2. Merit and Demerit, Reward and Punishment
Another set of qualities that pertain to the actions of men are the sense of merit and demerit, or reward and punishment, associated to a given action. This is distinct from the approval or disapproval of others, which is important but an entirely separate matter.
(EN: Praxeology draws a stronger distinction on four elements: the reward that is expected to be gained by the act itself, the reward that is expected [implicitly or explicitly] to be conveyed by others rather than naturally arising from the act, the reward that we actually do gain, and the reaction that others actually do have. Scanning ahead, I am not certain this is quite so clear in Smith's mind.)
The Sense of Merit and Demerit
Our actions are guided by our sentiments - we act in belief that our action will produce specific results in a speculative future, and we react in accordance with our experience in a concrete past. In terms of the emotional rewards of choosing certain actions or habits, it is our desire to be admired and avoid being reviled, guided by the way we experience admiration and revulsion of others.
In a social setting, doing those things we consider admirable causes us to gain esteem, and those we consider contemptible cause us to lose it. In this sense morality can be assessed in the same manner of economics, as we seek to gain profit and minimize loss in our social accounts.
Justification of Reward and Punishment
Our concept of reward and punishments are derived from a sense of justice: certain actions deserve reward or punishment and certain people deserve reward or punishment. The concept of "deserving" suggests that right and wrong are logically assessed.
Beneath all the sophistry, morality relies on a primitive sense of retaliation: we help those who help us and harm those who harm us. Our sense of help and harm may be refined, and we may extend the concept from self to group, but it boils down to that basic principle.
We thus recognize that a given action may be perceived as good because of our expectation, based on experience and imagination, that it will be of benefit to ourselves or others whom we favor. We likewise regard a given action as bad because of our expectation, on the same bases, that it will do harm to those we favor.
We then further extrapolate on the general character of people: those who do good are good people, or friends, and those who do harm are bad people, or enemies. And again, the perception of whether a person "does" good or evil is a blend of experience and imagination.
When it is not our intent to influence their behavior, it is at least the reason we wish to be closer to or further from a person - both physically and emotionally. When it is our intent to influence their behavior, our admiration and contempt are a system of rewards and punishments to influence them in the preferred direction.
And of course, it serves our sense of justice when our behavior helps or harms another person. We experience a sense of comforting righteousness in helping a good person or in harming a bad one as a function of our actions. And when we do not act ourselves, we still experience the emotional benefit of seeing a good person prosper and a bad person suffer.
As an aside, all of this is in a social context, but is also applied internally. Whether we like or dislike our own selves depends on whether we feel ourselves, by virtue of our actions, to merit admiration or contempt.
Also, justice is itself subjective - whether something is just or unjust depends on whether it matches our personal assessments, made by our personal and limited perspective. We may agree with another person's sense of justice, and a group of people may be in unanimous agreement, but that does not make justice objective - merely that all in the group subjectively support the same assessment.
Propriety of Gratitude and Resentment
In a societal setting, propriety is a matter of accordance - when people seem to agree that a given emotional reaction is appropriate, it becomes a social norm. Emotions of gratitude and resentment, and our corresponding sense of justice and injustice, are not objective but are in the same way a matter of agreement. Appropriate behavior is determined in a society by majority rule.
(EN: This seems entirely valid, but obfuscates the true origin. While it is not so formal as parliament, the process is likely the same: that somewhere in the crowd there is one who proposes an idea, and others accept it. The reason that each person accepts the idea is often obscured in the aggregate, but it exists.)
In the social context, we observe others, and per the basic principles of primitive morality we sympathize with the sorrow of those we consider to be out fellows and revile whatever has caused them to feel sorrow, we sympathize with their happiness and appreciate whatever has caused them to feel happy.
It can therefore be observed that gratitude and resentment require us to have as an object the cause, known or suspected, of an emotional reaction. If we see someone suffer and do not know or imagine the cause, we can feel pity for them, but do not know what to resent. (EN: Though it seems our imaginations are quite inventive at finding causes from little to no evidence.)
Also, be reminded of an earlier consideration: our assessment of the emotions of others are inaccurate. And so we react to the sorrow we believe or imagine they are experiencing, or ought to be experiencing, by our own subjective interpretation and conception.
It is also observed that gratitude and resentment are aroused primarily by unusual instances. When a given action is habitual, it gains little attention - and howsoever helpful or harmful it might be to others, it passes without attention or remark. That a parent would feed their own children is not commendable, but expected. That an individual would undertake the effort to feed orphans is commended. To lend money at interest to the public is unremarkable, but to lend money at interest to one's sibling is draws contempt.
We are also prone to choosing sides in any argument or conflict, and tend to sympathize with the side we have chosen regardless of our moral sentiments. Who harms an ally draws ire regardless of whether their action may have been unintentional or even justified - we do not pause to consider anything further than the harm done to a friendly party. And whatever our ally does to harm their enemy seems just or acceptable, based on the same superficial reaction.
He mentions public execution again - when a murderer is brought to the scaffold, there is no pity for him in the crowd. All take for granted that the judgment of the court is sound and needs no individual consideration, that his execution is just, and that it is good that harm is done to him as an enemy of society. We do not care to consider the evidence or the details of the case, or whether he may have been wrongfully accused - we merely go along with it.
(EN: This is a generalization that is also culturally-specific. There are in recent times those who seem to just as automatically assume that any criminal has been wrongfully accused or that their actions were justified, and grant automatic sympathy to those labeled by others as criminals. I expect the same is true in any society in which the goodwill and judgment of the government is questionable in general.)
The Sense of Merit and Demerit
Our assessment of the propriety of conduct arises from our assumptions about the motives an intent of the person who acts, often regardless of the actual results of action, often with regard to the emotional reaction of the person who is affected by their actions. (EN: Smith does not seem to consider at this moment the notion of negligence, and whether due consideration was given to the action and its consequences, but this is very often assessed. Even the choice to take no action draws approval or criticism.)
We cannot be certain of the actor's motives, as those are entirely internal. Neither can we be certain of the object's reaction, but only interpret their behavior. As a result we make a great many assumptions based on our subjective perceptions, substituting ourselves for the parties involved and imagining what might motivate us and how we might react. And this is the basis for our personal reaction.
Our whole sense of merit and demerit is based on the moral assessment of an action. Whether we rejoice and wish to see the actor rewarded or recoil and wish them seeing punished is a subjective interpretation of the intent and consequences of his action.
And again, we return to the primitive basis of morality: to help a friend or harm an enemy is desirable, to harm a friend or help an enemy is undesirable. Our emotional reaction when the persons are unknown is often based on a very quick and superficial assessment in accord with our prejudices and biases in general, and we retain such biases perhaps even more strongly when the person is known to us and has been assigned as good/evil based on their previous actions, more so than their present one.
Justice and Beneficence
The concept of justice exists in the imagination of the spectator: a person whose proper motives lead to proper actions arouse sympathetic gratitude and the sense they require reward, whereas a person whose improper motives lead to improper actions arouse sympathetic resentment and the sense they require punishment.
Beneficence describes willful actions that benefit others, and is assessed according to the motive, rather than the action. A person who is compelled to serve others is not regarded as beneficent - his actions are not motivated by a genuine desire to benefit others, but in his own interests in response to the compelling force. For example, those who engage in acts of charity to win public approval are not beneficent: they are concerned with gaining public approval, and any benefit to the benefactor is incidental.
There is the expectation that the benefactor will show gratitude, and to fail to do so is considered ill-mannered, but his ingratitude cannot be punished. Gratitude is also to be assessed by motive, and if it is influenced by any factor other than to express genuine appreciation, it is false. Both ingratitude and lack of gratitude serve to squelch beneficence: it is a signal to the beneficent person that his actions, however well intentioned, are harmful rather than helpful.
To act in the interest of others is sometimes expected by society. The laws of "all civilized nations" oblige parents to maintain their children, and members of families to tend to the needs of the members of their house. Marriage is an explicit contract of mutual beneficence, and family is an implied obligation of the same. To do otherwise is not unjust, but negligent. Otherwise, an individual's wants or needs does not include an obligation that another party must provide for them, though compassion may lead them to do so.
(EN: This is a matter of some debate, as some would define a society as being an extended family, such that every member of a society owes beneficence to every other member of a society - which becomes very problematic to sort out, and particularly toxic when there is the sentiment that a person should be assisted, but not by oneself.)
Resentment "seems to have been given us by nature" for the sole purpose of defense as it is reactionary. We do not feel resentment of those who have done nothing (EN: though it seems that envy or jealousy might apply), but only in response to those who attempt to do us harm, or have done harm to us in the past. The retaliatory action prompted by resentment causes our offender to cease, and serves as a warning to others that such action will result in similar retaliation.
Justice is described as a virtue, the violation of which is "real and positive hurt to some particular persons." To harm those who do not deserve it is injustice, plainly. To fail to harm, or even grant benefit, to those who deserve punishment is also a violation, though less in the nature of injustice than failure to do justice, which results in the encouragement of their behavior.
In this sense, violence to others is generally disapproved of by "mankind" except in instances in which it is in retaliation for violence that has been done against innocent victims. In such instances, violence seems to meet with general approval. To inflict suffering upon someone to equal measure to which they have inflicted it upon undeserving others is regarded as praise-worthy.
Violence is also accepted as a preventative measure to prevent violence from being done - as most governments acknowledge the right to defend oneself (or others, particularly when they are unable to defend themselves) against wrongful assailants.
Justice, Remorse, and the Consciousness of Merit
Smith posits that civilized societies accept only two motives for doing harm to others as just: to prevent or retaliate against their doing harm.
Every man is expected to pursue his own happiness, and it is inevitable that there are conflicts of interest among men such that attaining one's own happiness may prevent another from attaining his own. This is generally tolerated except in instances where disturbing or obstructing others serves no other purpose.
Every man is also more deeply interested in whatever immediately benefits himself rather than that which benefits others, and may serve to support or assist others when the impact to his own happiness is negligible. Therefore the ruin of a neighbor affects us less than any misfortune of our own, and the death of someone whom we never met is of little interest.
Where morality considers social impact, it is suggested that we may take a little inconvenience upon ourselves it if renders a greater benefit to some other person. It is implicit in the social contract that each member of a society make some sacrifices for the good of others - but the degree to which we are obligated to do so is subject to considerable debate.
There is also a sense of competition, often misapplied in instances where it is patently unnecessary, but even when appropriately applied to situations in which the desires of two parties are in conflict there is a sense of "fair play" in the contest between their interests.
When a man wrongfully does harm to another, there is resentment in the suffered and indignation in the spectator - but also guilt within the actor when he recognizes the wrongfulness of his actions. Guilt is a socially necessary emotional response, as motivation to avoid the unpleasant sensation of guilt causes us to seek to avoid doing unjust harm to others, or to make compensation when harm has been done unjustly.
In essence, guilt is considering oneself in the same manner as a spectator might: to realize that one's own actions were wrongful and deserving of contempt. And by that course the man of guilty conscience senses that one who has behaved such as he has deserves to be punished and shunned, thence the fear that he will be punished or shunned unless he makes restitution.
However, the sensation of guilt requires a desire to be included in society - those who do not wish to remain on good terms with a man have no remorse for any harm they have done him, and those who do not wish to be part of a society have little guilt about their failure to uphold their end of a social contract.
The harm one man may do another differs by degrees. Death is seen as the ultimate form of harm and excites the highest degree of resentment - and it is also a harm that cannot be undone. Breach of property, theft, and robbery are lesser forms of harm for which compensation can usually be made. The system of justice generally acknowledges this by providing punishments of different degrees to match in equal measure the degree to which harm was done.
The Individual and the Collective
A man can most conveniently and efficiently subsist in a group and as such is "fitted by nature" to that situation - which is the source of our emotional responses to interacting with others. However, our acceptance of the social contract is based on receiving as well as giving - where society is contrary to the interests of an individual it is detrimental to his existence, such that the individual seeks to escape that society for his own safety and well-being.
An uncivilized society is not sustainable - where men are at all times ready to injure one another, there is no basis for a group to be formed, as it is contrary to the needs and interests of all involved to become or remain united.
There can be company among thieves and murderers, but only when that group is externally supported. To sustain themselves as a collective they must at least enter into a compact not to rob and murder one another, but to draw external support from a larger group to sustain their nonproductive behavior.
And so while nature requires man to refrain from harming one another, society is a poor accountant and cares only for the aggregate effect. Deep injustices may sustain for very long periods of time on the individual level so long as the aggregate balance for the group remains positive.
(EN: This is largely a matter of economics rather than morality: society in aggregate needs, for example, a certain quality of food, and so long as it is produced by some to meet the needs of most then society can subsist, even if certain others starve. Much of politics presumes to dictate who should produce for the consumption of whom, ignoring the individual for the interest of the collective - and remains tenable so long as the productive members of society are preserved. A society of consumers without producers is unsustainable.)
The efficiencies of social existence are likened to "the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation that supports the building." Stretching the metaphor, he suggests that justice is "the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice" and without which the entire building collapses.
He suggests that it is "nature" that has given people the conscience to be benign and supportive to one another - to protect the weak and defend against the violent by a system of encouragements and discouragements in advance, rewards and punishments in arrears. Without such sentiments each man would seek to his own ends and be indifferent to the harm he does to others, and civilized society could not persist.
(EN: This is a nice thought but not altogether true. There are societies that divest themselves of the weak, and who grant the privilege of violence to others even to the point of assisting them in doing violence upon their neighbors. This is entirely tenable so long as production suffices for consumption.)
That said, society is agreeable to man so long as it operates in "orderly and flourishing" manner that supports his individual needs. None are agreeable to a situation in which their individual needs are neglected for the sake of others beyond a certain point, though the sense of charity may cause some to benefit others while accepting negligible inconvenience to themselves.
The sensible man recognizes that his personal prosperity is connected with the prosperity of his society, and that the preservation of society's convenience to himself requires some degree of support from himself. So long as he deems it a fair trade, he will be supportive.
Witnessing injustice, even when it affects other people, undermines the faith in society's ability to fulfill its function - and it is faith that motivates action that will be taken in future (though it may be supported by the evidence of past experience). Those who do injustice are therefore to be discouraged, and if they cannot be discouraged they must be removed from society. This is the basis of justice in societal contexts.
However, challenging social norms is also the basis of evolution of a society. The old are constantly vexed at youthful members of society when they openly challenge social norms and engage in behavior that is contrary to them. This is often tolerated to a degree, as youth settle into societal norms and cease their protests and deviant behavior eventually - though sometimes norms fail the test and are changed.
(EN: This is interesting from a political perspective - the degree to which the social norms should be enforced by violence. To have a "bureau of culture" and bring force of government against those who violate even the most trifling of norms and customs maintains a culture in a static state, for better and for worse.)
However, the way in which we regard other people is not commoditized. There is a certain level of concern we have with any person as a generic member of society, but in aggregate we indifferent to the suffering of an individual if society as a whole is undisturbed, and may even advocate to inflict suffering on an individual if society benefits.
But on a day to day basis, we are concerned with specific individuals to specific degrees, and feel the welfare of those who are closest to us far outweighs the welfare of those who are further from us, ranked from our dearest friend to the most remote and unknown stranger.
It is in that way self-serving to be concerned with others, as those who are "closest" are most likely to be of service in our own time of need. And proactively, we seek to have closer relationships with the people on whom we depend, or feel that we may depend, and are altogether indifferent to those who are of no service or potential to serve our own individual needs and interests.
It is briefly considered that religion serves much the same function as the judicial and penal systems - the belief that there will be a mystical reward or punishment, in the afterlife if not in the present one, for those who accept or reject our private agenda, and the desire for reward or fear of punishment will bend others to our service.
The Influence of Fortune
Our assessment of any action is based on three factors:
- The intention of the actor
- The influence of the environment
- The consequences that actually proceed
People are held accountable only for the first - having good intentions. Smith asserts that "all the world" acknowledges this principle. That there might arise some factor in the environment that prevents our actions from having their intended consequences is a matter of fortune.
(EN: No, it does not. My sense is that "all the world" would agree that a person who does harm by intent should be held culpable for it, but does not agree that it is the only reason for which a person should be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. One who acts without due diligence to the other two factors is widely, though not universally, held accountable for wrongdoing.)
Even so, the consequences of an action have a "very great effect" on our sentiments concerning am action. We are apt to wish to punish those who do harm, even if harm was not their intent - and ascribe to them sinister motives when we are unaware of what their actual motives were.
This is influenced by our own perspective regarding other people. There are those of whom we assume good intent, and those of whom we assume bad intent. We apply these assumptions of strangers in general, and to individuals in specific, according to our opinion of them.
Most people are entirely unwilling to admit to their prejudices, and wish to appear (and feel themselves to be) as the most scrupulously objective judges, even when it is obvious to others that they are thoroughly biased.
The Influence of Fortune
People are emotional creatures, and as such are inclined to emotional responses to experiences: we feel anger, even for a moment, at a stone that we tread upon even though we know it is an inanimate object that had no intent to cause us harm. We likewise feel gratitude to the sun or a gentle breeze, and grow fond of useful objects. A gentleman who has carried a pen-knife for years feels a pang of actual grief at its loss.
We recognize the inappropriate of such emotions toward inanimate objects and the forces of nature, and this may explain the reason primitive man sought to instill such objects with demons, spirits, and gods. Even in the present day we are wont to speak of inanimate objects as if they had will and conscience, and anthropomorphize dumb animals to justify our own emotional reactions to them.
Our emotions, in essence, are secondary reactions to sensations of pleasure and pain - and it is in this way that we come to associate our emotions to all things. Hence when a person's actions do us harm, our initial reaction is to assign our emotional response to the person. Whether harm was his intent is a consideration we ponder afterward.
To extend this to human relationships, we become "charmed" with those whose actions have benefitted us, and revile those whose actions have harmed us - again, without consideration of intent.
It is by virtue of that reaction that people succeed by way of flattery - with the expectation, often fulfilled, that those upon whom be bestow positive emotions will seek to reciprocate. And enmity is formed in much the same manner as we seek to repay hurt for hurt received.
To recognize the manipulation of a flatterer or the benign intent of someone who has done us harm requires a more deliberate process of thought, to identify what we believe to be the intent of the action and assign our reaction to it, rather than the immediate benefit or harm of the action. Our initial reaction is again in accordance to the initial experience, the sensory stimulation of the action regardless of intent.
And in that way, fortune itself influences our emotions and our judgment, for we feel the same gratitude or resentment regardless of the intent of the actor, which is considered in arrears.
The Extent of the Influence of Fortune
The degree to which our actions succeed in achieving their intent mitigates the assessment of their merit or demerit. In particular, the attempt to do the right thing and fail is still considered admirable though we regard the actor more with sympathy than admiration. To a lesser degree, to fail to do as much harm by choosing the wrong path mitigates consternation.
Objectively, this should not be so: the intent and effort of undertaking an action are the same even if the outcome is less than expected. However, because our reaction is based on the magnitude of the consequences to ourselves, this precedes our consideration of the intent and effort.
Smith speaks to the frustration felt by those whose plans fail to result - they have no bitterness toward those from whom they had hoped to win approval, but at fate itself. The architect who designs a building means to see it built, and takes little satisfaction at having a magnificent plan that is never executed.
He also presents the example of a criminal who plans to commit a murder but is foiled in his attempt. His intent and effort may have been the same, and only by chance did he manage to fail, but the courts inflict on such persons a far lesser sentence for "attempted" murder and place little stock in what might have happened if fate had not intervened.
From lesser crimes than murder or treason, there is seldom a legal response at all for a plan that is never executed, or attempted with failure. A pickpocket caught in the act, even with his hand in someone's vest, suffers little more than a moment's embarrassment.
He briefly mentions the religious principle, that those who consider sin are "as guilty" as those who commit sin - as their hands may be innocent but their heart is no less guilty. (EN: Which always seemed to me to be rather poorly interpreted - for something to stray across one's mind seems unavoidable, but to ruminate on it with serious intent is another matter, though only the person in question knows how seriously he was considering the act, and how "guilty" he may be.)
Smith mentions the notion of hating the messenger who brings us bad news, and feeling gratitude to one who brings us good tidings, as further evidence of the superficial nature of our immediate reaction to the outcome. Logically, we know the messenger to have no hand in the events that are the source of our joy or grief, but his physical presence at the moment we learn the news causes us to make this association. People likewise feel anger or affection to others who are in their presence when they experience an emotional reaction.
Here, Smith considers the punishment given to those whose actions are merely thoughtless - to throw a stone over a wall without considering it might strike some unseen person on the other side, or to shoot an arrow into the air without a care for where it may land, are acts of indifference and irresponsibility that ought to be discouraged by punishment even if they happen to do no harm to anyone. However, we accept that this merits a lesser degree of punishment, even if it does happen to harm someone.
In the same regard, there is a distinction between civil and criminal law. A person who has harmed another (or his property) is expected to make restitution regardless of his intent if there was a reasonable expectation he ought to have considered whether his actions might be harmful. But the criminal courts deal solely with actions that are both intentional and effective in accomplishing their intended ends, and seldom responds to ignorance or indifference.
At the same time, "timid circumspection" is denounced as a character flaw, and the person who spends too much time considering the possible unintended consequences of his actions is chided, if not chastised, for his failure to act. There are legal implications, though rather few, for those whom the courts deem "ought to have acted" but failed to take action, provided action was within his ability.
There is also the mitigation of the consideration of how much risk a person ought to take for the sake of another. To risk grave injury for the sake of another is upheld as a moral virtue, but to accept a grave injury that was highly likely to occur is a mark of extreme stupidity.
Expectations that Influence Sentiments
It has been established that fortune often intercedes in human action, such that the outcome may not be what was intended, and for that reason we hold morally commendable or contemptible the intention of a man rather than the consequences of his actions. It has also been considered that the rule of law, while considering intent, is primarily concerned with the outcome of action because intent cannot be discerned objectively.
This leads to a final cause of the irregularity of sentiments, which is our assumption about the intent of others based on their personal history. We are less likely to accuse a man who has done good of evil intent, and less likely to accept the claim of good intentions by a man who has done evil.
There is no logic to this tendency, though it is very common. A good man is quite capable of doing evil, and an evil man of doing good, regardless of his past. It is merely a mental shortcut we make to categorize any man as good or evil and to create expectations that the future will be determined by the past.
However, there is scarcely a court that will fail to consider the history of an accused person and then to render faster judgment and inflict a more severe punishment upon a man with a history of misdeeds, or to be slower to convict and more clement in punishment of one whose history is benevolent.
The severity or clemency of punishment is also based on the notion of a man's conscience. When a benevolent man does evil, he is his own torturer, and his sense of guilt is often more unpleasant than any punishments others inflict upon him. When a malevolent man does evil, he is deemed to be indifferent to it, and justice must inflict greater grief upon him for lack of his ability to grieve himself.
It can be noted, with some sense of irony, that benevolent men are less admired for continued acts of benevolence - as it is regarded as being in his nature to be so, and thus inured to gratitude. There is not, as with the malevolent man, the sense that he needs to receive a greater degree of appreciation.