Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Secular Versus The Theological Adam Smith

Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments presents what on closer examination reads as a contradictory assertion of the origin of the ‘general rules of morality’ as read below stating that they are ‘justly regarded as the laws of the Deity”, and thereby conforming to Christian theology, and yet from the previous chapter, Smith asserts emphatically, that the origin of the “general rules” are shown to be found “from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of.

To the extent that the earlier chapter is clearly secular and devoid of mention of the Deity, the following chapter conforms to orthodox Calvinist doctrine.

Moral Sentiments abounds with such almost contradictory ideas and explanations, as if (and as I believe was the case from reading them all) Adam Smith addressed two audience: secular philosophical readers and the censorious zealots in the Church of Scotland.

What do you make of Adam Smith’s ambivalence?

Chapter 4:
How he presents the “Origin and Use of general Rules” in Chapter 4:

“Nature, however, has not left this weakness, which is of so much importance, altogether without a remedy; nor has she abandoned us entirely to the delusions of self–love. Our continual observations upon the conduct of others, insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided. Some of their actions shock all our natural sentiments. We hear every body about us express the like detestation against them. This still further confirms, and even exasperates our natural sense of their deformity. It satisfies us that we view them in the proper light, when we see other people view them in the same light. We resolve never to be guilty of the like, nor ever, upon any account, to render ourselves in this manner the objects of universal disapprobation. We thus naturally lay down to ourselves a general rule, that all such actions are to be avoided, as tending to render us odious, contemptible, or punishable, the objects of all those sentiments for which we have the greatest dread and aversion. Other actions, on the contrary, call forth our approbation, and we hear every body around us express the same favourable opinion concerning them. Every body is eager to honour and reward them. They excite all those sentiments for which we have by nature the strongest desire; the love, the gratitude, the admiration of mankind. We become ambitious of performing the like; and thus naturally lay down to ourselves a rule of another kind, that every opportunity of acting in this manner is carefully to be sought after.

It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of. We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions; because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed, by finding from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of. To the man who first saw an inhuman murder, committed from avarice, envy, or unjust resentment, and upon one too that loved and trusted the murderer, who beheld the last agonies of the dying person, who heard him, with his expiring breath, complain more of the perfidy and ingratitude of his false friend, than of the violence which had been done to him, there could be no occasion, in order to conceive how horrible such an action was, that he should reflect, that one of the most sacred rules of conduct was what prohibited the taking away the life of an innocent person, that this was a plain violation of that rule, and consequently a very blamable action. His detestation of this crime, it is evident, would arise instantaneously and antecedent to his having formed to himself any such general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, which he might afterwards form, would be founded upon the detestation which he felt necessarily arise in his own breast, at the thought of this, and every other particular action of the same kind. (TMS III.4.7: 158-59).

““When these general rules, indeed, have been formed, when they are universally acknowledged and established, by the concurring sentiments of mankind, we frequently appeal to them as to the standards of mjudgment,min debating concerning the degree of praise or blame that is due to certain actions of a complicated and dubious nature.”
(TMS III.411: 160)

How Adam Smith presents the general rules of morality in Chapter 5:

“Of the influence and authority of the general Rules of Morality, and that they are justly regarded as the Laws of the Deity”

“Since these, therefore, were plainly intended to be the governing principles of human nature, the rules which they prescribe are to be regarded as the commands and laws of the Deity, promulgated by those vicegerents which he has thus set up within us. All general rules are commonly denominated laws: thus the general rules which bodies observe in the communication of motion, are called the laws of motion. But those general rules which our moral faculties observe in approving or condemning whatever sentiment or action is subjected to their examination, may much more justly be denominated such. They have a much greater resemblance to what are properly called laws, those general rules which the sovereign lays down to direct the conduct of his subjects. Like them they are rules to direct the free actions of men: they are prescribed most surely by a lawful superior, and are attended too with the sanction of rewards and punishments. Those vicegerents of God within us, never fail to punish the violation of them, by the torments of inward shame, and self–condemnation; and on the contrary, always reward obedience with tranquility of mind, with contentment, and self–satisfaction.

There are innumerable other considerations which serve to confirm the same conclusion. The happiness of mankind, as well as of all other rational creatures, seems to have been the original purpose intended by the Author of nature, when he brought them into existence. No other end seems worthy of that supreme wisdom and divine benignity which we necessarily ascribe to him; and this opinion, which we are led to by the abstract consideration of his infinite perfections, is still more confirmed by the examination of the works of nature, which seem all intended to promote happiness, and to guard against misery. But by acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effectual means for promoting the happiness of mankind, and may therefore be said, in some sense, to co–operate with the Deity, and to advance as far as in our power the plan of Providence. By acting otherways, on the contrary, we seem to obstruct, in some measure, the scheme which the Author of nature has established for the happiness and perfection of the world, and to declare ourselves, if I may say so, in some measure the enemies of God. Hence we are naturally encouraged to hope for his extraordinary favour and reward in the one case, and to dread his vengeance and punishment in the other.”
(TMS III.5.6 - 7: 165-6).

The ideas from these and many other instances I am compressing into a short chapter in the forthcoming Handbook on Adam Smith (edited by Chris Berry for Oxford University Press, 2012).

I should make it clear I am reporting on Adam Smith’s alleged religiosity from his expressed views on religion over his lifetime and I am not assessing the truth or otherwise of the theological ideas of the Christian religion (or any other religion). Readers are asked to keep this in mind when (if) they communicate with me.

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