Sociology and Adam Smith

With reference to this system of Moral Philosophy, I repeat, first, that the present argument is in no way concerned with supporting its specific contents. In detail it strikes the modern mind as naive in many ways. 

The important matter for us is that it was an attempt to state life in the large, in moral terms, and that this attempt drew the broad outlines of the picture of life within which the economic technique afterward analyzed had to find its rating. In the second place, we should further fortify our argument by pointing out that the main current of moral philosophy in the eighteenth century was essentially non-moral in our modern sense, because it was subjective rather than objective, individual rather than social.

Adam Smith was a good illustration of this paradox. His moral philosophy was in the world, but not of the world, in the sense which makes the difference both between speculative and positive morals and between individualistic and social morals. Eighteenth-century philosophy attempts to explain the world and its people either from a metaphysical ground outside of the world and people, or from a qualitative analysis of the individual mind. Smith’s system of morals, for example, rested on the principle of approbation in the mental of the individual. For instance he says:

When we approve of any character or action, the sentiments which we feel are, according to the foregoing system, derived from f our sources, which are in some respects different from one another.

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 consider such actions as making a part of a system of behaviour 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. After deducting, in any one particular case, all that must be acknowledged to proceed from some one or other of these four principles, I should be glad to know what remains; and I shall freely allow this overplus to be ascribed to a moral sense, or to any other peculiar faculty, provided anybody will ascertain precisely what this overplus is. It might be expected, perhaps, that if there was any such peculiar principle, such as this moral sense is supposed to be, we should feel it in some particular cases, separated and detached from every other, as we often feel joy, sorrow, hope and fear, pure and unmixed with any other emotion. This, however, I imagine, cannot ever be pretended. I have never heard any instance alleged in which this principle could be said to exert itself alone and unmixed with sympathy or antipathy, with gratitude or resentment, with the perception of the agreement or disagreement of any action to an established rule, or, last of all, with that general taste for beauty and order which is excited by inanimated as well as by animated objects.

As a moral philosopher Smith cannot be said to have won much acceptance for his fundamental doctrine. That doctrine is, that all our moral sentiments arise from sympathy, that is, from the principle of our nature “which leads us to enter into the situations of other men, and to partake with them in the passions which those situations have a tendency to excite.” Our direct sympathy with the agent in the circumstances  in which he is placed gives rise, according to this view, to our notion of the propriety of his action,  hilst our indirect sympathy with those whom his actions have benefitted or injured gives rise to our notions of merit and demerit in the agent himself. If I correctly interpret the relations of Smith’s psychology to his moral philosophy, he made the subjective process, “approbation,” arbiter over the social process, “sympathy,” and not the reverse.

If we were studying the growth of psychology, instead of the relation of economic to sociological thinking, it would be necessary to devote some further attention to this element in Smith’s treatment of the moral sentiments. In brief, the argument is an attempt to get a way of classifying actions in the objective world by finding an order of authority in our affections.

In spite of everything, the argument had to smuggle a value into these moral sentiments from the observed outward effects of the kinds of conduct that stimulated them. The futility and fallacy of this procedure is not even yet very plain to many people. Although Smith denied that a special faculty was the arbiter of moral values, he still held that the standard of moral value was in consciousness rather than in the system of cause and effect which the mind has to interpret. In brief, this eighteenth-century moral philosophy was a non-moral individual appreciation. 

It was thus a means of classifying social phenomena according to subjective categories and standards. It was not yet on the track of the quality of social phenomena as determined by their objective effects!


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