Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Be Wary of Philosophers With a Self-Licensed 'Duty'

Larry Arnhart writes in Darwinian Conservatism 6 April HERE:

[The Left has traditionally assumed that human nature is so malleable, so perfectible, that it can be shaped in almost any direction. Conservatives object, arguing that social order arises not from rational planning but from the spontaneous order of instincts and habits. Darwinian biology sustains conservative social thought by showing how the human capacity for spontaneous order arises from social instincts and a moral sense shaped by natural selection in human evolutionary history.]

“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.”

“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)”.


Comment
I found this discussion by Larry Arnhart informative and interesting and commend it to readers of Lost Legacy. Not many readers may be interested in such philosophical jousts but reading them often helps understanding of what Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments was about. Smith did not write the last word on moral sentiments and the ‘impartial spectator’, but understanding more about what he did write, especially through the perspectives of critics is a fine way to sharpen your own perspectives.

For a ‘justificatory” moral sentiments the idea of moral sentiments moves away from Smith’s idea of a description from within the person, based on observed experience from living in a society, towards some external mode arising from where? I am relaxed about “moral attitudes” being “descriptive” rather “than justificatory”. The impartial spectator “as a whole could be regarded as an account of how moral attitudes and norms are generated in a free society”, which I think is Smith’s point.

I remain suspicious of the claim that:

“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)”.

That is tellingly dictatorial. Smith, after all declared that the ‘philosopher does nothing, but observes everything’. It was Marx who claimed that it was not the duty of philosophers' to understand the world but to change it', which was a self-written license to impose a tyranny.

Follow the link and see what you think.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Gevin Shaw said...

Might I recommend to those who rely on economists spending a little more time considering how much of what they do is philosophy rather than science.

4:04 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks Gevin - though it might help if you were more specific about your point.

Is a put down or something profound?

Gavin

6:50 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

NOTE. THIS CAME TO MODERATED COMMENTS BUT FAILED TO PASS TO THE BLOG PAGE. I HAD COPIED IT BECAUSE SOMETIMES (OFTEN) MODERATION 'LOSES' THE COMMENT.
HENCE IT MAY NOT BELOG HERE [GAVIN]:

On Against the Grain, Amartya Sen looks at the elimination of injustice as an alternative to the social contract as a basis for social justice. In the course of the conversation, he briefly talks about Adam Smith's place in this discussion.

Gevin Shaw

9:06 a.m.  

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