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Sep 1, 2015

Adam Smith’s Ethics: Propriety and Social Censure

Imagining ourselves in the position of an impartial spectator can help us hone our sympathetic emotions and ethical reasoning.

Smith claimed that people naturally sympathize with others. Sympathy begins with imagining ourselves in the position of another. Often we are moved by the plight of those around us—or of those on the silver screen:

Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is not more real than that with their happiness. We enter into their gratitude towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them. In every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible, the emotions of the by-stander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer.

Theater and literature affect our emotions by bringing us into a story. And a piece of literature falls flat when we have a hard time relating to its characters. Their personality, circumstances, interests, or behavior are so shocking, random, or simply bizarre, that we cannot sympathize with them.

Judging other people requires a sense of what constitutes proper behavior. Rather than having one correct response with a million incorrect ones, most situations have a variety of appropriate responses, some more fitting and some less so. How should someone behave at dinner or at a funeral? What are the proper ways of expressing gratitude? How far do we expect someone to go out of their way to help their neighbor, or to help a stranger? Such questions abound and each has a range of satisfactory answers. Smith says that we should judge issues with a certain amount of distance—imagining how some spectator who is impartial to the parties involved would see the situation.

The procedure of judging situations as an impartial spectator would is not formulaic or a matter of logic. A great deal of tacit knowledge can be revealed in our emotional reactions to certain behaviors. As Michael Polanyi put it: “we know more than we can say.” So it is with social norms and standards of propriety. This was one reason Hayek favored traditions over radical social reconstruction. Not only is our knowledge of propriety partially tacit, it is also partially dispersed. We observe how those we admire judge certain behaviors and incorporate their views into our own. The very presence of certain people can shade our expectations or our standards of propriety, as anyone with a mother knows. Therefore, because our moral judgment requires tacit and dispersed knowledge, there can be no central repository of moral codes or authority on proper judgment—which is another strike against government enforcement of virtue.

But what else happens as we consider the view of an impartial spectator? Generally a given actor has extreme and self-serving emotions. He needs to lower the pitch of his feelings if he wants others to sympathize with him and go along with his sentiments. At the same time, those who are unaffected by the situation may need to rouse their pity or their outrage to a higher pitch to match the feelings of the participant. They should have some regard for the feelings and thoughts of the actor before judging him. The actor and the judge both have their passions moderated in opposite directions by considering the views of an impartial spectator.

It is the “man within the breast” who conveys the views of an impartial spectator to us. He is more than just our conscience that pricks us with guilt or pats our backs with approval. The man within the breast moderates and restrains our passions by initiating an internal dialogue:

It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves

The internal representative give us reasons to act properly. Smith describes him as being “capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions.” The man within the breast can convince people to sacrifice their immediate physical or material interests. In Smith’s moral system the man within the breast reasons with us about what constitutes good, and therefore praiseworthy, behavior.

But moral judgment also involves a certain amount of intuition. We often feel repulsion or attraction to certain behaviors that we can’t quite explain. We have a sense that someone behaved badly, even if we are not sure what they should have done differently. Smith frequently talks about the beauty or ugliness of an action being related to its moral worth. Sometimes our moral condemnation reflects our sense of something exhibiting a sort of ugliness. In contrast, our admiration for heroic self-sacrifice often defies simple calculations of how that sacrifice advances social utility. We see the act as beautiful or noble and that draws our praise.

The relationship between reason and sentiment here adds a great deal of nuance and staying power to Smith’s moral theory. Human beings are neither exclusively rational nor exclusively emotional. Sympathy brings together sentiment and reason.

Next time, I’ll explain how this tension between reason and sentiment informs Smith’s discussion of our judgements about personal virtue and about what Smith terms “commutative justice,” as well as how Smith uses good writing as an analogy for good living in explaining the distinction between virtue and commutative justice.

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