7. Systems of Moral Philosophy

Smith suggests that "every system of morality that ever had any reputation in the world" has derived from the same basic principles he has described in the preceding chapters. This is likely because human life is basically the same, we are all helped and harmed in the same way, and any proposed system of behaviors must respect these "natural principles" in order to be sustainable in practice.

In considering any system of moral philosophy, his suggested approach is to firs identify the virtues that system suggests, and then to consider the rationale that underlies them" what is recommended and why should it be so? Doing so exposes the underpinnings so that we can more accurately assess whether the system is healthy for an individual or a society.

The Nature of Virtue

The various theories of virtue can be sorted into three categories:

  1. Virtue as prudence. Virtue consists of enlightened self-interest, in the man who takes actions to accomplish the greatest good, but whose attention considers more than the present.
  2. Virtue as benevolence. Virtue consists in serving the interests of others rather than our own, even to the point of self-denial, self-sacrifice, and other forms of self-harm.
  3. Virtue as propriety. Virtue consists not in specific affections, but in the manner in which we govern those affections, in balancing the interests of self and others.

Smith clearly favors the last category, as it is inclusive of the other two, and acknowledges that society is in fact a group of people, each of whom is primarily motivated by his own interests, but included in those interests are the other people who constitute society. Neither can be neglected if a system of principles is to be sustainable.

Systems in which Virtue Consists of Propriety

Smith considers the Greeks (particularly Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno) as examples of moral systems that primarily focused on the propriety of action, or more aptly the propriety of motivation to act.

Plato's system considers the "soul" as different faculties, the primary of which is reason, which governed the whole. Reason determined the proper means for achieving any end, and also considered which ends were fit to be pursued and the relative value of competing priorities.

The passions and appetites are a separate faculty, and are considered unruly subjects to the governance of reason. Some passions are founded in the love of one's own pleasure, whereas others are derived from pride or resentment. Both seek to be satisfied in ways that are contrary to reason. When all of man's faculties are in agreement with one another, man exists in a state of contentment. It is not quite happiness, but he is simply unperturbed and good-tempered.

In the social sense, Plato's system considered the virtue of justice, which is a word that has a variety of meanings. In society, justice is granting to other men what they deserve - no more and lo less. We may help or harm others so long as it is just for us to do so, and are compelled to help or harm them when it would be unjust to refrain from doing so.

This concept of justice applied to inanimate objects as well: we may be said to do injustice to a work of art when we fail to admire it enough, or when we admire it too much. (EN: But what Smith fails to mention, and I suspect Plato does as well, is what makes something "deserving" of reverence or revulsion.)

Aristotle, meanwhile, considers virtue to be a matter of moderation, and in his schema every virtue lies at a point between two vices that act as opposing forces, based on a parameter that can be undesirable if it is present to too much or too little a degree. In that way, the virtue of fortitude lies between cowardice and rashness, which represent states in which a man has too much or too little fear of the consequences of action; the virtue of frugality is in the balance of miserliness and wastefulness; etc.

Virtue can be assessed in the context of an action, but a person is assessed in the sum of all his actions: and this is where the concept of moderation differs from that of mere balance: it implies staying near the middle of the spectrum, rather than vacillating between extremes. The act of killing five people may be balanced by saving the lives of five others, but a man who fluctuates between such extremes as a matter of course is no ta man who can be depended upon. Instead, we value the individual whose temperament and actions are consistently moderate.

Zeno of the stoics also held that every animal was, buy nature, primarily concerned with its own welfare. Whatever is beneficial to the self is to be pursued and whatever is detrimental is to be avoided. This concern extends to the environment (things and people other than the self) only in relation to the self. Virtue is therefore reflected in the correctness of a man's assessment of the relation of externalities to the self - in giving to every object outside of the self the precise degree of attention it deserves because it is of service to the self.

He then switches to philosophers such as Epictetus, who was primarily focused on the interests of society, and man as a component of the larger group. Epictetus considers the individual man to be likened to a foot - in that if a man took interest in this part of his body alone, considering its sole welfare, he would behave in a way that would keep his foot clean and healthy - but if he considers the foot as a part of his body, then he realizes it must sometimes be used to trample in dirt, to tread upon thorns, and even to be cut off for the sake of the rest of the body. In the same way, a man who considers himself as "something separate and detached" from society, he will seek his own welfare indifferent to society; but if he considers himself part of society, then he must recognize that he must suffer inconvenience, pain, and even death if it serves the welfare of the whole.

From there, Smith draws that a man who takes interest in the welfare of society should, in consideration of his resources and abilities, choose or reject those actions that benefit society to the degree that it serves his interests to do so.

(EN The notion of an individual who chooses his course of action is likely an important distinction - whenever others presume to chose for an individual, they seek to use him for their own purposes in disregard for his resources, abilities, or personal welfare. That is, they are quick to relegate other men to the role of the foot, and choose for themselves the role of some more important organ whose interests must be served without any effort or risk to themselves. It is in this way that those who most loudly proclaim their love of their fellow man are simultaneously proclaiming their contempt for him.)

The Stoics provide an example of a system of philosophy that considers human life as a game of skill in which there is also the factor of random chance - and in the context of society, it is a complex game played by many at once, each seeking to win for himself, but who must play fairly. Those who "lose" in the game of life ought to regard the outcome with some amusement - it is merely chance. It is the principle of sportsmanship to play to the best of one's ability, and even in losing to take pride in their effort when they have played fairly and to the best of their ability.

Top extend the metaphor a bit, those sportsmen who often win are those who are attentive to their own conduct: they develop their understanding of the game and their skill at playing it. Those who focus on the process often enjoy a positive outcome, and regard any negative outcome as educational. Meanwhile those who often lose are those who are covetous of victory, and have detached the outcome from the process - such men are bitter in defeat because it affords them nothing of value, and their skills are not improved as a consequence.

And to be a little more tedious: the "rules" of the game are not known in advance, but reveal themselves during the course of play. Certain of the rules derive from natural science (such as physics) and their violation will result in failure even in solitary activities. Other rules derive from the social nature of the game, in which the conduct of one player has an influence upon others, who will respond with actions of their own.

He switches to the metaphor of choosing a house in which to live, which is analogous to man's choice of society and the way he interacts with it. If a house is altogether inhospitable, such as one that is poorly ventilated and fills with smoke, a man will bear the smoke if it is not too greatly offensive. He may undertake effort to repair the house to improve the ventilation and decrease the smoke. Or he may abandon the house and seek another place to live. Such is man's disposition to the community in which he lives - to bear the inconvenience, attempt to make improvements, or to leave it.

A similar metaphor is presented, as the conduct of a dinner guest who will get a good meal of his host, but must suffer the long and boring stories his host will tell at the table. To accept an invitation to dinner is to consent to be annoyed by the host. And such is the situation with human life in general, in which people will place themselves in situations they know will be offensive, but of which they seek a specific benefit. The Stoics advice: "Never complain of that of which it is at all times in your power to rid yourself."

The Stoics extended this meditation to life itself: that man chooses to live, as suicide is always an option where life has nothing to offer but misery. In choosing to live, we also accept the inconveniences and pleasantries of living because we assess that, on the whole, the benefits outweigh the detriments. However, our choices reflect our assessment of the future, and the wise man considers the distant future: he may be unhappy now but predicts that he will be happy in future, and so choose to remain and suffer through a period of strife. Conversely, a happy man may choose to "remove himself form life" if he predicts nothing but misery for the future.

While the notion of rational suicide seemed acceptable to almost all of the philosophies of ancient Greece, the act of suicide was not very common in that society. Here, Smith makes rather a tedious account of Greek history, as a matter of supporting this statement. He then switches briefly to the Romans, who found voluntary death to be far more fashionable, though he suspects that some of the accounts are merely legends to grant a good death to those who were respected in life.

In general, there is contempt for the principle of suicide. If nature and propriety guide us to do what is constructive to life, then self-destruction would seem to be categorically wrong. We imagine those who choose to leave life as being mentally flawed, lacking the rational faculties to perceive a better future. However, this is the flawed judgment of an observer who speaks from ignorance in consideration of his own interests and priorities, knowing little of the situation and interests of the person on whom he is passing judgment.

(EN: The topic of self-destruction is further pondered, in very tedious detail, but I sense there's little more of value to be had. It is interesting as an extreme example of the choice to engage in activities that are harmful to oneself without apparent benefit to anyone, and my sense is that further exploration will yield little value beyond what has already been considered. And so, I'm skipping forward.)

Man's perspective is skewed to the scope and breadth of the present. An option is attractive because the value it produces is immediate, dramatic, and soon. It is more attractive than an option whose values are distant, moderate, and in the future. It is attractive even if the short-term benefit is outweighed by a long-term detriment.

That is not to say that man will not endure present hardship for future benefits, merely that it requires some deliberation for him to accept such a proposition. And because he has applied his intellect to considering a broader and longer range, he is regarded as wise for having made such choices.

Philosophy itself is regarded as confounding and perplexing because systems of morality tend to consider a broader scope and longevity than man is naturally inclined. The hedonist, concerned only with his immediate gratification, has no interest in philosophy at all - he can assess for himself the immediate value of any action and has no interest beyond his appetites of the moment. And in this manner those who are ignorant tend to remain so.

Smith returns to his own present, considering some of the philosophers of his day, and the manner in which their systems are essentially similar to those of the Stoics. (EN: This is of little interests, especially given that those whom he names have been forgotten by history.)

Systems in which Virtue Consists of Prudence

Epicurus, another philosopher of ancient Greece, maintained that pleasure and pain were the basis of morality, and provide guidance to men. Pleasure resulted from action that contributes to life and should be pursued, whereas pain results from action that is detrimental to life and to be avoided. This provided a basic framework for conduct, and one that is natural and often inevitable.

However, Epicurus was not a pure hedonist, and acknowledge that man applies wisdom and foresight. Experience, or at least reason, informs a man that some things that cause brief pleasure and greater pain, and that there were instances in which a minor or short-lived pleasure should be avoided to gain a greater or more long-lived one. Likewise it is at times necessary to endure pain to produce pleasure or avoid greater or more long-lived pain.

He further theorized that the pleasures and pains of the mind are ultimately derived from those of the body. A person can be happy in the memory of a past pleasure or anticipation of a future one - and can even take pleasure in musing about things he will never actually do. But imagination and memory are divorced from reality - they do not correspond to the actual sensation, and may be greater or less.

Pain, particularly, is accentuated by negative expectations. The displeasure of the moment, however acute, is less distressing than the imagined pain that we fear will follow, either from the same cause or as consequences. To lose a hand is painful, but imagining our future life without it is even more agonizing. Pleasure is not necessarily accentuated by positive expectations of what will result, but the anticipation of pleasure is often more gratifying than the actual pleasure we enjoy when the moment arrives.

In this sense, Epicurus considers that happiness and misery are chiefly products of the mind, based upon the sensations we anticipate more than those we experience. However, inasmuch as our future expectations are based on past experience, our memories craft the manner and degree of our expectations. Also, the pleasure or pain of the moment can be mitigated by memories and expectations. A man may endure hardship in the expectation that his present behavior will provide pleasure in future.

It then follows that the security and tranquility of the mind is to be found when man is enjoying pleasure in sensation, memory, or anticipation, unperturbed by pain. The sole object of all the virtues was to achieve this state.

Prudence, for example, was not desirable on its own account, but as a careful consideration of the action that would achieve the greatest possible satisfaction over the longest period of time. To abstain from pleasure could also never be desirable for its own sake, except to restrain oneself from overindulgence - to experience the maximum amount of pleasure without crossing a threshold that would lead to a state of pain. To engage in an unpleasant activity was likewise not inherently virtuous except in its contribution to future pleasure.

It is mentioned that Epicurus himself was considered by others of his time to be an amiable man, considerate of others and well-mannered, which seems curious to those who consider his philosophy to be self-centered - but the pleasure a man takes in his friends, in good company, and in being well regarded by others first his notion of enduring inconvenience for the sake of pleasure.

In terms of interaction with others, the Epicurean morality maintains that an individual ought to consider the interests of others only insofar as it served his own. To live in fear of retaliation, or to be subject to mistrust or consternation, was a disturbance to our present state of mind and an obstacle to our future pleasure. To please others was to anticipate a future in which they would please us in return, or at least to refrain from harming us or interfering with our pleasure.

This entire approach seems rather simplistic in its binary nature, especially in contrast to other philosophers who often provide rather lengthy lists of virtues, but often fail to demonstrate the reason these virtues should be desirable aside from their functional consequences, which were often insufficient to explain their desirability.

Systems in which Virtue Consists of Benevolence

Philosophies that consider benevolence to ne the sole principle of action are rare and no so ancient as those based on propriety or prudence.

Benevolence is a reflection of the divine: religions imagine the existence of a deity who shows love to mankind, as a parent to a child, and acts in his benefit at all times, regardless of whether it is merited by any rational standard. Those philosophers who maintain that man is a reflection of the divine maintain that men should assume the same duty in regard to his fellow man, and imitate the omnibenevolence of a deity.

Other systems of morality qualify benevolence, and prescribe it when it is proper. Specifically, they require the recipient to deserve the benefit of benevolence, as a reward for past actions or an incentive for future actions that ultimately benefit their benefactor. Where a system is based on benevolence, absent reason, the notion of merit is removed - benevolence has nothing to do with the recipient.

By such a system, man is encouraged to show kindness to all without discretion and without compensation. Even the desire or expectation to be applauded or thanked for his action calls into question his benevolence. Any selfish motive is like "a baser alloy" that diminishes or spoils the motive of the actor, whose motivation must be untainted, pure, and disinterested benevolence.

If there be any rationale to the principle of unqualified benevolence, it is the belief that whatever promotes the happiness of mankind, or even the happiness of a small group or an individual, improves society. Other systems may attempt to define the way in which this improvement renders a benefit to the benefactor, but the philosophy of benevolence is entirely indifferent to the interests of the benefactor.

By the same logic, the option that grants the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people is to be preferred. Hence the virtue of an action, and the virtue of the man who chooses an action, are based entirely on the scope and scale of the desired outcome.

The philosophy of benevolence is indifferent to the self, and seems in general to revile self-love and favor self-contempt. To benefit others while harming oneself is the pinnacle of virtue, and the greater the harm, the more virtuous the action.

And herein lies the flaw in such a system: if benevolence is not interested in the recipient, nor interested in the benefactor, why should anyone be interested in it? There is no rational answer, as beneficence is taken as good in itself - and desirable "just because." It is likely for this reason that philosophies of benevolence require the backing of a deity and unquestioning followers.

Licentious Systems

The three systems described thus far have in common that they maintain a "real and essential distinction" between vice and virtue, though they may be in disagreement as to the reason a given action would be categorized as virtuous or vicious. They also seek to encourage the best habits of the human mind, and those most fit to his welfare or that of his society - and as both self and society are of interest to man, there is something to be learned from each of them.

There is another system, which proposes to ignore altogether the distinction between vice and virtue, to accept human nature such as it is and to provide no discouragement to the appetites and whims of the individual. Smith singles out Bernard de Mandeville as the author of such philosophies.

(EN: Mandeville was not the originator of these theories, but was a contemporary of Smith and a well-known antagonist of moralists. His theories about the "animal spirit" of man was contentious and he became something of a straw man, and there's quite some debate over whether Mandeville's intentions were genuine or he was merely playing devils' advocate. However, given the recent advances in neurology, there is some merit to the notion of the animal brain - though even now there remains the principle that the animal mind is base and inferior and should be controlled and discouraged.)

Licentious systems do nothing to discourage man from acting on whim, and regard propriety as mere vanity. That is, that man acts impulsively and is driven by his most base desires and selfish appetites, and philosophy is merely justification or rationalization: he acts first and thinks afterward, and contrives a way to ascribe to himself higher motive and reassure himself that there was some commendable reason for doing as he damned well pleases at any given moment. Furthermore, the attempt of one man to foist the notion of morality upon others is merely a sophisticated deception with the sole goal of manipulating others to serving one's own personal interests.

Smith does not deny the existence of baser motives, but maintains that it is the nature of man, granted intelligence and reason, to master them rather than to let them master him. Further, two of the three systems he previously described account for self-love as motive for action and a standard of morality - but apply logic to understanding self-interest and in serving it in an intelligent manner, to consider the breadth and longevity of any benefit to oneself and making a choice that is superior to our inclinations of the moment.

Smith attempts to dismiss the notion that morality is superficial vanity, as vanity is a desire to be admired, by others or oneself, without merit. A person who is vain desires acclaim and praise even, or perhaps especially, when he has done nothing that is praiseworthy. These systems of morality provide a rational basis for praise, and the desire to be praised for an action that merits praise cannot be accurately regarded as vain.

He further speaks of acclaim as a motivation to act: if the two or divorced, man is not encouraged to act in ways that merit acclaim - and in that sense pride can be a positive force for motivating functional action, but only in instances where the pride is earned. It is not a gratification of a base instinct, but a fulfillment of the principle of justice, to give or accept praise for doing what is praiseworthy.

Even so, it is conceded that the most honorable and virtuous of men are indifferent to the opinion of others. They pursue virtue for the sake of being virtuous, in their own estimation, and the praise and condemnation of others matter very little to the individual himself. But praise and condemnation are social phenomena, and as such serve to encourage morality of others in society. Praise is a social signal that teaches others what is praiseworthy.

Mandeville's philosophy condemns mindless self-denial, which is often witnessed, but which is a perversion and misinterpretation of morality. The level of asceticism that requires a man to deny his own needs, seek pain, or avoid pleasure with no other purpose is no less intelligent than the level of hedonism that leads a man to seek immediate gratification of all his urges. The wise man sees to his own pleasure, but in full consideration of the consequences, envisioning the full scope and measure of the outcome of any course of action, and in choosing the option that delivers a degree and longevity of pleasure. That is to say that morality can and does serve the interests of an individual - and aim at restraining passions only inasmuch as entertaining them is harmful to the individual.

Smith also contends that it is a fallacy to represent any passion as wholly vicious. There are passions that can be indulged without harm to oneself or to others, and these are wholly outside of morality. A man's pleasure is arbitrary and a matter of personal choice, and if he should choose a course of action that harms no-one it cannot be classified as vice.

(EN: This point is often belabored by those who imagine that the resources expended on fulfilling one desires might better have been used to fulfill another - but vice is not about economic efficiency, merely in doing harm. If the integrity of the individual is respected, then it must be assumed that he considered his options and chose the one he found most pleasing, and it is not for anyone else to make this choice for him, as they are unaware of his interests and are most often attempting to manipulate him to serve their own agenda.)

While smith considers Mandeville to have been "so much noise" he nonetheless considers it valuable to understand the nature of vice and man's motives - but it is not a system that could be sustained on any scale for any length of time.

(EN: My sense is that self-gratification is sustainable to the extent of one's resources, and this can commonly be seen in the heirs of wealthy individuals who squander their fortunes - a sizable fortune may take a lifetime, even multiple generations, to completely exhaust.)

Systems Based on Approbation

Smith considers "approbation" to concern the "faculty of the mind which renders certain characters agreeable or disagreeable" and to "prefer one tenor of conduct to another." It is not so much a matter of whether a thing is inherently right or wrong, but whether it is regarded as such by an observer.

The cause of this sentiment is a feedback loop of intellect and emotion. We may be impressed or disgusted with what we see because we recognize that it is helpful or harmful, fit or unfit - and in these instances our rational beliefs result in that emotional reaction. In other instances we have an emotional reaction first and rationalize it afterward.

The second instance, emotion leading reason, cannot be denied - even though we wish for reason to govern us, we are often caught unaware by things we fail to ponder, are overcome by emotion, and justify our emotions afterward.

(EN: This seems like conjecture, as no general statement can be made. Some men are inclined to be thoughtful and contemplative, others are inclined merely to react to what they encounter and think about it very little, if at all. I don't expect any person falls purely into one category or the other in a binary manner.)

Approbation Derives from Self-Love

Smith contends "there is a good deal of confusion and inaccuracy" in the various systems that maintain that approbation derives from self-love.

Some maintain that man seeks refuge in society, as society provides him with ease and safety. So it follows that such a person would approve of the behavior of others that contribute to his own ease and safety, and disapprove of the behavior of others that are detrimental to his own ease or safety.

Others suggest, in a vague way, that society is an end in itself and the welfare of the group is regarded as primary to personal interests. It could be argued that it is a personal interest in the welfare of society, but whatever the case approval or disapproval is based on the assessment of whether the behavior of others is beneficial or detrimental to welfare of the group.

The perspective that man values society, rather than himself, is unfocused and confused, as society is an abstraction: when one man harms another, we must first consider which side we take - which of these men represents society and which is the subversive. By default we imagine society to consist of people like ourselves, and as such our greatest sympathy is to those of a similar race, religion, profession, or other superficial matter - this is the "society" man means to protect, a group of which he considers himself to be a member.

A diversion: sympathy toward society seems selfish, though Smith debates that it is not so, because our sympathies are focused on other people - we can sympathize with another person's loss while suffering no loss of our own, and when we do so our thoughts originate and reflect back to this other person, though it is filtered through the imagination of ourselves in a similar state.

Both of these systems have a perspective that is ultimately derived from utility - the serviceableness of an action to achieving the goal, whether the goal is the welfare of the individual himself or the society whose interests he wishes to advance. Per his earlier point, men may react emotionally without fully understanding the method by which behavior is beneficial or harmful, and justify their emotional reaction afterward.

Approbation Derives from Reason

Going back to Hobbes, his philosophy was predicated on the notion that a state of nature is a state of war, that there could be no safe or peaceable society of men without civil government. And so it followed that to support government was to support society itself because it was the only means by which society exists.

Religious theories are little different, as they likewise contend that the threat of a deity or mystical force is all that restrains men from constantly attacking one another. And so it follows that adherence to religion is the only means by which society exists.

Both of these systems ignore the rational faculty of man, which needs no threat of punishment from others (government authority or religious deity) is necessary to give man incentive to pursue what is in his own interests - the value he gains by moderating his behavior is the means by which he derives value from society.

(EN: Something that Smith is forgetting, or perhaps avoiding, is that man must apply his logical faculty to recognize the value of society and overcome his immediate urges to think of the broader and longer consequences of an action. Men often act without reason or foresight, and are punished by the consequences of action. The threat that is used by government or religion provides an indication before action is taken, which may be necessary for men who do not apply their minds in a given situation - and to suggest consequences they can understand in place of those they fail to consider. This may stray into the political realm, but this would seem to be a premise of the definition of roles of government - whether it is to proactively compel a citizen to behave in a constructive manner, or merely to react in instances in people choose to act in a destructive manner.)

But law and religion are both the machinations of men who, in the best of cases, apply rationale to their decision of what behaviors they wish to encourage or discourage in others. Whether the subjects or adherents are allowed to follow the course of their own reason, or are expected to react to threat in following the course of reasoning determined by a legislator or pries, it remains plain that our standards or right and wrong are derived from the reasoning of a human mind, even if that mind is not our own.

As such, vice and virtue are the products of reason, and are based on some species of logic that assesses whether a given action is beneficial or harmful to society. But reason cannot assess any action to be agreeable or disagreeable for its own sake - but instead assess actions according to their consequences. It is the expectation that the outcome of an action will be beneficial or harmful that lead us to deduce that the action itself is to be encouraged or discouraged.

Pleasure and pain are reactions that are not governed by reason: we do not find something pleasant or painful because it is logical for it to be this, but simply experience the sensation that happens to occur. The irony here is that reason is applied to the course of action that cause these irrational responses to occur. That is, we use rational means to achieve irrational results.

He returns briefly to the notion of emotional reactions: it would be altogether absurd to suggest or expect that a person has applied his rational faculty to every situation that might arise - and in instances where man has no experience or forethought his reaction can only be emotional.

In this regard, our pleasure or pain experienced first-hand trumps all reason that suggests what our reaction ought to be. If we feel pleasure then we conclude without a deductive process that whatever caused that pleasure should be encouraged; and if we feel pain then we conclude with as little thought that whatever caused that pain must be discouraged.

(EN: what would seem to derive from this is that it is logic that informs these assessments, particularly in the analysis of the causal relationship and the resulting emotion. And in that regard reason is indispensible.)

The Myth of the Moral Sense

Sentiment arises from observation and reasoning, as these powers enable us to perceive or imagine the link between actions and consequences and evaluate whether the outcomes of an action were positive/praiseworthy or negative/deplorable.

The notion that there is a "moral sense" that exceeds our observation and reasoning has often been suggested, and is quite absurd. This is merely a shortcut or pretense for a person whose perception or thinking are flawed and superficial, who has not been attentive or diligent and is embarrassed to admit as much. It suits a man's ego much better to claim supernatural powers than to admit to negligence, frivolousness, and stupidity.

Human perception is limited: we see only from one perspective, and only see those things that are visible from that angle. This is where our imagination contributes to our notions: seeing only one from one perspective, we may imagine the rest of the details. We see only one side of a horse, and our imagination the side we cannot see.

Thus what we accept to be truth and reality is always some blend of the testimony of our senses and the fancy of our imagination: we may see the expression on a man's face and imagine him to be pained, only to learn that he was merely lost in thought. We may witness a scene after an action has taken place, and imagine what that action was. We may see a man do something, and imagine his motives.

We may not recognize the fact that our opinion of reality is as much imagination as fact, or we may be loath to admit it is so - particularly when our imagination is uninformed or utterly wrong. And in this way our existing philosophy and sentiments manufacture evidence to support themselves in the objects, actions, environments, and situations we perceive.

So, again, Smith disputes the existence of a "moral sense" that extends or exceeds our actual senses - it is merely imagination that does so, and as such we should be cautious rather than confident in the faith we place in the accuracy of our conclusions based upon it.

The Origins of Sentiment

While Smith disputes the notion of a higher power than human perception, it must nonetheless be acknowledge that much of our sentiment derives from the manner in which imagination fills in the gaps in our perception. We react to the conception we have that combines the two.

Our emotional reactions are always a step ahead of our rational faculties: such that we approve or disapprove of something before we have had the opportunity to think it through. (EN: Modern neuroscience suggests the gap is only three milliseconds, but very often people choose to follow their initial reaction rather than pausing to engage their rational faculty to guide them in another direction.) As such, or reactions can be entirely inappropriate when additional information is gathered or considered.

It is generally considered that those whose reactions are very often appropriate have wisdom - but it is wisdom that leads them to have appropriate reactions. They have knowledge to accurately interpret of limited information, the self-control to refrain from following their emotional reaction long enough apply their rational mind, and the humility to accept that their initial emotional reaction may have been incorrect.

Another factor that gives rise to sentiment is our sympathy or disgust for the object of our approbation: a given action may arouse in an observer a sense of anger at the person who performed it. And while "anger" characterizes the manner of our reaction, our perspective of the performer mitigates or accentuates this reaction: we feel anger more intensely when the actor is someone we are predisposed to despise or less intensely when the actor is someone we are predisposed to admire. The pitch of our anger is different depending on whether the actor is and adult or a child, a man or a woman, a countryman or a foreigner, etc.

Yet another factor that contributes to our sentiments is the sentiment of others: when we witness another person's reaction, it guides us to what our own reaction should be - whether we follow blindly in their reaction or pause to consider whether to join them. We tend to go along with the emotional reactions of people we admire, and question the emotional reactions of people we do not admire even to the point of adopting the opposite reaction to that of those whom we detest.

Conscience is briefly mentioned as an editor of our emotional programming: when we later recognize the inappropriateness of an emotional reaction, it is conscience that guides us to have a different reaction in future. Conscience is not a separate thing to reason, but a function of reason that means to guide us to a more appropriate path, but does not infallibly do so, as the assumption that a present incident that arouses emotion is equivalent to one we encounter in the past may still be mistaken.

There's an abrupt switch to an unrelated conclusion to this section, in which Smith suggests that the manner and degree of our sentiments often depend on four causes:

  1. The imagined motives of the actor
  2. The imagined gratitude of those affected by the action
  3. The belief that certain conduct is appropriate
  4. The belief that certain conduct is functional

Smith has considered multiple examples of emotional reactions, and is led to the conclusion that at least one of these four factors are the cause of all emotional reactions. Sometimes it is more than one, and sometimes they are not in harmony.

Approaches to Practical Rules of Morality

Those practical rules of morality, which suggest the way in which we interact with others, are relatively clear when compared to those which attempt to describe the desired state we should seek to achieve for our own sake.

Interactions are a relatively simple matter of justice, and if we maintain that justice lies merely in refraining from doing harm to others unless they have done something to deserve it, then the scope of morality remains quite limited. If we burden man with improving the welfare of his brothers, the scope and clarity of morals become nebulous, much as when we suggest to him how he might improve his own welfare.

The approach of the "ancient moralists" was to describe the various vices and virtues as states of intellectual and spiritual perfection, and to criticize man for his failure to achieve their empirical standards. In essence, they began with the sense that there was a desirable state which man ought to achieve, in which he would feel contented, and derived rules of conduct that they considered to be productive or obstructive to achieving it.

Their works demonstrated a certain struggle to accurately describe their concepts, largely do to the limitations of language. For example, we have but one word for love - but acknowledge that there are different expressions of that emotional state: the love we feel for a friend is different to the love we feel for a parent, or an inanimate object. And while the Greeks were very inventive and coined terms to name the various degrees of various sentiments, there's still the distinct sense that language is an imperfect medium for articulating their notions.

Aside of the clumsiness of language, it seems rather easy to describe the kinds of behaviors support or detract from a moral virtue - but this can be done in only a general way. The manner in which we act is merely one factor among many, as the conditions in which an action is taken may result in having different outcomes. One cannot say "it is always good to do thus" because it simply is not - and it is quite beyond the capability and imagination of man to consider the full breadth of possibilities, as they are infinite.

As such their works conveyed only a vague sense of morality - what could be done in very specific conditions to achieve virtue - and left to the reader to detect whether the conditions in which he found himself were a match, or to adapt the recommended behavior to suit differing circumstances. Ethics is by no means scientific.

(EN: I've raised this issue before, because ethics is as scientific as other fields - the principles of chemistry or physics hold true only under very specific and controlled conditions and often fail in the real world. People seem more ready to pardon a chemist and maintain the theories of chemistry when they fail, on account of conditions. But it is no different for ethics - there is merely no controlled laboratory environment to mitigate between conception and reality.)

The second approach, which Smith notes has been popular from the middle ages to his present day, are those who attempt "to lay down exact and precise rules for the direction of every circumstance of our behavior" without a clear definition of what this behavior is meant to achieve. In so doing, they have confused matters greatly by disconnecting behavior from goals, and describe cause without regard to effect.

The result of this, of course, is a system of arbitrary rules that are imposed upon man, for which he will never understand the purpose, but is nonetheless expected to grant his total obedience to those who impose these rules upon him. This may serve to explain the reason laymen have washed their hands of morality, or of trying to do what is right or even to understand what "right" might mean, and merely seek to escape detection and punishment.

He goes on a bit of a rater about the "barbarism and ignorance" of religion, and the superstition and fear that dominate the perspective of those who seek to be faithful - and also the diminishing ranks of those who are truly faithful as opposed to those who make a show of faith to placate the religious leaders and the rest of the congregation. In essence, the behavior-based approach to morality is contradictory to morality itself: those who follow are merely obedient, not moral.

Even so, Smith finds that there is some use for the behavioral approach, as it is a fine mechanism for young children and the mentally impaired who, lacking the mental skills to consider moral issues, merely need a system that they are capable of understanding to guide their behavior. The wiser and more intelligent a man, the less is his need or even tolerance for such a system.

He then goes on for a while about the clandestine nature of certain systems of belief: where the reason for a moral imperative is irrational, then the reason must be kept secret as it would be found lacking, and the imperative rightly discarded. It requires a great deal of effort, and no small amount of violence, to maintain deceit.

After some time, he finally arrives at the notion that systems of "morality" that base themselves on behavior, without any consideration of the consequences that behavior is meant to achieve "ought to be rejected altogether" - and in this sense the ancient moralists are a better guide than the pretenders of his present day.

He stretches this a bit further to speak of systems of law in society - which is to say, government and the state. In a well-governed state the goals of law are clear and agreed upon by all. In a poorly-governed state the goals are often unknown and agreed upon only by the few whose interests they serve. There is little justice in laws that seek to control behavior while refusing to disclose the goals that this control is intended to achieve.