Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism (5): Adam Smith's "Moral Sociology"

Since Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue for an Aristotelian defense of liberalism, one might expect that they would find common ground with Adam Smith, who promoted liberalism and developed a theory of the moral sentiments that he thought largely coincided with Aristotle's moral theory.

Contrary to this expectation, Rasmussen and Den Uyl criticize Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. They write:

". . . Although this work appears to offer a moral theory, that theory is marred by an insoluble dilemma: the 'impartial spectator' who makes the final judgment about moral propriety must either make that judgment on the basis of his sentiment or not. If so, what justifies that sentiment over the others being observed in the actions considered? If not, a standard other than sentiment is being used, which seems disallowed by the theory itself and would require its own justification. Nevertheless, it is possible to ignore this problem and treat this work as expressing a theory of moral sociology. If we do this, the actions of the impartial spectator can be considered as descriptive of moral attitudes rather than justificatory, and the work as a whole could be regarded as an account of how moral attitudes and norms are generated in a free society.

". . . the free society undoubtedly allows for the free-flowing of the passions, or sentiments. Assuming that people are guided more by their passions than anything else, it is plausible to conclude that the most common personality of such a society would reflect the most common passions. . . .

". . . Smith's TMS was predictive of moral discussion in a free society. . . . We can, for example, criticize wealth by pointing to the presence of the poor and imagining ourselves in their place. Indeed, the anticapitalist literature is filled with images appealing to sentiments: 'sweatshops,' 'greed,' 'selfishness,' 'exploitation,' 'price-gouging,' and numerous others could be cited. And political battles are generally won or lost today on the basis of how appealing or evocative the issue in question can be made to the general public. In essence, moral discourse has resulted in what Smith describes in his opening chapters: simply putting oneself in another's place and reflecting upon one's feelings. Feelings are decisive; rational analysis serves to clarify, not justify, the sentiments" (LAN, 214-15).

Rasmussen and Den Uyl worry that although Smith's "correspondence of sentiment" is true sociologically, it will not provide normative stability in a pluralistic society, because it will lead to "the abandonment of an objective theory of value" (LAN, 216-17). They suggest that the only escape from this outcome is to see the truth in Plato's Allegory of the Cave--"the self-conceptions and values of a culture are largely dependent upon the beliefs of the intellectual class." Philosophers have a duty to shape popular culture to conform to their rational understanding of the truth. Philosophers must take responsibility for shaping the souls of their fellow citizens (LAN, 218-29).

Rasmussen and Den Uyl write:

"We agree with Adam Smith that we are largely other-oriented from the beginning, or at least as much other-oriented as self-oriented. . . . our real problem is one of learning how to develop the self, and what that means is that we need to figure out how to bring the other into the self--that is, finding ways to integrate our other-orientation into our own nexus. The Smithian position of developed sentiment is not a solution. We never integrate others into ourselves by sentiment even if they 'correspond.' This is why Smith must employ the device of the 'impartial spectator' as a deus ex machina of ethical integration to get it to work. In our view, the integration can only come through practical reason or practical wisdom of the agent as applied to the agent's own project of eudaimonistic flourishing" (NOL, 316-17).

But I would say that what Rasmussen and Den Uyl suggest in this last sentence--integrating others into ourselves through practical reasoning--is exactly what Smith suggests. Smith's "impartial spectator" is not totally disinterested. When Smith lays out "the order in which individuals are recommended by nature to our care and attention," he makes it clear that each individual is "first and principally recommended to his own care." With oneself at the center, one can move outward in an ever expanding circle to care for family members, friends, fellow-citizens, one's country, and even all of humanity. But that care and concern become weaker as one moves farther out (Theory of Moral Sentiments, Liberty Classics, 219-27). That's why Smith rejects Stoic cosmopolitanism as contrary to human nature. The "impartial spectator" moderates but does not deny our partiality for ourselves (TMS, 292-93).

This expansion of one's care for oneself to embrace care for others arises from our nature as social animals, and it requires a combination of reason and sentiment. Rasmussen and Den Uyl object to Smith's appeal to moral sentiments. But, oddly enough, they concede that Smith is accurately describing what happens in a free society governed by "the free flowing of the passions, or sentiments." Like Plato, they imply that philosophers can become purely rational beings, free from the passions or sentiments that move other human beings, and these purely rational philosophers have the duty to shape the souls of those less rational than they are. But doesn't this contradict what Rasmussen and Den Uyl say about the necessary union of reason and desire? Are philosophers purely rational beings, or are they moved by an erotic desire for intellectual understanding?

Smith's account of the moral sentiments arises from a rhetorical tradition of thought that began with Aristotle's Rhetoric, particularly Aristotle's study of the moral emotions in Book 2. Smith thought he was continuing the teaching of Aristotle and the other ancient philosophers who thought that each virtue was rooted in some "sentiment of the heart" (TMS, 271, 328). This same rhetorical moral psychology of the sentiments continues today in the Darwinian understanding of the moral emotions.

The appeal to moral emotions is inescapable. For example, Rasmussen and Den Uyl use the example of a starving man stealing food to illustate an "emergency situation." Here we might judge the starving man to be acting morally, even though he violates the moral property rights of those from whom he steals. In such a case, we must allow for the discretion of judges, who see that "rights of any kind do not apply" (LAN, 144-50). This is an example of "moral tragedy." But isn't this a case where we judge that the starving man has done no wrong, because his theft doesn't elicit any emotion of moral disapproval? Doesn't every assertion of a natural right make some claim upon our moral emotions?

1 comment:

Winston Ibn Ezra said...

I had thought Smith's whole description of the stern moral virtues. i.e his account of stoicism (closer to anything in Aristotle than sumpathos, notably not a virtue) was rejected by Smith himself as being too 'unrealistic,' and that we would better off, particularly in modern times, relying on a corrupted but moderate 'epicurean' ethic? In short, it's hard for me to see how Smith, decisively taking his bearing by how men are rather than how they should be, could be linked with Aristotelian morality, except in some vague way as that both are 'moral writers'. You make an interesting case, how would you respond to this particular point?

Winston Ibn Ezra