Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Old 'IS' and 'OUGHT' Problem Again

There is a growing increase of interest in Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (1759), at least that is my impression from reading articles, Blogs, and letters from around the World, courtesy of Google. As more people go beyond his more famous ‘Wealth of Nations” to read his moral philosophy writings, there is a increased awareness that he was a far deeper thinker about contemporary (18th century) issues of his day than they realised.

The wider readership also cuts into the fairly common notion among certain modern commentators (with a lineage going back to some German philosophers in the 19th century) that there were two Adam Smiths, as exemplified in their minds by his Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth of Nations (1776). Their most common error is to note the publication dates, separated by 17 years, and conclude that Smith must have ‘changed his mind’ between lauding the virtue of benevolence in 1759 and lauding the motive of ‘self-interest’ in 1776. This betrays a sloppy reading of the two books, a shallow knowledge of his life and work, and an ignorance of his lectures on the very same subjects published from students’ notes in 1762-64 in 1895 and 1958 respectively (now available in an economy edition by Liberty Fund in 1978).

This morning I read an article, ‘Caring’, in a Blog (“Adventures in Bowling Green” from Ohio, US) authored by Peter Martin Jaworksi. He writes:

As of late, I've been doing a lot of reading on sentimentalist accounts of ethics. In particular, Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments has kept me up at nights. Here, I'm beginning to believe, is the beginnings of the right theory of morality. It is just the beginning, or the root, of the right moral theory.

There are many concerns. Not the least of which is this: Smith's account is intended to be primarily descriptive, and not normative. The theory tells us what Smith thought we do do when we make ethical judgments, and what, in fact, we want when we use ethics. It does not tell us what we ought to do.

I'm guessing that, in the not-too-distant future, I will post about the possibility of making Smith's account normative, and will post some significant differences between the account that I am pursuing for my dissertation, and both classical and neo-sentimentalist accounts. I will also describe the significant overlap, and why my dissertation can best be described as a sentimentalist account

There follows interesting thoughts on Smith’s approach in ‘Moral Sentiments’ and students of philosophy may wish to read them at:

Peter Martin Jaworksi’s question interested me because I have not heard it before, though it may be most obvious to a new reader of Smith’s book. I have often noticed people who criticise Smith for this or that view on the philosophical issues that he discusses in both of his books regularly pose their critical statements as if they too accept Jaworski’s concern.

Somebody recently accused Smith of preferring ‘selfishness’ to ‘benevolence’ in his famous paragraph on the role of the ‘butcher, brewer, and baker’ in securing a person’s dinner. I commented that to read into Smith’s statement a preference for selfishness fell on two grounds; first, his point was that self-interests are mediated in the act of bargaining and had nothing to do with selfishness, and second, that when he wrote about how things happened the way they did he was describing the course of events and not offering a normative judgement about them. Much the same occurs when a doctor says that prostate cancer happens more frequently in men over 60 than men under 30, she states a fact, not a preference.

Smith wrote ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (from his lectures at Glasgow University in Moral Philosophy between 1751 and 1758). It was a theory of ‘what is’ not ‘what ought’. That sets a limit on his expression of preferences or normative judgments, as his friend, David Hume, pointed out.

Should Peter Martin Jaworksi succeed in presenting a normative theory of moral sentiments, he may break new ground (and good luck to him, I say), but his theory will be different from Smith’s discussion of the history of theories of moral sentiments, many of them normative in themselves (after all, many members of a Church contributed views on the subject). Many of these contributors wrote normatively about the virtues, and several philosophers, including Smith, developed their work without adopting normative stances themselves.


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