6. The Character of Virtue

When we consider the character and behavior of any individual, it can be viewed in two regards:

  1. The way in which it effects his own welfare and happiness
  2. The way in which it affects the welfare and happiness of other people

(EN: Though Smith states this rather plainly, the degree to which it is considered acceptable to pursue one's own welfare with indifference to others or is required to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others is a very significant determinant of values and a key differentiator between value systems.)

Virtues that Affect the Individual

By nature, man is primarily preservation of a healthy state of his body. He seeks to gain pleasure and avoid pain. Our reaction to appetites such as hunger and thirst, heat and cold, etc. are all well aligned to this purpose. Our tendency to seek comfort and avoid danger are also derived from this basic concern for our physical welfare.

We react in a manner similar to animals in terms of our immediate sensations of distress, and later learn to employ our intellect to having foresight in considering our behavior and to manage the "external fortune" of resources that will serve these purposes in future. If a man is at all intelligent, he will seek to produce and store food for his future appetite whereas the animal is concerned only with the satisfaction of his present hunger.

Sufficing for the bare necessities of existence, and even amassing material assets for future satisfaction of these basic needs, is generally a simple matter and in most situations requires minimal effort. We labor far more, in terms of time and effort, to provide ourselves with conveniences beyond the bare necessities.

In civilized society, man depends upon others to provide for his survival. Many do not seek to produce food, but to produce items and render services that are desirable to those who do so, that we may trade for food in future - and are thus dependent on the members of society who produce necessities in excess of their own needs, and their willingness to trade them for the conveniences we produce, for our future survival.

In civilized society, man also depends on others in additional ways. He depends on others with whom he interacts to serve his needs, which requires us to be honorable, creditworthy, of good repute, etc. in order to have the social esteem necessary to attract others to interact with us, that they may be willing and interested in participating in transactions that serve our present and future needs.

Our ability to foresee the future and adjust our present actions accordingly is the basic function of the virtue of prudence. To damage a relationship with someone who might serve our needs in future is as foolish as to destroy food that we might consume in future, as the former is a means to the latter. To waste today what might be wanted tomorrow, in any regard, shows a lack of good judgment.

Smith speaks at length about the virtues of prudence. A man who possess this quality is sincere with himself and with others. He does not represent himself as anything but that which he believes himself to be, and then only when there is cause for him to be forthcoming. He is concerned with substance rather than appearance, and is thereby fortified against the disgrace of being revealed as an impostor. He does not impose upon others, nor is he particularly concerned with others. He lives within his income and is contented with his situation, and seeks to improve himself though small accumulations. These and other virtues stem from his consideration of his well-being in the future, beyond the superficial desires of his immediate present.

Prudence seldom attracts ardent love or admiration, but it commands "a certain cold esteem" of others. This is because a man is expected as a matter of course to be prudent, to undertake the effort necessary to satisfy his own needs, and to consider the consequences of his actions. Society does not applaud individuals who do what they are supposed to do, but reviles those who fail to do so, and rightly so.

Virtues that Affect Other People

The actions of a man may impact other people: some actions are neutral, but others rendered benefit or harm to others. A man is expected to consider these consequences as well, and at the very least to avoid doing harm.

Our notion of "justice" is the recompense to an individual for making improper choices, or for failing to consider the welfare of others. It is a flaw of character that causes a man to be indifferent to the harm he knows his actions will inflict, or inattentive to the potential of his actions to cause harm. There is generally less consternation when his actions render benefits to others, though a sense of injustice if he should render some benefit to another person who does not deserve it.

Civil and criminal law are the institutions by which the state attempts to rectify or prevent injustice. It may seek to encourage men to act with due consideration to avoid harming others, compel them to remunerate those who have been harmed (wantonly or through neglect), or prevent the individual from doing further harm.

(EN: In the present day this has been extended to punish those whose actions have failed to render a benefit to others who are considered to be entitled to have received it - though in most instances my sense is that this is a perversion of the intent of justice.)

The necessity of refraining from doing harm to others is also a component of most systems of religious belief.

Benevolence toward Individuals

In instances in which an action does benefit or harm to only one person, moral evaluation is straightforward. But there are many instances in which an action that benefits one with withhold the same benefit from another, or protecting one individual from harm means neglecting the protection of another, or where benefitting one individual will cause harm to befall another.

For such instances, Smith suggests that there is a proper order in which man should consider the benefit or harm that will be done. (EN: Which I sense in advance will be highly specific to a given culture - as the culture suggests some are to be value over others in a subjective and highly arbitrary manner.)

Every man is firms and principally expected to care for himself, and is fitter to do so than any other person. He is most aware of his own pains and his own pleasure, and more concerned for them than others.

(EN: One of the foibles of this system, which originated from the Stoics, is it fails to account for unusual individuals. Children and the insane do not have the mental capacity to determine what is in their own welfare. The elderly and enfeebled may understand what is necessary but may be physically unable to serve their own needs. I don't expect that this causes the system to fail entirely, but it does open a system based on this premise to many tedious arguments with individuals who feel that the disadvantages are entitled to be taken care of by others in a society.)

After himself, a man is expected to care for members of his own family, primarily the members of his household but in some instances members of his extended family as well. This is functional, as the nuclear family operates as a unit, each seeing to the needs of another, so this is generally an extension of self-interest.

In ranking the members of the family, it is generally true that men are more strongly directed toward children than adults, because children are by nature dependent upon their parents and other adult members of their family. The elderly are also often dependent, but it is generally agreed that a child is more important to an old man, if for no other reason than his potential to provide support to the family over a longer period of time - children will grow into self-sufficient adults in time, whereas the elderly will only become more decrepit with the passage of time.

Smith ranks brothers and sisters next, and their children after them. He reckons that our affiliation with siblings are formed early in youth "when the heart is most susceptible" to feelings of attachment.

After that are cousins, who are also childhood friends, and their children after them. (EN: And here, he stops, not considering the ranking of parents, aunts and uncles, or grandparents, or other more distant relations. Neither is there any consideration of the ranking of individuals who are of equal relation - given two siblings, which merits more concern? I expect each individual would sort this out for himself, depending on the closeness of the relationship, and that there is likely greater variation.)

Smith suggests that what is called "affection" is the same as habitual sympathy. The more familiar we are with a person, and the greater the similarity of our emotional reactions, the greater affection we will have for them. It is the same with strangers as it is with family.

He then ponders unusual circumstances that would interfere in what he feels would be the natural order of things. For example, a father who has been separated from a child since infancy will not instantly feel affection for the child should they meet in their adulthood. A child who is sent away to boarding school for a long period of time likewise commands less affection. Affection requires people to be physically proximate, and to serve a functional role in one another's lives - such that there are "distant" relations we seldom see and do not collaborate with, who are in all functional respects no different to complete strangers.

In this regard, Smith reckons that certain practices of his time have served to degrade "domestic morality." A father whose profession keeps him from the home fails to be attached to his children. Brothers and sisters sent to distant schools and colleges lose their bonds of attachment. Cousins who live in distant towns are strangers. And so on. If nothing else this proves that the affection between members of a family has nothing to do with their blood, but their involvement in one another's lives.

(EN: It would at this point likely be prudent to disregard this arbitrary ranking of individuals by blood relationship, and consider instead the ranking of individuals by mutual involvement. It seems to me that relations are ranked thus only because of the customary mutual involvement, which may be entirely incidental and specific to a culture.)

The basis of civility, and of civilization, is mutual accommodation: refraining from interfering with the interests of others, negotiating a mutually satisfactory solution to a conflict of interest, and even yielding to or supporting the interests of others because we expect them to be willing to do the same in return.

The frequency with which individuals must interact with one another naturally results in the frequency with which others must accommodate one another, for purely functional reasons. It is for that reason that lodgers who live in the same house will accommodate and support one another, as will workers in the same shop, as will colleagues in an office, etc.

(EN: Smith is speaking to a present need, but this implies a concern for future interactions - and I think that should be more explicit because our anticipation of the future is more influential to morality than the situation of the present. People are more inclined to behave badly when they are among strangers whom they never expect to encounter again - and the loyalty of a person on his last day in his "old" office before he changes jobs and moves to another town can be rather unusual to say the least.)

The degree to which men can be expected to show concern for one another is therefore dependent on their proximity and frequency of contact: our concern is first for those with whom we interact in our daily lives (family, friends, colleagues), second for our neighbors, third for out townsmen, fourth for countrymen, etc.

(EN: mere proximity and frequency do not fully explain the ranking of others, as neighbors do not always get along and siblings squabble. The expectation of gaining a future benefit from another person is influential, as is the degree to which we identify with the other person as being like ourselves, either as an individual or by virtue of being members of the same group.)

Smith suggests that, of all the reasons we might be disposed to feel affiliation to another person, the affiliation founded in common values is the strongest. Such friendships are matters of mutual admiration, in which each party holds the other in esteem because of their common virtues. Those who maintain and practice the virtues we find admirable are inherently admired, and interaction with them improves our own character.

The same cannot be said of men of common vices, as vice is self-indulgent and capricious. Such persons may find themselves in one another's company, and even form some sense of intimacy, but there is no sense of strength in vice and no value in indulging it, and the sense of affiliation is grounded mutual shame. Those who bolster our virtues encourage us in what we feel to be the right direction, those who encourage our vices encourage us in what we know to be the wrong.

Reciprocation is another stray topic: we are inclined to be kind to those who have done us a kindness, cruel to those who have been cruel to us, and indifferent to those who have shown us indifference. This is often done as a matter of course, without consideration of whether others are deserving or undeserving of such treatment for any other reason than it is the way we have been treated.

Another stray topic: people are benevolent as a means of gaining esteem, even when there is no concern for those who benefit from it. (EN: Smith touches on this briefly and does not elaborate much, but the implication is that even though this is not entirely commendable, neither is it contemptible: it renders a functional benefit that is valued by those who receive it and serves as a model of good acts, if not good intentions.)

Benevolence toward Groups

The same principles that determine the degree to which individuals should be treated with benevolence apply to groups of people, including the entirety of society.

In Smith's time, most people lived the majority of their lives in the same area in which they were born, and as such he concludes that this society has the greatest impact on a person's happiness or misery. It also has the greatest impact on the other individuals (family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, etc.).

Therefore, he should be most inclined to act in the interest of preserving that society. The desire to live in a safe, wealthy, and happy society creates a motivation to ensure that others in society are also safe, wealthy, and happy.

However, patriotism gives rise in men the "most malignant jealousy and envy" of the prosperity of any other nation but his own, and to fear that the might of other nations is a threat to his own. From Rome and Carthage in the ancient world to France and Britain in the author's time, neighboring nations have constantly found themselves at odds. Though, also in his time, the national prejudices and hatreds seldom extended much further (EN: though in the modern world, much has been done to close the gap, and engender envy and hatred for distant nations as well.)

The citizens of a nation are also divided into many different "orders and societies" and people can likewise be seen to show goodwill toward those to which they belong and antipathy to those he does not. In this regard proximity still holds sway: the middle classes have far more contempt for the poor than the wealthy.

Warfare offers "the most splendid opportunities for the display of public spirit." Individuals who act in support of a wartime agenda have the sense that their actions are a service to every member of their nation, and are often publicly recognized has having rendered such service. Whatever a man does in time of peace is not praised to such an extreme degree.

(EN: This carries on for quite some time, warfare having been of much greater concern, and nationalism having been of greater interest, during the author's time than in the present day.)

Universal Benevolence

The actions that precipitate from our benevolence towards groups of people seldom benefit every member of the group, though in rendering a service to some members a man may feel he has done a service to all. In this sense, there is no boundary to the benevolent intentions of man, though there are limits to the effectiveness of any action that precipitates from it. Thus, a man may have a perspective that aspires to universal benevolence - we may claim to have an affection for all mankind.

(EN: Smith doesn't seem to mention this, but the same is true of antipathy. A man who has been bitten by a horse may develop a universal fear or hatred of all horses - and it is even more so if he is bitten three times by different horses. When his emotional reaction is negative, it is considered a weakness to be chastised - but ironically, having a positive reaction based on the exact same psychological processes is considered virtuous and commendable.)

A wise and virtuous man practices enlightened self-interest, which requires him to undertake minor inconveniences for the sake of the public interest, when the benefit he expects to receive from society is of greater value than that which he must forego. It is conceivable that a person who acts on universal benevolence is likewise convinced that his acts of service to others, in a general sense, will be returned to him with interest by those whom he serves.

Smith concedes that this is largely a religious matter, as the expectation that the service will be returned is based on faith rather than fact that there is a divine justice, whether administered by a sentient power or the force of fate itself, to ensure an individual will be compensated for his service to mankind in general. The notion of heaven, or reincarnation, even extends the period of time for the debt to be repaid beyond that of the actor's lifetime. Individuals whose religious beliefs include such concepts are among the most willing to serve humanity, even to the point of self-sacrifice.

Self Control

Knowing the nature of prudence and having the ability to assess whether a course of action is in accordance are rational matters that can easily be done in quiet repose. But all comes to nothing if, in the passion of a moment, a man cannot hold to his beliefs. For this, self control is necessary.

The "ancient moralists" considered this, in defining two classes of action: those that require self-control to restrain, and those that require self-control to practice. The baser emotions such as fear and anger tend to fall into the first class, and the higher emotion such as justice and appreciation the second.

The man who, in danger or in pain, can preserve his tranquility commands admiration - the greater his duress, the greater the admiration for maintaining his composure. The heroes of ancient history, as well of those in modern times, are most admired for the ease and dignity they demonstrated under duress. Men are not respected, or are in any case less respected, for their frets and complaints, even when the hardship they bore was as severe, or even worse.

Smith observes that a man who maintains his composure under duress draws some admiration even when his actions are dishonorable. While we may approve of the execution of a criminal, we cannot help feeling some twinge of admiration of he conducts himself with dignity upon the scaffold. Whatever a man has done, his valor in the face of peril grants him some mantle of nobility.

The ability to restrain anger is second to the ability to restrain fear. But in assessing anger, we are less concerned with the emotion than the reason behind it. In some instances, it is not only acceptable but proper to express anger - for example, in the face of injustice it is considered proper to be angry, and entirely improper to be nonchalant.

To approve of anger requires us to understand its source. A righteous anger is a demonstration of morality, but an improper anger is a demonstration of vanity. But even when anger is justified, it is merely a display for the sake of others - to display anger is to seek a reaction of others, in hopes of being validated. A man who is self-assured can take action with somber confidence, and feels no need to make a show of his emotions to test whether others approve.

(EN: Here, Smith begins to ruminate a but on the notion of integrity, which is regarded as a virtue. While he is presently focused on restraining negative emotions, it seems likely that restraint of all emotions marks the man of perfect integrity. But this is also entirely antisocial - to have no concerns for the emotions of others is to be indifferent to their interests and indifferent to society.)

It was previously considered that we assess the emotions of others not only in manner, but in degree. We may reckon that a man in a given situation should be afraid or angry, but we also have a sense of the degree to which he should be so. A man may be right to be angry, but if he seems too angry or not angry enough, we lose respect for him. And again, this is all based on the notion of the manner and degree of emotion we imagine that we would have in a given situation, as well as the manner and degree we feel is appropriate.

In general, we are more concerned with excess rather than insufficiency of emotion - but in either instance we imagine that it is dysfunctional. A man who reacts violently to any offense is likely to be violent toward ourselves if we give but a mild offense, and we shun his company. A man who fails to react to offense cannot be counted upon to take action, or to support our action, when we are offended - and while we are not inclined to shun him, we assess that he is a weak man who cannot be counted upon. "No character is more contemptible than that of a coward."

There is a brief passage about the way in which hardship builds character. In moments of duress we practice our strength and overcome our weakness at times when it is most difficult to do so, and build a sensibility that influences our character in general. Hardship teaches us what manner of emotional response is the most functional, and counsels us to its degree: the man who has suffered true starvation cannot be too distressed when he feels a pang of hunger.

Turning to the "pleasures, amusements, and enjoyments of human life," the same is true. We are expected to express pleasure or joy in the appropriate manner and to the appropriate degree. To be excessive in our reaction to pleasure is to seem naive, to be insufficient is to seem unappreciative.

Too much or too little reflect a comparison to standards. In our own experience, we have the emotions that arise naturally and seldom question whether their manner or degree is appropriate. In observing others, we do not experience the emotion, and can be more judgmental about its appropriateness. It is for this reason that we are more able to observe the weakness and imperfections of others than those of ourselves.

Smith returns to his concept o the two orders of morality - to refrain from harming others or to act to benefit others - and considers the first order to be the principal concern of "the wise and virtuous man." His reasoning seems a bit convoluted here, but some of the key concepts are:

He goes on rather a long tare about the hunger for esteem and admiration - those who seek this do many great things for which they expect to be recognized and rewarded; and at the same time the need for self-gratification does considerable harm, which they hope will be ignored or pardoned. A great many altruistic men engage in charitable works to publicly atone for the harm they have done - and seldom in full balance of their misconduct.

(EN: Much more follows about the character flaws of pride and vanity, elaborating and providing examples, but my sense is Smith has hit the key notes above and I'll not preserve notes on the rest.)

After thoroughly criticizing the flaws of moralities based on doing good to others, Smith extols the virtues of morality based on doing no harm (EN: which, generally speaking, are the opposites or absence of the flaws of vanity and pride.)