5. The Influence of Custom and Fashion

While the emotions and moral sentiments are individual, an individual is influenced by others in his society in terms of his ideas as to what is proper and improper.

"Custom" is meant in the sense of "customary" or typical. When something is observed to occur frequently, it becomes our expectation that it will occur frequently - and when one event frequently occurs under certain conditions, we come to expect it to occur as a matter of course, and hence it seems right that it should occur. This is regardless of whether there is a causal connection or whether it would be considered "right" if it were deliberated: it is the way it happens to be, and that seems proper due to the frequency of occurrence (and improper if it does not occur).

"Fashion" is a particular species of custom, and deals more with our observation of others and our assessment of class or taste. People emulate the behavior of those whom they hold in esteem (whatever the source of this esteem, such as wealth, rank, or character) without much consideration. Certain actions or habits are considered elegant and graceful, and people emulate them to be perceived (if only to themselves) as being elegant and graceful. But these are entirely arbitrary and change with the seasons - what is fashionable one day may be out of fashion (or unfashionable) the very next.

Our tastes in dress and furniture are often entirely under the dominion of fashion. The appointments and attire of a person of good taste change frequently, and what was all the rage a few years ago is laughably out of vogue today. Smith reckons that durability has much to do with it - clothes last about a year, and furniture for five or six, before they functionally need to be replaced.

Other things that fall into the concept of art or design are more lasting. A building or a painting may last for centuries, and a well-written book may last for ages (given that its beauty is in the words, not the paper on which it is printed). But even in such long-lived objects, fashion changes gradually.

Functionally, the materials and techniques of the time will differ and the clothes and furnishings will reflect the time in which they are made. (EN: and for functional objects, the way in which they are used will change.)

The rules of fashion are entirely arbitrary, it seems: there is no reason that architects should follow the principle that a Doric capital should be used in a pillar whose height is eight times its diameter and an Ionic for one whose height is nine times diameter. It is the arbitrary notion of one wag, adopted by others who may have agreed or who may have simply been following along. In the same way, the cut of a man's suit is often arbitrary, and one man whose suit is different to that which others wear seems a bit ridiculous.

(EN: This is also the way in which fashion changes - one person does something different, and others emulate rather than ridicule him. The choice to follow may be admiration of the garment rather than esteem for its wearer, though I suspect the latter is always a necessary supporting cause. It does seem to me that the difference must be novel in order to influence fashion, but the modern notion of "retro" challenges that. In all, this requires further meditation.)

In general, function is always fashionable - an object well-suited to its purpose has a certain elegance that is broadly appreciated, though in some instances an object that is ill-suited to its purpose is appreciated for some other quality, if only the uniqueness of its design. But in many instances there is some argument about what is functional or appropriate. Ancient rhetoricians proposed that there were certain measures of verse (stressed and unstressed syllables) that were most effective or appropriate for a give kind of writing, even to the point of suggesting a perfect meter for expressing a given emotion, regardless of language. But this, like the capitals of columns in architecture, is entirely arbitrary and there are ample examples where the prescribed pattern is ignored and the effect is still successful. We can see, particularly in written works, the individual styles of various authors whose works have longevity - that is, they do not all conform to a given style, such that it would be difficult to assert that there is function to the fashion of the writing of any given age.

Smith considers the manner in which fashion comes into play when assessing the human face: that some are regarded as beautify and others as ugly seems entirely arbitrary. There is a certain attraction to symmetry and proportion, and the marks of youth and good health are also attractive - but beyond that there are a wide range of tastes in what is considered to be beautiful in one place and another and at different points in time.

In all, our appreciation of beauty is subjective - the colors, shapes, and arrangements of things that one finds to be pleasant are subject to the influence of what a given society collectively finds to be pleasant - but there seems to be no universal set of criteria that stands the test of time.

Fashion and Moral Sentiments

Custom and fashion shapes our sense of beauty and elegance of objects, and it seems likely to influence our perspective of beauty and elegance of action, and the entire sphere of morality is thus subject to the same influences.

It is likewise that the effectiveness and efficiency of an action in achieving its desired end factors into morality, though effectiveness and efficiency are matters of praxeology whereas the choice of what end should be desirable is more in the realm of morality. However, our admiration of things often considers their form apart from their function, and so it may be of moral matters as well.

There is little variation in the nature of things that give benefit or cause harm to man, and as such Smith expects that moral principles have greater permanence and universality, and are subject to less arbitrary choice than something so frivolous and superficial as beauty. The actions that nurture or heal are encouraged across many cultures and times, and the actions that harm or obstruct are discouraged - for the physical needs of man are the same.

In general, culture and fashion follow practical concerns: the essence of good or bad derives from the appearance of utility and fitness for a given purpose. Fashion often deals with the extraneous qualities, which are less important or wholly unimportant: a good coat provides warmth, regardless of its color.

(EN: Of course, fashion becomes perverted when these extraneous qualities take precedence. Consider women's shoes: it seems that in every age women have borne the agony of ill-fitting shoes to have a fashionable appearance.)

And as with fashion in objects, fashion in manners changes with the times. The nobility have always been allowed, and even expected, to act rather selfishly and offensively at times and this is tolerated, and in some instances emulated. In a broad sense, a wealthy and powerful man is expected to be a bit of a bastard, and this un-gentle quality of his character may be emulated by others who wish to be regarded as gentlemen.

Manners (or mannerisms) are particular to the "different professions and states of life." They are a social convention, and each person's manners reflect the various social circles in which he commonly finds himself. We expect a man to act like a member of his trade or profession in the same way we expect him to dress like others of his profession.

Some allowance may be made by youth, who may at first emulate the behavior of their parents and later be influenced by the world, and who are inclined to pose as that which they aspire to become rather than that which they are, and to define themselves as much by being different to others than the same as them. But as they enter adult and maturity, the precocious and presumptuous tendencies decline and men make peace with what they happen to be and fall, by custom, into the manners that suit their place(s) in society.

"Places" in society is plural because a man does not make himself suitable to any one situation, but to all the circumstances in which he may find himself and the different groups of people with whom he interacts in various locations and roles. There was in the author's time a very strict separation of the public self and the private self (EN: which persists to some degree in the present day, but is generally regarded as disingenuous because the groups overlap.)

Smith considers the stereotypes that are ascribed to certain professions, and the manner in which they can be misleading. For example, there is a great deal of romance about the bravery and honor of the military profession, but quite a lot of cowardice and villainy on the field of battle. Anyone who lacks military experience is blissfully unaware of this, and those who have military experience do much to conceal or deny it, and perpetrate the myth by their comportment.

Thus considered, the perception of the character of a person is often more about what is fashionable (what those in that role want others to think of them) rather than what is realistic (their demeanor such as it is). And persons who are acting in a given role conform to what they believe it ought to be, or what they want others to believe it is, rather than acting naturally.

(EN: Sartre addresses this same issue as "bad faith" with the distinct perspective that men ought to do what comes naturally rather than posturing. I don't expect it's as questionable as some philosophers propose, but cannot deny it is a form of deception that has the potential to do harm in certain instances.)

The notion of propriety is culturally derived: each society has an idealized conception of the way in which people ought to act. What is considered merely polite in France is regarded as obsequious, submissive, weak, and effeminate in Russia; spending habits that would be considered miserly in Warsaw seem extravagant in Amsterdam. Ultimately it is consensus as to what behavior and what degree is "proper" that defines the values of a culture, and creates the perception of what behavior is acceptable in a manner that impacts the members of that culture as well as the perception of outsiders.

Smith spends quite some time contrasting the values of civilized and barbarous nations - but fails to see the irony of it: the notion that a nation is civilized or barbarous is itself a subjective and arbitrary assessment. He does stumble upon the notion that many such values are required to a given set of circumstances: the member of a primitive tribe must be brutal, because his very survival depends on brutality - and choosing to be gentle and polite in his circumstances would be detrimental to his survival.

Particularly in civilized society, propriety extends beyond functional necessity. The notion that a member of a given procession should comport himself in a given manner is seldom explored - he should do so "just because" and no functional reason can be provided, even those most staunchly maintain the standards of conduct cannot provide a reason why those standards should be upheld.

Smith considers such things to be "the perversion of natural sentiment" but suggests that it is not in most instances very great, and its consequence tends to be inefficiency rather than ineffectiveness. They require individuals to behave in ways that are unnecessary, but not counterproductive. Were it not so, then they would not be able to deliver the value required of their role.

(EN: My sense is that this is how individuals in some professions and positions become sinecures. Those elements of their role that create value are removed or displaced, leaving them with nothing useful to do, and all that is left to them is the non-functional aspects of their role. As such, there is a sense of propriety, but no direct function - though there remains the indirect function of providing an income to a person who does nothing of value, so long as it is economically feasible to do so.)

As an example, consider the social practice of hospitality: the degree to which a host must cater to his guests. There are a number of essential behaviors necessary to tend to the needs of a visitor, and anything else is non-functional. The extra measure of hospitality may contribute to the visitor's convenience, but it is so much unnecessary pampering. A wealthy host can afford to treat his guests lavishly, and is often motivated to do so as a means to display his wealth, but (and because) it is beyond necessity. A poor host may be only have the means to see to the bare necessities of his guests - but is still being hospitable. To cater to guests beyond his means is a perversion of the moral sentiment, in that he may do considerable harm to his household by expending resources to create a favorable impression.

He also explores the notion of the short-sightedness of perception: the way that a doctor treats a patient with a broken limb seems barbarous - pulling and twisting upon the injury inflicts further suffering. It is only if the observer is aware that this is necessary to set the bone so that it may heal properly - and the knowledge that if the patient is spared this short-term agony that he will suffer more greatly in the long run - that he fully understands the value of the action he is witnessing.

In the same way, people often judge the behavior of others based on superficial, short-sighted, and uninformed perception. And this can lead them to become superficial, short-sighted, and uninformed in the values they choose for themselves to adopt and the practices they choose to undertake.

Any fashion that degrades to the point where the immediate and superficial entirely undermines the long-term and functional will cease to exist - but most societies can persevere for quite some time when its fashions merely pervert rather than altogether prevent, the functional requirements of human interaction.