I continue to slowly wend my way through Adam Smith, both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, with the help of James R. Otteson (Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life) and Ryan Patrick Hanley (Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue). I’m finding it fascinating that Adam Smith’s views on human psychology, as it impacts morality, seem so modern. About a quarter of the way through his book, Otteson summarizes Smith’s psychology of morality. There are two features which describe Smith’s views, the notion of mutual sympathy; and sociability, the idea that humans are made to live in society.
We desire mutual sympathy, as Smith puts in the TMS (13); “nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary.” Through this mutual sympathy, we attempt to win praise and avoid blame; but more importantly, Smith believes, we seek to be praiseworthy and blameless. “Nature, accordingly, has endowed him, not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves of in other men.” (TMS, 117) If we want to be what we approve of in other men, it is not that other men can appear praiseworthy even when they are not; it is that we want to be praiseworthy like them.
Smith also thinks that the characteristic of sociability is innate in human nature. We are born dependent on others to survive, but more importantly, we have a psychological need to be a part of community. It is in society that we are able to exercise our sense of mutual sympathy; we need to be seen by others as praiseworthy and blameless to be psychologically whole. Both the need for mutual sympathy, and the innate characteristic of sociability, lead to the notion of the impartial spectator, where we are able to judge ourselves by recognizing how others judge us, just as we see them doing with us.
Otteson makes one other point about Smith’s views in this summary. He notes that Smith believes that in spite of mutual sympathy and sociability, we care more for ourselves than for others, and more for those closest to us than for those most remote. Man is driven by self-interest, as well as by sociability. Recognizing that others also are driven by self-interest leads to the impartial spectator procedure, since we realize we need to temper our own sentiments so that they are seen as praiseworthy to others, and to give us the grounds to better understand our fellows.
I also continue to listen to the lectures on Political and Economic Thought by Professor Charles Anderson. He describes Rousseau’s “general will” (la volonté générale) as being the means by which individuals can give up some measure of autonomy by joining with a group on a particular issue while still retaining their freedom of thought and action by adopting the group’s opinion and feeling it as their own.
Otteson, noted above, titles his book as the marketplace of life, and uses this idea of humans interacting in the marketplace to describe both the development of our morals and sensibilities as well as our economic life. Prof. Anderson’s describes Smith’s views of individuals creating contracts with each other, but maintaining individual freedom because the contracts are freely chosen. It strikes me as being very close to Rousseau’s general will, individuals giving over some measure of freedom by binding themselves to a contract, but maintaining freedom because they freely choose to do so.
According to Prof. Anderson, the theory of capitalism begins with Adam Smith, specifically with the Wealth of Nations. The year was 1776. We often conflate democracy with capitalism, and our modern political discourse often assumes that the role of the state is to further capitalistic freedom. But the theory of capitalism and Thomas Jefferson’s penning of the Declaration of Independence occurred in the same year; Jefferson could not have been thinking capitalism when describing government and the rights of individuals. Nor can one expect the Constitution to be grounded on a theory of capitalism, so soon after The Wealth of Nations.
Still, democracy feels like the marketplace; individuals come together, interact, form unions, and create government. Prof Anderson notes that individuals coming together in the marketplace gives form to community, society, and government without having to predefine it. Similarly, democracy does not guarantee that we will do the right thing, or the best thing. It is, in a sense, neutral; democracy does not tell us what we ought to do, but rather merely provides the marketplace out of which our politics grows.