessities and conveniencies of the body, that the advantages of external fortune are originally recommended to us, yet we cannot live long in the world without perceiving that the respect of our equals, our credit and rank in the society we live in, depend very much upon the degree in which we possess, or are supposed to possess, those advantages. The desire of becoming the proper objects of this respect, of deserving and obtaining this credit and rank among our equals, is, perhaps, the strongest of all our desires, and our anxiety to obtain the advantages of fortune is accordingly much more excited and irritated by this desire, than by that of supplying all the necessities and conveniencies of the body, which are always very easily supplied."


"We suffer more, it has already been observed, when we fall from a better to a worse situation, than we ever enjoy when we rise from a worse to a better. Security, therefore, is the first and the principal object of prudence. It is averse to expose our health, our fortune, our rank, or reputation, to any sort of hazard. It is rather cautious than enterprising, and more anxious to preserve the advantages which we already possess, than forward to prompt us to the acquisition of still greater advantages."


"His conversation is simple and modest, and he is averse to all the quackish arts by which other people so frequently thrust themselves into public notice and reputation. For reputation in his profession he is naturally disposed to rely a good deal upon the solidity of his knowledge and abilities; and he does not always think of cultivating the favour of those little clubs and cabals"


"The prudent man is always sincere, and feels horror at the very thought of exposing himself to the disgrace which attends upon the detection of falsehood."


"is friendship is not that ardent and passionate, but too often transitory affection, which appears so delicious to the generosity of youth and inexperience."


"In the steadiness of his industry and frugality, in his steadily sacrificing the ease and enjoyment of the present moment for the probable expectation of the still greater ease and enjoyment of a more distant but more lasting period of time, the prudent man is always both supported and rewarded by the entire approbation of the impartial spectator, and of the representative of the impartial spectator, the man within the breast."


"If he enters into any new projects or enterprises, they are likely to be well concerted and well prepared. He can never be hurried or drove into them by any necessity, but has always time and leisure to deliberate soberly and coolly concerning what are likely to be their consequences."


"When distinctly called upon, he will not decline the service of his country, but he will not cabal in order to force himself into it"


"Wise and judicious conduct, when directed to greater and nobler purposes than the care of the health, the fortune, the rank and reputation of the individual, is frequently and very properly called prudence. We talk of the prudence of the great general, of the great statesman, of the great legislator. Prudence is, in all these cases, combined with many greater and more splendid virtues, with valour, with extensive and strong benevolence, with a sacred regard to the rules of justice, and all these supported by a proper degree of self-command."

Some of this aligns with what we have seen with the commercial syndrome in Jane Jacobs' Systems of Survival, but some doesn't.

In particular, Smith's concern of the prudent man for status, and the cautiousness of his prudent man, do not line up with the commercial ethics that Jane Jacobs described. In some ways, this description resembles Weber's description of the traditional economy that existed prior to the rise of 'The Spirit of Capitalism'.

* * *

After talking about man's selfish affections, Smith moves on to man's benevolent affections:

"The character of every individual, so far as it can affect the happiness of other people, must do so by its disposition either to hurt or to benefit them.

Proper resentment for injustice attempted, or actually committed, is the only motive which, in the eyes of the impartial spectator, can justify our hurting or disturbing in any respect the happiness of our neighbour. To do so from any other motive is itself a violation of the laws of justice, which force ought to be employed either to restrain or to punish."


"The love of our own nation often disposes us to view, with the most malignant jealousy and envy, the prosperity and aggrandisement of any other neighbouring nation. Independent and neighbouring nations, having no common superior to decide their disputes, all live in continual dread and suspicion of one another. Each sovereign, expecting little justice from his neighbours, is disposed to treat them with as little as he expects from them. The regard for the laws of nations, or for those rules which independent states profess or pretend to think themselves bound to observe in their dealings with one another, is often very little more than mere pretence and profession. From the smallest interest, upon the slightest provocation, we see those rules every day, either evaded or directly violated without shame or remorse."


"The love of our country seems, in ordinary cases, to involve in it two different principles; first, a certain respect and reverence for that constitution or form of government which is actually established; and secondly, an earnest desire to render the condition of our fellow-citizens as safe, respectable, and happy as we can. He is not a citizen who is not disposed to respect the laws and to obey the civil magistrate; and he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow-citizens."


"Foreign war and civil faction are the two situations which afford the most splendid opportunities for the display of public spirit. The hero who serves his country successfully in foreign war gratifies the wishes of the whole nation, and is, upon that account, the object of universal gratitude and admiration."

To be honest, I didn't find a lot of interest in Smith's description. There is brief mention of the importance of prowess, the role of deception, the desire to dispense largesse and the use of force when necessary, but not much more than that.

Of all the 'major' works of philosophy I've read as part of this series, Smith's 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' seems the most disconnected from Jane Jacobs and her 'Systems of Survival.' Nonetheless, next week I'll follow up by discussing what, to me, was the most interesting part of the book: Smith's description of the moral systems of the philosophers who came before him, in particular Plato.

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  • Thanks for shining a light on Smith's "other book", too often ignored in forming a picture of "what would Adam Smith do?" economics. We might have a saner economic/social debate if more people tempered the descriptive account of behaviour in "Wealth of Nations" with the moral prescriptions of "Theory of Moral Sentiments", which basically amounts to "don't be an asshole, it's bad and worse for your own interests than you think".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:45 AM  

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