Blogs > Liberty and Power > WAS ADAM SMITH TOO OPTIMISTIC?

Jan 5, 2004 1:07 pm


WAS ADAM SMITH TOO OPTIMISTIC?



[cross-posted at In a Blog's Stead]

Robert Theron Brockman II thinks the passage I quoted from Adam Smith earlier this week (see here and here) is"overly optimistic." Pointing to Smith’s line"All men, even the most stupid and unthinking, abhor fraud, perfidy, and injustice, and delight to see them punished," Brockman writes:

This is demonstrably untrue. If said fraud, perfidy, or injustice is perpetrated by themselves, their clan, their tribe, their race, or their nation, men’s tolerance (and often enthusiasm) for such things is greatly increased. This is most easily observed at the national level. Most people (including and especially Americans) consider the people of other nations largely expendable, and are willing to justify exceptional amounts of betrayal and" collateral damage" to the extent it furthers"national greatness." Any loss of life on one's"own soil" (hundreds of miles away owned by strangers), justifies massive (poorly targeted) retaliation and collective punishment.

The values of Secular Humanism (or even Christianity) are very, very rare. Most of the planet operates under either tribalism or that scaled-up form of tribalism we call nationalism. I think it's despicable but there you are.
I agree with everything that Brockman says here (see, e.g., my article Thinking Our Anger) – except his evaluation of Smith.

Smith was by no means unaware of the fact that when"said fraud, perfidy, or injustice is perpetrated by themselves, their clan, their tribe, their race, or their nation, men's tolerance (and often enthusiasm) for such things is greatly increased." On the contrary, this is one of the central themes of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. As Smith writes at III. i. 4. 91-93:

It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves, that we often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavourable. He is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct. ... So partial are the views of mankind with regard to the propriety of their own conduct, both at the time of action and after it; and so difficult is it for them to view it in the light in which any indifferent spectator would consider it. ... This self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind, is the source of half the disorders of human life. If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight.
Smith – along with his contemporary David Hume – consciously modeled his account of moral and aesthetic properties on the dispositionalist account of colour that had been popularised by John Locke and others. According to colour-dispositionalism, to say that a fire engine is red is to say that it has a tendency to look red to – i.e., to cause sensations of redness in – physiologically normal humans in standard lighting conditions. The fact that the fire engine doesn’t look red under weird lighting conditions, or in the dark, or to a person who is colour-blind or just plain blind, is thus no objection to calling it red. Analogously, according to Smith and Hume, to call an action or character trait morally good is to say that it has a tendency to cause a feeling of moral approval in psychologically normal humans under conditions of impartiality (i.e., when they are evaluating conduct with which they have no personal connection). Bias is thus seen as a factor that distorts moral perception in the same way that nonstandard lighting distorts colour perception. (There are various differences between Smith's and Hume's accounts but they need not concern us here.)

So when Smith says that all human beings"abhor fraud, perfidy, and injustice, and delight to see them punished," he means this in the same sense as the claim that all human beings perceive fire engines as red. All human beings do perceive fire engines as red – when they are able to get a proper look at them. Whenever a red object fails to look red, it is because some obstacle – either constitutional (e.g., visual impairment) or circumstantial (e.g., nonstandard lighting) – interferes with the perceiver's getting a proper look. Likewise, all human beings perceive"fraud, perfidy, and injustice" as abhorrent when they are able to get a proper look at them. Whenever these fail to appear abhorrent, there is either a constitutional obstacle (e.g., psychopathy) to proper perception or a circumstantial one (e.g., bias). (Moral vice, to which there is no precise analogue in the colour case, stands somewhere between these alternatives; it is like a habit of refusing to look at fire engines except in bad lighting.)

There are difficulties, to be sure, with Smith’s theory – particularly as regards Smith's vacillation as to whether our emotional dispositions make things moral or are responses to independent moral facts. (Hume certainly leans toward the former, more subjectivist reading, but Smith is less resolute on that point.) But I don't think he’s guilty of a misreading of human nature.



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