What’s Wrong with the World

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Clinician or moralist?

A common censure of Adam Smith may be summed up hastily as follows. He, first and above all thinkers, effected a kind of narrowing of the lens of philosophy, to the exclusion of all those metaphysical and moral speculations by which the nature and destiny of man was once, under the tutelage of the ancients, apprehended and refined. Smith undertook, in a word, to resolve philosophy into economics, to replace what ought to be with what is, and fix the minds of thinking men upon an empirical rather than a teleological principle.

More sophisticated students of the great Scotsman (who, I was astonished on a recent occasion to learn, was kidnapped by gypsies as a young child) are familiar with what is called the Adam Smith Problem: briefly, the problem of reconciling the cool empiricism that dominates his Wealth of Nations with the subtle and ingenious system of moralism that emerges in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This whole huge puzzle I dare not attempt to solve here. Enormous scholarship exists on the subject. Professor Ryan Patrick Hanley of Marquette has recently added substantively to it with his short but brilliant study Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue; his extensive footnotes suggest the richness of the literature.

What I will do here is merely supply an evocative sampling of how the writer of The Theory of Moral Sentiments contrasts sharply with (especially by reputation) the stern clinician of The Wealth of Nations. Careful readers will, of course, detect the shadowy presence of that clinician even in these florid passages, but what impresses immediately is the warmth and delicacy in evidence here, as Smith addresses the subject of love, under both its romantic and its familial aspect.

But though we feel no proper sympathy with an attachment of this kind [romance], though we never approach even in imagination towards conceiving a passion for that particular person, yet as we either have conceived, or may be disposed to conceive, passions of the same kind, we readily enter into those high hopes of happiness which are proposed from its gratification, as well as into that exquisite distress which is feared from its disappointment. It interests us not as a passion, but as a situation that gives occasion to other passions which interest us; to hope, to fear, and to distress of every kind: in the same manner as in a description of a sea voyage, it is not the hunger which interests us, but the distress which that hunger occasions. Though we do not properly enter into the attachment of the lover, we readily go along with those expectations of romantic happiness which he derives from it. We feel how natural it is for the mind, in a certain situation, relaxed with indolence, and fatigued with the violence of desire, to long for serenity and quiet, to hope to find them in the gratification of that passion which distracts it, and to frame to itself the idea of that life of pastoral tranquility and retirement which the elegant, the tender, and the passionate Tibullus takes so much pleasure in describing; a life like what the poets describe in the Fortunate Islands, a life of friendship, liberty, and repose; free from labour, and from care, and from all the turbulent passions which attend them. Even scenes of this kind interest us most, when they are painted rather as what is hoped, than as what is enjoyed. The grossness of that passion, which mixes with, and is, perhaps, the foundation of love, disappears when its gratification is far off and at a distance; but renders the whole offensive, when described as what is immediately possessed. The happy passion, upon this account, interests us much less than the fearful and the melancholy. We tremble for whatever can disappoint such natural and agreeable hopes: and thus enter into all the anxiety, and concern, and distress of the lover.

[. . .]

The sentiment of love is, in itself, agreeable to the person who feels it. It sooths and composes the breast, seems to favour the vital motions, and to promote the healthful state of the human constitution; and it is rendered still more delightful by the consciousness of the gratitude and satisfaction which it must excite in him who is the object of it. Their mutual regard renders them happy in one another, and sympathy, with this mutual regard, makes them agreeable to every other person. With what pleasure do we look upon a family, through the whole of which reign mutual love and esteem, where the parents and children are companions for one another, without any other difference than what is made by respectful affection on the one side, and kind indulgence on the other; where freedom and fondness, mutual raillery and mutual kindness, show that no opposition of interest divides the brothers, nor any rivalship of favour sets the sisters at variance, and where every thing presents us with the idea of peace, cheerfulness, harmony, and contentment? On the contrary, how uneasy are we made when we go into a house in which jarring contention sets one half of those who dwell in it against the other; where amidst affected smoothness and complaisance, suspicious looks and sudden starts of passion betray the mutual jealousies which burn within them, and which are every moment ready to burst out through all the restraints which the presence of the company imposes?

Those amiable passions, even when they are acknowledged to be excessive, are never regarded with aversion. There is something agreeable even in the weakness of friendship and humanity. The too tender mother, the too indulgent father, the too generous and affectionate friend, may sometimes, perhaps, on account of the softness of their natures, be looked upon with a species of pity, in which, however, there is a mixture of love, but can never be regarded with hatred and aversion, nor even with contempt, unless by the most brutal and worthless of mankind. It is always with concern, with sympathy and kindness, that we blame them for the extravagance of their attachment. There is a helplessness in the character of extreme humanity which more than any thing interests our pity. There is nothing in itself which renders it either ungraceful or disagreeable. We only regret that it is unfit for the world, because the world is unworthy of it, and because it must expose the person who is endowed with it as a prey to the perfidy and ingratitude of insinuating falsehood, and to a thousand pains and uneasinesses, which, of all men, he the least deserves to feel, and which generally too he is, of all men, the least capable of supporting. It is quite otherwise with hatred and resentment. Too violent a propensity to those detestable passions, renders a person the object of universal dread and abhorrence, who, like a wild beast, ought, we think, to be hunted out of all civil society.

Comments (6)

I haven't had the chance to read Theory of Moral Sentiments, (TMS) but I would suggest a possible consideration that explains the apparently narrowing of man to homo economicus, along with his fine regard for morals, at least morals of a sort. Apparently Smith was a non-Christian Deist sort of Stoic. John Mueller in his Redeeming Economics suggests this, and it is supported in the fact that his mentor was a Stoic, and other details. A treatment of TMS claims that the students should be taught that Smith's "invisible hand" is best understood as a universal rationality that uses just actions for the benefit of the whole. This rationality might be called logos.

Consider one way this invisible hand of the logos might operate. By giving man feelings and sentiments, as well as cleverness in thinking through means to ends, as well as a conscience that includes feelings for the good of others, the logos behind the universe can use man's sentiments to mold the working out of the greatest good for the whole. Under this view, man has needs, desires, feelings and such that point him in the direction of many goods, and his rationality and conscience direct the fulfillment of those desires along certain pathways. Thus the "just" action is one that comports with the logos's direction for the whole. At the same time, though, the logos uses man's vices and defects in finishing the pattern of the whole, because even these actions fit into the overall plan.

In some ways this is very similar to the Christian view of Providence. Where is departs in its view of what man is deepest down. Christianity, and especially the Thomistic explanation of it, put man's rationality as a fundamental feature. Man isn't an animal on whom rationality is laid as an afterthought, man is per se animality and rationality conjoined, such wise that the ends that animals have become themselves different in character conjoined to rationality: man doesn't just desire to reproduce, man's end is to love (a rational end) and his fruitfulness is physically born of the effusiveness of love. Even more, man's FINAL good is to be like and with God: "we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" - and this final good determines the meaning of all other ends. So unlike with Smith's view, man's rationality isn't merely cleverness and conscience laid on top of our otherwise animal desires, it changes the very meaning of those desires.

I would propose that Smith's very title is revealing: sentiment is per se not grounded in reason. For Smith, man's excellence isn't to know the good and adhere to the good in righteous choice (i.e. to the highest good most fully), it is rather to adhere to all the goods that sentiment makes desirable, and reason cleverly about getting them. Man is a rationalizing (clever) animal. In this view, the highest good is merely the greatest sum total of the goods of sentiment and desire, ordered by reason. The logos merely uses man's cleverness and guides it toward its own ends by clever manipulation of man through. This is an essentially utilitarian view of man, and thus the main purpose of prudence is to rightly estimate the relative weight of different goods and the pros and cons of the means to them. Man as excellent is man as a good tradesman, trading these goods to gain those better goods.

Prof. Hanley has persuaded me that it is a mistake to suppose Smith a utilitarian. For this argument, he relies heavily on the extensive revisions (including an entirely new Part VI) that Smith prepared for the 6th edition of TMS, published shortly before his death. 30+ years after the first publication, Smith re-issued his moral philosophy, taking on board all the insights and discoveries that his study of political economy supplied to him, and giving the whole structure a new frame. In bare summary, the argument is that Smith developed a virtue ethics relying on a distinct hierarchy of human virtue, from the "low but solid" commercial virtue of bourgeois society, to the excellence or magnanimity of classical virtue, and culminating in the highest virtue of Christian love or caritas.

Hanley also leaves no doubt that Smith had apprehended the peculiar distempers of commercial society with just the sort of clinician's cool detachment for which he is famous; at times the richness, depth, subtlety and sharpness of his criticism of bourgeois man exceeds that of Rousseau or even Marx. Smith's hierarchy virtue, and kind of ethical pedagogy or grammar of moral elevation, was precisely designed to alleviate all the corruption and debasement that commercial society, despite its abundant advantages, introduced into human life.

Interesting. According to one article I read, his revision removed much of the Christian influence seen earlier. Don't know why there is this discrepancy.

I don't know what Smith means by love, but the passages you provide above put it as a feeling, something in the emotions and passions, not in the will.

though we feel no proper sympathy with an attachment...
conceiving a passion for...
and sympathy, with this mutual regard, makes them agreeable to every other person...
With what pleasure do we look upon a family,...
The sentiment of love is, in itself, agreeable...
Those amiable passions,...

If Christ's sweating blood in anticipation of severe torture and yet willfully submitting to his cross is not something in the will (wholly contrary to "sentiment") I don't know what it was. I am willing to be shown I am wrong, but the above quotes don't show it.

I don't think Smith was a utilitarian in the usual superficial sense. If he was one at all, then I think perhaps it was a kind of remote utilitarianism, maybe residing in the logos rather than in man properly speaking, while man is subject to the vicissitudes of fortune for the good of the whole. I don't hold the idea firmly, I am just trying to piece together the things I have read about his TMS. If he was a Christian, he was a very odd sort of one. If he was a Stoic, he was strongly influenced by Christianity.

What strikes me about the quotation from the Theory of Moral Sentiments is how much nearly every word reminds me of Charles Dickens. Is this just a shallow resemblance I'm noticing or is there some deeper similarity?

Another stray thought: When he talks about not being too hard on mothers who are too fond or overly generous friends, I think he has an interesting point for reactionaries. As reactionaries, we sometimes feel, perhaps rightly, that we have to criticize excess even in otherwise praiseworthy emotions. C.S. Lewis gives a pretty good example of this when he portrays the ravenously possessive mother in The Great Divorce, and he rather shrewdly has George MacDonald say that the error of the Victorian era (there's that Dickensian strain again) was in thinking that there could be nothing too problematic in a mere excess of the human sentiments. Indeed, Smith is more or less saying that outright, whereas Lewis portrays a woman as being damned by her excess of maternal love.

On the other hand, the reactionary sometimes hardens his heart to say extremely harsh things about people who are too soft-hearted, too generous, too devoted to their wives, and the like. It's a tendency, in my opinion, that needs to be watched as it tends to an excess of its own--a kind of wallowing in self-congratulation at being the only one who dares to say such things, which will be deemed cruel by the world at large.

True, Lydia, but at the same time you need to keep watch out for an excess of taking these overly critical people to task...wait, what was that again? Never mind. ;-)

Tony, I have a few scattering thoughts.

I did not mean to imply that the 6th edition is a more Christian document, nor do I take that to be Hanley's theory. It seems reasonable, given Smith's youth when the 1st edition came out, that he had in fact grown, by 1788, much more grim and salty. I'd not be surprised to hear that the Stoic emphasis has increased over those 30 years.

Where Smith can be distinguished from the social contractarians, from the state-of-nature men, and founders of political modernity, is on this complicated question of whether political life is innate to man or an artifice of man. The ancients took both the soul and the state to be coextensive with man, and the state to be an analogue to the soul, and thus the distempers of the state to originate in the souls of men. But what if man were emphatically prior to the state; or if a pristine aboriginal order existed before the state?

This business (subsequently muddied and transformed by discoveries in empirical science about the origins of man) spawned a thousand wild projections and projects of immanent redemption. It began the reduction of social life by scientific abstraction.

Of course the idea of a perfect order in the state, according to the Christian scheme, is a pure impossibility, given the analogous imperfection of order in the soul. The Christian scheme, however, is almost more radical than Rousseau is giving some rein to the idea that the state may indeed have partially diabolical origin, while the soul is eternal; whereas the pagan ancients were more prepared to allow the state, in the end, to be a feature of man's reasoning capacity, a good thing and a blessing, in addition to right-reasoning. To build a republic is a rational thing.

Smith dials the modern schism way back. His picture of man, while perhaps short of Aristotelian man-the-political-animal principle, decisively retains an idea of innate human sociality or gregariousness, based on the complicated comparisons of human social relations. He doesn't entertains the idea of utopian primitivism.

In my own experience, Smith's Wealth of Nations is studied in excess while TMS is neglected. Even the introductory student who reads Smiths should get a good sample of both works.

Lydia, the thrill of stoicism is a temptation not unlike the thrill of provocation: there may be a time for it, but mostly not. Mostly it is self-indulgent.

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