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The Appealing Moral Principles of Adam Smith

  • Subject: Economics
  • Essay Topic: Adam Smith
  • Pages: 3
  • Words: 1227
  • Published: 30 May 2018
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David Hume, who wrote Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in 1751, and Adam Smith, who authored The Wealth of Nations in 1776, both spoke of a particular human emotion or characteristic called sympathy that differs greatly in definition from the colloquial meaning attributed to it today. Each mentioned the word not as a synonym for pity, sorrow, or compassion, but more as a mutual relationship within which whatever affects one correspondingly affects another. Within the context of each philosopher’s starkly different moral code, however, the term and its ethical value are dissimilar.

Hume begins his discussion of the term with a strikingly vague description, arguing that a “fellow-feeling” exists among all men, and that it is demonstrated in man’s inability to be alone: “Reduce a person to solitude, and he loses all enjoyment, except either of the sensual or speculative kind; and that because the movements of his heart are not forwarded by correspondent movements in his fellow-creatures” (Hume, 43). Not only does all non-sensual and non-speculative feeling arise in man from sympathy, but “fellow-feeling” allows man to accept or deny moral principles. Virtues speak most loudly to the sympathetic aspect of man; when a “fellow-creature” displays a moral virtue, sympathy allows man to overcome all other emotions and condone it as virtuous. This Hume argues through a hypothetical example:

Exalted capacity, undaunted courage, prosperous success; these may only expose a hero or politician to the envy or ill-will of the public: But as soon as the praises are added of humane and beneficent; when instances are displayed of lenity, tenderness, or friendship: envy itself is silent, or joins the general voice of approbation and applause (Hume, 17).

Hume thus argues that man’s rational mind is not the arbiter of moral virtue; instead, that task belongs to man’s inherent sympathy and “fellow-feeling.”

Hume goes even further, though, and eventually states the hypothesis he is out to prove: “morality is determined by sentiment” (Hume, 85). If this hypothesis is assumed to be correct, it necessarily defines virtue as “what ever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation” (Hume, 85). The philosopher continues, separating as distinctly as possible two contradictory terms: reason and taste. These he divides completely:

Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery: Taste, as it gives pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery, becomes a motive to action, and is the first spring or impulse to desire and volition (Hume, 88).

By isolating these two terms so definitely, Hume can assert that taste “gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue” (Hume, 88).

As a product of his disparate point of view, the so-called “father of modern economics,” Adam Smith, uses sympathy in a far different manner. It is best to reference his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759, when discussing Smith’s ethics, and The Wealth of Nations only when discussing context and economics. His treatment is far less extensive than that of Hume’s, and therefore far vaguer. Smith argues that sympathy arises form an innate desire of man to identify with the emotions of others that “as we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation” (Moral Sentiments, 47). In essence, it is a logic of mirroring, in which a spectator imaginatively reconstructs the experience of the person he watches.

This logic of mirroring is not confined solely to the morally virtuous, as in Hume’s philosophy. In fact, “the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it” (Moral Sentiments, 46). In this way, the emotion is less broad than that which Hume discusses. According to Smith:

[The senses] never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation (Moral Sentiments, 48).

Smith disagrees with Hume, asserting that sympathy has no capability for moral judgment. Smith uses the concept of sympathy as a way of describing a particular human characteristic that of identifying with another’s emotional state. He does not, however, attribute any moral judgment to that concept.

Adam Smith, for perhaps the first time in history, argues in The Wealth of Nations that, to some extent, a free, capitalist economy is virtuous in and of itself. Hume argues instead that it is the subjective, indefinable notion of sympathy that dictates virtue. Of the two, Smith’s is more appealing. Smith understands, like few others, that trade by means money, while not virtuous itself, is the code of the men of good will. Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged, is among the most vocal proponents of this philosophy. As Francisco explains in Atlas Shrugged:

Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return?.Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders. Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss?.Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason (Rand, 381).

Therefore, the free, unregulated economy that Smith proposes encourages and even necessitates virtuous activity the free trading of money. The most common argument against such an ethical system comes from those who say that money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak. Ayn Rand contends that that is false, and Adam Smith would agree:

Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think. Then is money made by the intelligent at the expense of the fools? By the able at the expense of the incompetent? By the ambitious at the expense of the lazy? Money is made before it can be looted or mooched made by the effort of every honest man, each to the extent of his ability. An honest man is one who knows that he can’t consume more than he has produced (Rand, 381).

Smith’s philosophy and system of morals is appealing because it resides on a tangible, rational basis that Hume’s lacks. Money is an objective marker of virtue emotion is not. An economy such as that which Smith proposes in The Wealth of Nations one as free as possible and with little regulation would have the most virtuous possible result; every man would be forced to perform the honest activity of making money to the best of his ability, instead of getting money because of a certain need (such as through any system of welfare).

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