Thursday, October 29, 2009

Unfair to Adam Smith: his philosophy accords with modern psychology

I return to another article in Psychology Today (HERE), this time written by Darcia Narvaez, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education at the University of Notre Dame:

Moral Landscapes Living the life that is good for one to live: The Cultural Airspace of Harmony Morality, Which emotions does your cultural airspace promote?

“Although the philosophers David Hume (1751/1998) and Adam Smith (1759/2002) considered concern for others to be fundamental to human character, empathy turns out to be highly influenced by one's upbringing. Parents and culture shape which moral emotions we dwell on and which morality we favor. Emphasizing anger, hate, fear, contempt leads to Bunker morality; emphasizing compassion, concern, love, forgiveness leads to Harmony morality

Darcia Navaez, PhD, has, in my view, a similar problem to that of Jim Taylor, PhD (Lost Legacy, 23 October): neither of whom is really up-to-speed on the works of Adam Smith, but by citing them in support of their otherwise most readable articles, I assume they felt that it would make their pieces publishable in Psychology Today, whose sub-editors would note that a well-known name makes their pieces reader-recognisable.

Smith did not believe that human characters or behaviours were, to quote a fashionable but incorrect metaphor, "hard wired", or 'inherent', or 'instinctive' (that was a view of Francis Hutcheson, Smith's Glasgow tutor). These behaviours and sentiments are learned and can vary widely according to upbringing and context.

Smith’s (and Hume’s) understanding of human nature – the sympathetic “concern for others” – was supported by a lengthy discussion in “Moral Sentiments” (1759) on how these “concerns” were generated, and they are not much different from Darcia’s elaboration of “Parents and culture shape which moral emotions we dwell on and which morality we favor”.

I refer readers to Moral Sentiments from which I could quote extensively from Smith’s early chapters, but feel on this occasion, his simple illustration is sufficient to make his point:

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments; and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind. To a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention. The passions themselves, the desires or aversions, the joys or sorrows, which those objects excited, though of all things the most immediately present to him, could scarce ever be the objects of his thoughts. The idea of them could never interest him so much as to call upon his attentive consideration. The consideration of his joy could in him excite no new joy, nor that of his sorrow any new sorrow, though the consideration of the causes of those passions might often excite both. Bring him into society, and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions. He will observe that mankind approve of some of them, and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case, and cast down in the other; his desires and aversions, his joys and sorrows, will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions, new joys and new sorrows: they will now, therefore, interest him deeply, and often call upon his most attentive consideration.” (TMS III.1.3: 110)

Smith discusses this process as dependent on contact with others, sequentially, first with parents (and other adults), then in the company of other children (school, playground, street games, etc., the great 'school of self-command'), through to entering adulthood.

How one treats others influences how they treat us; and from long sequences of complex interactions among humans in society, we are subsumed in the interdependent outcomes known as the ‘way we live’. He uses the metaphors of the “looking glass” and the “mirror” to emphasise the two-way nature of the what today we call the socialization of humans in society.

I recommend that readers either read Moral Sentiments directly or, for a short introduction to Smith’s moral philosophy, try my book, Chapter 2: “so weak and imperfect a creature as man”, pp 47-61, in Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, 2008, Palgrave Macmillan.



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