Adam Smith and the Limits of Empiricism

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1 Adam Smith and the Limits of Empiricism In the debate between rationalism and sentimentalism, one of the strongest weapons in the rationalist arsenal is the notion that some of our actions ought to be motivated by a sense of duty. The strength of this position derives, I think, from the sense that living a moral life is, in some cases, a struggle. Morality, on this view, is not or at least is not simply a matter of people being basically good-natured and following their instincts to be sympathetic to their fellow man. Rather, even the good-natured sometimes find themselves constrained from doing what they would prefer to do by a sense that it would be a violation of duty to do so. Duty, moreover, makes moral living accessible to all humanity, even to the curmudgeonly. By thinking about our duty we can transcend our particular eccentricities, desires, sympathies, etc. and gain access to a higher level of moral thinking where we are all equally capable of doing the right thing irrespective of our inclinations. This is a powerful challenge to the sentimentalist view, but did not prove to be a knockdown. Sentimentalism, too, has powerful reasons in its favor, including reasons that derive less from moral philosophy than from a more general empiricist conception of how our knowledge of the world works. It is not surprising, therefore, that over time sentimentalist authors came to see that simply denying duty s role in moral reasoning would not be a feasible strategy and that either the position would have to be abandoned, or else duty would need to be incorporated into the sentimentalist framework. I wish to discuss here what I take to have been one of the more sophisticated attempts to wrestle with this dilemma that of Adam Smith in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. How one judges the ultimate success of

2 Smith s account, will, I will maintain, depend largely on what one brings to the table. A sentimentalist who was troubled by the duty question will find an account that succeeds admirably on its own terms in bringing the crucial notion into the sentimentalist hearth. A committed rationalist, on the other hand, will find troubling issues regarding the objectivity of moral judgment and, therefore, remain unconvinced. The issue, ultimately, comes down to what one thinks of the larger empiricist context in which Smith was working. If the larger framework is compelling, then Smith s account helps remove a worry. As the same time, however, the failures of Smith s account might be read as pointing to the limits of empiricist methodology. Before considering the wider dialectical issue, however, it will be necessary to look at Smith s account in some isolation. It is important to see that for Smith duty, while an important part of moral reasoning, is derivative rather than foundational in his understanding of morality. Rather, the primary thing is that: To approve of the passions of another, therefore, as suitable to their objects, is the same thing as to observe that we entirely sympathize with them; and not to approve of them as such, is the same thing as to observe that we do not entirely sympathize with them. 1 Smith, of course, has more to say on this subject than that, but it need not concern us too greatly, for the crucial question with respect to duty is not how we form judgments about the conduct of others, but rather how we form them with respect to ourselves. At first glance it might seem that we would necessarily sympathize with whatever passions were our own, therefore making critical judgments about our actions impossible on Smith s 1 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in D.D. Raphael, ed., British Moralists Vol. II, page 206.

3 account. Smith, of course, sees this problem and argues that the way around it is to distance ourselves somewhat from our own actions. We endeavor to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it, and it is the sympathies of this imagined impartial spectator, rather than the sympathies of the actual (and therefore partial) person that determine our judgments about ourselves. 2 What s going on here is essentially that the individual, I, is mentally disagragated himself into, as it were, two people, an actor Ia, and an a spectator Is. Both the agent and the actor retain the basic characteristics of the individual, but the spectator is able to view the actor s actions as though they were the actions of someone else, albeit someone strikingly similar in his general outlook. The result of this process is, ideally, that we should be able to see past whatever passions may be affecting us at any given time, and therefore come to a better understanding of whether (and to what extent) we approve of our own conduct. With this, one might think that we have at our disposal an essentially complete sentimentalist understanding of how moral reasoning works of how we come to judge the actions of ourselves and others an understanding in which duty does not play a role. For Smith, however, this basic sentimentalist frame cannot yet do all the work which morality requires, for people are often afflicted by self-deception. Our ability to form passions based on the impartial spectator that will be strong enough to overcome our own passions is, to Smith, somewhat limited. As the essential question is what will be the comparative force of the passions in question, we are faced with the difficulty that our judgments are apt to be most partial when it is of the 2 Moral Sentiments, page 226.

4 most importance that they should be otherwise, 3 for it is when our passions are most strident that we are most likely to go astray in our actions, but it is precisely the stridency of these passions that makes it so likely that our judgments, too, will fail us. The result of this conflict is persistent self-deceit in which we manage to convince ourselves that an impartial spectator would approve of our actions when, in fact, they would garner the disapprobation even of ourselves if we could see clearly. This self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind, is the source of half the disorders of human life. If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight. 4 One highly unfortunate consequence of this self-deception is that it ultimately leads us to disapprove of ourselves. The passions that prevented us from using our impartial spectators effectively cool over time, leaving us able to view the situation clearly. When this happens, we see that we have acted wrongly, and we disapprove. By then, however, it is too late, for it is precisely because it is too late that our passions are no longer so fierce and correct judgments can be made. This retrospective disapproval of some of our actions and our desire to avoid disapproving of ourselves gives us a higher-order interest in avoiding self-deception, and it is in order to help guide us around the obstacle of selfdeception that duty comes into existence. Duty, on Smith s view, is primarily a question of abiding by certain general rules of conduct rather than counting on the mechanism of sympathy to lead us to do the right thing. At any given 3 Moral Sentiments Moral Sentiments 234

5 time our various passions and sympathies may or may not lead us to behave in a praiseworthy manner. In the long term, however, we ourselves will come to condemn our wrongdoings, but we know that, in general, the fact that we will later disapprove of our actions will not be able to prevent us from engaging in blameworthy conduct. What is wanted, therefore, is some sort of a guide to action that does not depend on the fickleness of our passions which seem to lead us astray at all too many crucial junctures. These general rules play the role of duty in a manner similar to that with which we are familiar from non-sentimentalist accounts. We may think at any given time that we want to do such and such, but when we consider the action in question we find that we endorse a general rule prohibiting such conduct. We must decide whether we want to do what our inclinations at the time suggest or what the dictates of duty require. This is the first-person sense of struggle with moral questions that I noted earlier as one of the main attractions of duty. The universality of duty, however is not with us yet and will need to wait a bit further still. The important thing to note at this point is that for Smith duty is built up from our sympathies and passions rather than being something independently accessible by reasoning. By living in the world and among other people we come to witness a great range of human behavior and we approve of some of it and disapprove of some of the rest. We also note that other people approve and disapprove of the conduct of others. We realize, moreover, that this mode of ad hoc moral judgment is not likely to be able to overcome the power of self-deception to lead us astray. What we seek to do, therefore, is to formulate some general principles that will capture the essential features of the approving and disapproving of others. As these principles are formulated in large part based on our experience of the judgments of others, our rules tend to converge with theirs.

6 Thus we derive the generality of duty; as Smith writes many men behave very decently who yet, perhaps, never felt the sentiment upon the propriety of which we found our approbation of their conduct, but acted merely from a regard to what they saw were the established rules of behavior. The crucial feature of this characterization of duty from Smith s perspective is, I think, that it can be worked into what he takes to be a tough minded empiricist epistemological approach, rather than relying on either a mysterious moral sense or the generation of new ideas by reason alone that Hume found so repugnant. Though these general rules are so useful that we commonly refer to them in moral discourse, it remains the case that the rules are generalizations away from particular observations, and not that our judgment of particular cases depends on whether or not those cases adhere to some rule. Smith himself does not make the analogy, but what he has in mind seems to me to be something similar to a Baconian account of science: We go about our business, observing this or that, and then project a more general theory onto our data in order to convert our knowledge into a more useful and compact form. The result of all this is, I think, a theory that does quite well at accomplishing the limited purposing of bringing duties of some sort into the sentimentalist framework. The question from Smith s perspective was, I think, why, given the fact that moral judgments must be based on people s experiences of sympathy, do people always go around talking about duties and obligations and how is it that people who seem not to have praiseworthy sentiments still manage to engage in praiseworthy action. There is clearly a good deal of explanatory value in Smith s description. Though one would doubtless want to update the psychology and the sociology to reflect a somewhat more sophisticated understanding of these issues, it remains a

7 highly plausible view that our general thoughts about morality are, in fact, formed by observing the conduct and judgments of ourselves and others rather than by contemplating the abstract fitness of this or that. On the other hand, Smith s account fails to deliver all the goods of rationalism notably the realism of the rationalist account in ways that I think would render it unconvincing to someone not already on the empiricist bandwagon and that might even have surprised Smith had he considered the issue more fully. Clearly, Smith does not intend his account to be a realist one in any very strong sense, but he does seem to think that the process of general rule formation will involve a great deal of convergence between individual points of view. If one casts ones net somewhat wider than the immediate British (or perhaps, more generally European) context in which Smith was operating, this seems to be empirically false. There is, indeed, a great deal of social consensus to be found on many pressing moral questions, but there are, equally, very real cultural limits to the extent of this consensus. Looked at from a global point of view, Smith appears to be giving us not one sense of duty, but many, and it is not clear how conflicts among these different conceptions of duty could be resolved. There is, moreover, a great deal of conservatism built into this account as there does not seem to be any clear way in which a firm social consensus on some issue could be resolved. It is unfortunate that Smith does not address these questions, for their mere existence would not invalidate his theory, but rather transform it into something resembling the accounts of many contemporary communitarians. What one thinks of all this depends I think, once again on one s assessment of the wider philosophical debate. If there are good reasons to accept Smith s empiricism more generally than perhaps all this goes to show

8 is that, in fact, there are cultural limits to the applicability of duty and other general moral principles. If, on the other hand, one thinks there are reasons to doubt the cogency of the empiricist account than than I think the failure of Smith s account of duty to deliver full generality may well be one more such reason to doubt the cogency of the more general philosophical framework in which he was working.

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