Saturday, November 19, 2005

Smith as an Informed Sceptic

Tibor R. Machan, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University (Montgomery, Alabama, USA) writes in Free Market News Network (Pompano Beach, Florida, USA with its Executive Offices in Montral, Canada), 18 November: “Is Classical Liberalism based on Skepticism?”

“Was Adam Smith a skeptic? In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, be it sound or not, he doesn’t appear to be one at all. All kinds of moral virtues are affirmed, quite confidently, in that, Smith’s favorite, book and there are passages about morality in The Wealth of Nations which show no less confidence in our ability to know a thing or two about right and wrong.”

I have no wish to enter into a debate on the question posed by Professor Machan at the head of his article. However, I would like to make a comment on his question about Adam Smith, and, en passant, on his side remark about the ‘soundness’ or otherwise, of Smith’s philosophy in “Moral Sentiments”.

Smith did not simply assert as an article of faith that humans knew about the differences between right and wrong, as if he accepted or believed that these concepts were true a priori. He did not believe that humans were born with a moral sense alongside the other senses of sight, sound, smell and touch, though his tutor and mentor, Francis Hutcheson, believed in such a notion.

His theory of moral sentiments allowed for a learning process – nowadays called socialization – from close adults (in proximity not status), other children and other adults as we grow up in their company or are affected by them. The device of the ‘impartial spectator’ (conscience) acted as a standard which itself was influenced by what is learned about how others, as well as ourselves, react to certain behaviours. Notions of right and wrong are both learned and modified by our own behaviour and the behaviours of others.

Over time notions of right and wrong are subject to change; group norms change, albeit slowly over a generation or longer. What was acceptable behaviour in the 18th century may not be acceptable two hundred years later. On the cusp of changing social norms, a rise in tension over what is or is not acceptable may be experienced. This may be a source of scepticism among some, both the stalwarts for the status quo and the demanders for change. Elements of hostility for and against such changes may become evident.

When Smith was writing “Moral Sentiments” (1754-9), many questions in moral issues were considered to have been broadly settled, heavily influenced as he and others were by classical philosophy, backed by two millennia of acceptance. It is evident in his work that he was also critical of past ideas, including some of the ideas he had been taught recently by Francis Hutcheson, for example, Hutcheson’s ideas on the role of ‘benevolence’ and the claimed impossibility of there being mixed motives in a worthy action.

Now, whether Smith’s moral philosophy is ‘sound’ or not is a matter of opinion, but it was a deal sounder that some of the philosophies that preceded it, and towards which, Professor Machan’s ire may be better directed. Smith and Hume did not agree on all philosophical questions and they debated them fiercely during their many conversations in Edinburgh and Paris. They also agreed on much, including on questions of political economy.

In a period of the kind of intellectual ferment that typified the Scottish Enlightenment, scepticism about many things were a defining characteristic of its contributors. I do not consider that we are living through a period of similar intellectual ferment; what passes for the ferment in ideas today seems more akin to mere politics.


Blogger Tibor said...

I never claimed Smith thought moral knowledge was a priori only that he believed that we can have moral knowledge. I am puzzled by this post since it has nothing to do with my point.

1:03 am  

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