Sunday, November 04, 2007

Adam Smith On A Moral Dilemma

Jason Wong publishes an essay, ‘Of Sympathy, Justice, and Self Interest’ (here), which analyses a modern moral dilemma to test Adam Smith’s views in Moral Sentiments(1759).

The moral dilemma Jason discusses arose from the discovery by two shepherds in Afghanistan of a Seal patrol searching to apprehend or kill Taliban leaders. What should the SEAL’s do?: kill the two civilian shepherds to preclude the Taliban searching for and killing them, or leave them be with the real danger they will report their discovery to the local Taliban who will search for them and attempt to kill them (which they did try subsequently)

UK readers will recollect a similar dilemma faced by the SAS patrol, ‘Bravo Two Zero’ when a child discovered their hideout, a short distance from an Iraqi army patrol in the first Gulf War, and the subsequent events. They decided not to kill the boy and he promptly returned to the Iraqi patrol and pointed where they were hiding. The mission was compromised, several died, survivors were imprisoned to the end of that war (treated extremely badly) and one patrol member escaped capture and walked to Syria.

I found it a well-written paper that raised issues with Adam Smith’s views on the role of justice as the ‘pillar of society’. Jason has read Moral Sentiments carefully and his paper shows evidence of thoughtful analysis.

Jason writes:

In a case such as the real-life example described above, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments leaves much to be desired in reconciling sympathy with self-interest to attain justice.”

Smith claims that the rules of justice are the only rules of morality which are precise and accurate; that those of all the other virtues are loose, vague, and indeterminate In this manner, Smith promises more than he can deliver as justice is not necessarily as precise and accurate as he claims. Basically, Smith overreaches in trying to define justice to fit too many different parts of his theory, and this overuse confuses the reader’s understanding of justice and how to determine just actions."

Here are my comments this morning but readers should read the whole of Jason’s paper because it is too long to post on Lost Legacy:

“Justice in Smith (and the Scottish tradition of moral philosophy) was the essential foundation of a society shepherds (2nd Age of Man)and farming (3rd Age of Man). It was based on the recognition and defence of property (unknown in the first Age of Man (hunting). It is enforced by laws and punishment, whereas the other virtues are unenforceable by punishment (the essence of justice).

You appear to see justice as a decision process akin to someone deciding whether to be, say, beneficent, when it is quite different. Hence, Smith's admonition that justice is the pillar upon which society is based.

This does not invalidate your carefully poised and clear views on what the Navy Seals should/might do (there was a similar incident in the first Gulf War when British special forces were discovered by a young boy). Justice in Moral Sentiments and Adam Smith's thinking was about the consequences of actions that breach laws; not about choices.”

Further comments:

Jason judges Moral Sentiments on what I would suggest is a slight confusion on the use of the word justice. For Smith this was the rule of law agreed to be instituted by men by which their conduct would be judged, primarily in respect of property and man’s Natural Rights.

The rules of justice for a particular society could vary, particularly in cases of punishment for breaches. If the breach was proved to whatever standards were the norm, then punishment or chastisement followed. As society developed, laws became more numerous and punishments modified.

A person’s behaviour was not judged by the laws of Justice in the same sense as whether their action was justifiable. Justice, unlike the other virtues, was a negative virtue – they specified what you could not do, such as steal from, murder or harm people, for which punishments were prescribed (trial by combat, whipping, banishment, mutilation, hanging and such like, or their modern equivalents).

The other positive virtues are not enforceable. Breaches are regretted, but not punished by court processes. You could whip or hang someone in Smith’s time for stealing, but not do similar to someone who was benevolent. The distinction is significant and I think Jason goes astray by not taking this into account when assessing Moral Sentiments.

I still recommend those readers not too familiar with Moral Sentiments to read Jason Wong’s paper and then read the book with my comments in mind.


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