“Kant” Revisited: The Ethics of Adam Smith

Rough week. Too much going on. I’m surprised that I was able to write two original posts this week.

Hopefully things will start slowing down with Christmas nearing. I’ll be able to return to writing original writing soon. Or maybe things will never slow down and I’ll be forever scrambling to squeeze in time to do things.

We just never know.

But I’m a diehard. I could be on my deathbed, but by golly, I WILL get a post out. Death be damned. BUT, until things slow down, here’s another script from my defunct podcast My Life With Kant.

And as I’ve said before, and will always say, I don’t edit or spellcheck. Please forgive those errors.



I’ve been talking a lot about religion, nature of God, nature of governance, and so on. But what about the individual’s responsibility in this world, especially what is their responsibility to their fellow man? Now I’ll be honest here, but I think I might have bitten off more than I can chew with this one, so it might run a little long, but let’s jump right in. I’ve talked about a lot of different areas of philosophy but I haven’t covered ethics, so….Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments seemed like a good place to start. Everyone knows of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, but I wanted to cover a work that perhaps isn’t as discussed as much.

So Smith starts off by saying that man may indeed be selfish, but there are tendencies where he does indeed enjoy seeing the good fortunes of his fellow man, even if there’s nothing in it for him. Additionally, we might take sorrow from watching others suffer. And this is something that everyone, to include perhaps criminals, posses.

You know, when we see others in pain, it can become natural for us to sort of see ourselves experiencing that pain. The example that Smith gives here is that when people see sores on beggars in the street, people often feel corresponding scratches on their own bodies. It’s here where he brings up the word Sympathy. However, we experience Sympathy, at least from my interpretation, not when we necessarily see agony, or pain, or any other emotion alone, but when we understand the situation that caused that emotion.

Which we can understand that today. It’s all to easy to watch someone suffer on TV and not really care, but when we see somebody, especially somebody that we know, suffering right in front of us, we’re more apt to feel sympathy. So that’s what leads Smith to say, quote: “Sympathy, there fore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it.” End quote.

And he would end the first chapter with a paragraph describing our sympathy with the dead, and how our own emotions, or actions even, can have no effect on the condition of the dead. And this is only serves to further our fear of our own demise. And therefore the, quote “dread of death” strikes fear in the individual, but guards society. So he might be echoing Hobbes here, but I don’t know.

Anyways, we love it whenever we’re able to share our sympathies with others. But it should be noted that we prefer to share our disagreeable passions with one another, more so than what we like to share our agreeable ones. And of course, when people don’t reciprocate those emotions, or sympathies, we are hurt by the inability to do so. You know, misery likes company right? But it’s interesting to me that Smith finds disagreeable emotions as being a greater solidifier of friendships than agreeable ones. Sadly I find this a true statement, but I think that this idea has large implications on a number of different fields. But just look at your own friendships. Although I think that sharing negative emotions will more than likely find you alliances than positive one’s, but if your relationship hinges on those emotions, can those really be considered high quality, beneficial friendships?

But anyways, Smith would go on to say quote: “To approve of another man’s opinions is to adopt those opinions, and to adopt them is to approve of them. If the same arguments which convince you convince me likewise, I necessarily approve of your convictions; and if they do not, I necessarily disapprove of it: neither can I possibly conceive that I should do the one without the other. To approve or disapprove, therefore, of the opinions of others is acknowledged, by every body, to mean no more than to observe their agreement or disagreement with our own.” End quote.

So in order to sympathize with another person, is to approve of their thoughts, feelings, actions, etc. And this is true even if we do not immediately feel such sympathy. Smith’s example is when we hear of someone’s father dying, even if we don’t know that person or their father, we know that such an event warrants the feeling of sorrow. So although we don’t feel their exact degree of sorrow, we know that sympathy is warranted. So Smith concludes by saying, quote “Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another. I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them”. End quote.

So there are two ways in which we evaluate the views of others. The first way is by evaluating subjects that have no particular direct effect on either of the parties involved. These include things like art, or the actions of another person. So, I guess that includes gossiping. So when everyone is in agreement with the quality or condition of that piece of art or person, no one really cares. But when the other person has something to add to the perception, or approach the subject from a different perspective, they deserve a quote “high degree of admiration and applause”. But we only consider the usefulness of this perspective as secondary. We are originally drawn to this view because it coincides with our own.

The second way is how we evaluate opinions or perspectives on how an object effects you or another person. As long as you or that other person share sympathy, differences don’t matter so much. However, these opinions are much more valuable than opinions under the first category because these are what bind people together. You may share disagreements over a particular piece of art, but you can still find ways to remain acquainted. Though I might take issue with that because, I tend to choose my relationships with other people based on their judgements regarding art or the actions of others, but I may be an asshole, so ignore that point. But basically Smith maintains that if you can maintain sympathies with one another, even if disagreements exist, you can still maintain a relationship.

However, one cannot experience the same degree of emotion as the person experiencing the pain. And this is where I would probably take issue with Smith, as he would go on to say that in order to maintain harmony, the person experiencing the violent emotions must flatten their tone in order to be in harmony with other around them. As asinine as that sounds, you know, asking a person who’s in distress to tone their emotions down in order to relate to everyone else, Smith would add, quote :”Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required.” End quote.

Now what Smith is getting at is, if all parties want to maintain a level of sympathy, everyone must maintain a degree of relatability. Additionally, if the individual experiencing violent emotions want to keep their level-headedness, they must engage with other in order to keep their situation in perspective. Therefore, quote “society and conversation” are necessary for one to keep a tranquility of mind.

Therefore everyone is doing their best to maintain a level of understanding between all parties by restraining their anger or forgoing their own selfishness. And perhaps the best quote from this particular section is, quote: “As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbor, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor is capable of loving us.” End quote.

Now there are some passions that originate from the body, And in here, Smith brings up hunger, sex and even pain. He says that from the perspective of the person not experiencing those things, they can never fully appreciate the degree to which that emotion is effecting another. Pain is a key point in all of this, it is a very physical sensation. And because it is physical, it is that much harder for others to relate to it. However, emotions or sensations that relate to the imagination are much easier to grant sympathy towards. Fear is a case in point because it is not a product of the body, but of the imagination. It is a certain dread you feel from the unknown.

But when it comes to love, Smith doesn’t seem to find much sympathy. And I guess this is due to the fact that when one person enters into love, another person that’s acting as a spectator to that event can’t experience what that love is like. However, one can relate to the desire to have love, and additionally relate to the experience of loss of love. So even though this Smith sounds questionable in this section, it sort of makes sense when you think it through. When your friend falls in love with another person, you can’t know what that love is like. But you can understand the effects of it. So even if you can’t experience your friend’s love, you can share their interest in obtaining it.

Hatred and resentment are what Smith considers unsocial passions. There’s a lot of things discussed here, but in this chapter, Smith talks about how expression of anger towards anyone is an insult to both that person and to others that are present. And because anger is such a strong emotion that people might be hesitant to pay sympathy, even if that emotion is justified. So before engaging in such passions, one must always consider how taking such action might be interpreted by others.

But the social passions that Smith claims are approved of by the spectator are generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship, and esteem. And he would go on to say that these passions are never looked upon with aversion, even when they are overdone. But then there are selfish passions, like grief and joy. And if a person exhibits to much joy, then jealousy might occur, or if someone has too little grief, then it’s mocked. Or something like that. But I guess the important point here is that individuals must exhibit these passions in a matter that the spectator will approve of in order to find sympathy. However, the way how a person feels about their own sorrow can never be matched by our own sympathy. Even though, according to Smith, our sympathy with sorrow is more universal than our sympathy with joy.

Smith would go on to discuss ambition, and how we try to conceal our poverty but show off our riches. And he would go on to say quote: “Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, not mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer. Nay, it is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty.” End quote. And for brevity sake, it was difficult for me to get through this chapter, but then Smith would go on to say that “But rank, distinction, preeminence, no man despises, unless he is either raised very much above, or sunk very much below, the ordinary standard of human nature; unless he is either so confirmed in the wisdom and real philosophy, as to be satisfied that, while the propriety of his conduct renders him the just object of approbation, it is of little consequence though he be neither attended to, nor approved of.” So I guess, people hold others in discontent when they are either ranked highly above or below others, but those who think critically of their situation can become fully at peace with their place in the world.

Now this is where Smith brings up Stoicism. And I imagine, if you’re listening to this pod, you know the gist of what stoicism is. But the way I like to think of it is being accepting of your situation. It’s not necessarily falling into determinism, but simply coming to terms with the past as being an unchangeable entity. There are other virtues exposed here, but an important one is to not fall into vanity of material objects. Becoming a being of wisdom is far more preferable to becoming a rich man. So therefore it becomes acceptance of your current situation. I don’t know if that was Smith’s exact interpretation, but that’s what I’m rolling with.

So then Smith says that when we give off gratitude, then we actually saying that that object deserves reward. Additionally, if we give off resentment, then that object deserves punishment. So, you know, when you’re projecting gratitude, that’s essentially what you’re saying, you believe that that person deserves a reward of some sort. And with resentment, I really couldn’t find how Smith defines that, I tend think of resentment in a different way, but I guess when you’re angry with someone, you would want them to be punished, but Smith would say that “resentment cannot be fully gratified, unless the offender is not made to grieve in his turn, but to grieve for that particular wrong which we have suffered from him.” And then he would go on with this point for a couple of chapters.

In Section II, Smith discusses the virtues of Justice and Beneficence. Of Beneficence, Smith says that the end result of such actions may disappoint, but because they come from a place of good intentions, those actions cannot be punished. The other virtue, justice, is something that we all must serve first in order to have a full and just society because it makes man restrain himself.

Smith would go on to add that, quote: “there can be no proper motive for hurting our neighbor, there can be no incitement to do evil to another, which mankind will go along with, except for indignation for evil which that other has done to us.” End quote. So the impartial spectator could never condone an ill-will action against another without cause. One simply cannot act negatively against another for their own enjoyment. Not long after, Smith states that “human society stand in need of each others assistance” and so therefore, he would quote later on “society…cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another”. And therefore justice is more valuable to society than beneficence. Laws of justice have to exist in order for society to continue.


Okay, so I left off on Section III of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And I’ll try to briefly cover the last half of this work before I move on, so I might skip over a few parts for brevity, but I’ll talk about some points that I found interesting. But Smith is still using an impartial spectator. He brings up an interesting idea, that when he attempts to examine his own behavior and quote “pass sentence on it”, he divides himself into two persons. It’s a strange thing to explain but Smith says quote : “The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavor to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavoring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second the panel. But that the judge should, in every respect, be the same with the panel, is as impossible, as that cause should, in every respect, be the same with the effect.” End quote. And from my interpretation, it seems that Smith thinks that one is more likely to engage in in moral behavior if they have religious conviction because they act in a way where they believe that they are being watched by an all-knowing being. There’s probably more to that, but that’s where I’m going to leave it.

In Section V, Smith talks about custom and fashion. Custom seems to be whenever we have seen two, or perhaps more, objects together, our imagination seems to get lazy and grow accustomed to seeing those things together. And when they are separated, we think that it’s strange or awkward. And Fashion is something that he attributes to people of nobility and the sort of things that they find fashionable or in vogue. Nevertheless, fashion is quote “different from custom, or rather is a particular species of it.” So the two are related.

But, apparently, custom and fashion do have an effect on moral sentiment. Although Smith would add that it’s influence isn’t quote “great”, he would state that when the two go hand in hand with the principles of right and wrong, they quote: “heighten the delicacy of our sentiments, and increase our abhorrence for everything which approaches to evil.” So, I’m gonna shoot for the stars here, and say that Smith might be talking some sociology here. Because he talks about those that were educated and accustomed to seeing things like justice, modesty, and humanity, and those who were raised in violence. So the values imposed by those two environments would produce two different results. And he would go on to state that “among civilized nations, the virtues which are founded upon humanity, are more cultivated than those which are founded upon self-denial and the command of the passions.” Which always makes me uncomfortable whenever I read something like that from that era, but there you have it.

2 thoughts on ““Kant” Revisited: The Ethics of Adam Smith

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