Adam Smith’s ethical system is centered around the human capacity to put ourselves in another’s place.
As I suggested in my last post, Smith’s prudential approach to politics flows from his virtue ethics. He rejects moral systems built upon axiomatic rights or deontological arguments. Virtue ethics, as Smith describes it, involves shaping and correcting people’s behavior while also being flexible and adaptable to gray, amorphous situations and changing tastes or sentiments. Because of its flexibility and diversity, Smith’s ethics complements free markets and free societies. It is a system of private ethics enforced through praise, blame, and censure. Although governments can use coercion to maintain “commutative justice,” they cannot use it to promote a broadly virtuous society. Because of its “loose, vague, and indeterminate” nature, virtue is best promoted by private individuals and organizations that both generate and act within social norms and propriety.
Sympathy is essential to Smith’s system of morals. He claims that human beings naturally imagine how other people think and feel. Through their imagination they can put themselves in the place of others:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it…. As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.
People naturally have regard for others—and this regard guides their feelings and behavior. Smith uses “sympathy” as we use “empathy” today. Sympathy does not mean agreement with how another feels or acts, but rather an understanding or sharing of what the feelings and motives of others are and what they should be.
But why does it matter that we naturally sympathize with one another? How do we translate the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes into concrete moral judgments? Smith describes four sources of moral approval, four dimensions along which we can judge actions:
First, we sympathize with the motives of the agent; secondly, we enter into the gratitude of those who receive the benefit of his actions; thirdly, we observe that his conduct has been agreeable to the general rules by which those two sympathies generally act; and, last of all, when we consider such actions as making a part of a system of behavior which tends to promote the happiness either of the individual or of the society, they appear to derive a beauty from this utility, not unlike that which we ascribe to any well‐contrived machine.
Before approving an action, we consider: the motives of the person who acted, the response of the person(s) affected, whether the conduct suits the rules and expectations of the situation, and how that action fits with the overall system of norms, rules, and laws. For each of these sources we must decide whether we can “go along with” (a phrase used over 35 times in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) the feelings and motives of the participants. Rendering moral approval requires empathy, imagination, and moral sense (which, according to Smith, involves aesthetics). But how do we learn to make such complex moral judgments?
Smith argues that our sympathy is both innate and learned. We naturally feel sympathy towards others. People are dismayed by the distress and lifted up by the happiness of those around them. Small children pick up and respond to facial or verbal cues of the adults around them. At the same time, we also teach children to consider how they would feel if they were in someone else’s shoes. “Joey, how would you feel if Tom walked up and took the toy you were playing with?” Smith has a great passage about how children learn from being around their peers:
When [a child] is old enough to go to school, or to mix with its equals, it soon finds that they have no such indulgent partiality [as parents or nannies have]. It naturally wishes to gain their favour, and to avoid their hatred or contempt. Regard even to its own safety teaches it to do so; and it soon finds that it can do so in no other way than by moderating, not only its anger, but all its other passions, to the degree which its play‐fellows and companions are likely to be pleased with. It thus enters into the great school of self‐command, it studies to be more and more master of itself, and begins to exercise over its own feelings a discipline which the practice of the longest life is seldom sufficient to bring to complete perfection.
The school of self‐command is not only for children. People, whether they are two, twenty‐five, or seventy‐five, continually learn from interacting with others. They are reminded that the world does not revolve around them and their desires. Living in society with others, we have to moderate our own passions in order not to be seen as petty or not to be severely censured.
The fellow‐feeling we have with others helps us know whether they are acting well or poorly. We approve or disapprove of what they do. And they approve or disapprove of what we do. That approval is a moral judgment. We believe that their behavior or actions are conducive toward some good end, or follow some right principle. We all live in moral communities. Even if we were to face few coercive restrictions on our freedom, we should not expect to live entirely free of moral condemnation or opposition. Libertarians should not be libertine or laissez‐faire when it comes to moral issues—and I mean beyond the moral issues of violence and coercion. Arguing that government should not promote or impose a particular set of virtues or beliefs on society does not mean that there are no correct virtues or beliefs. Although people should have the freedom to violate social mores and customs, they should not expect (much less demand, as in the case of many identity‐politics activists) to be free of others’ condemnations, disapproval, or censure. Free societies require justice–including tolerance–not some wishy‐washy blanket of self‐esteem and approval of anyone and everyone’s choices of religion, occupation, or lifestyle.