Adam Smith’s The Theory Of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral SentimentsIt’s probably bad form to begin a review by quoting another writer’s words, but this passage from Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion has not left my mind since I finished it: “At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.” I would wager, conservatively, that the vast majority of what passes for political debate in our time hinges not on a disagreement over principles or ethics but on differing conceptions of history and human nature (I leave to your imagination what Lippmann means by “a map of the universe”), and the masses of people form their opinions of these two visions not by concentrated thought or vigorous debate but by a kind of cultural osmosis: personal experiences, religious teachings, the books we read and the films we see all come to inform our worldview. What alarmed Lippmann, and should horrify us, is how haphazard such a process is, how liable we are to becoming mere products of our environment, repeating, as if by rote, second-hand opinions, never penetrating to the essence of things. One of the surest ways to avoid such a fate is to read, and read widely, exposing yourself to different ideas, different opinions, different people.

Adam Smith’s The Theory Of Moral Sentiments is an ambitious attempt to discuss our human nature, our sense of right and wrong, our moral compass and dominant passions. It is a work of philosophy, of psychology, of history and of social science, building on a tradition that goes back as far as ancient Greece, though its most recent progenitor would have been David Hume’s A Treatise Of Human Nature, which looms large on my future reading list. Part of Smith’s project is to categorize and characterize our salient emotional states; what, for example, is shame? what causes it and how does it affect us? More significantly, perhaps: why do we feel shame in the first place? Here Smith brings an artist’s sensibilities to the perceptions of a philosopher, and the result, while always beautiful, feels almost tedious in its banality. Here, for example, is Smith describing the sensation of remorse:

Every thing seems hostile, and he would be glad to fly to some inhospitable desert, where he might never more behold the face of a human creature, nor read in the countenance of mankind the condemnation of his crimes. But solitude is still more dreadful than society. His own thoughts can present him with nothing but what is black, unfortunate, and disastrous, the melancholy forebodings of incomprehensible misery and ruin.

Contrast this with a dictionary’s definition of remorse and you see the sensation attached to the meaning, just as a novelist or poet might describe it. Who hasn’t felt shame and who can’t relate to the above, or guess at what might provoke this reaction? But what I’ve called banality is really a symptom of Smith’s originality and insight, and my 250-year retrospective approach.

There is one claim, in particular, that I feel merits a closer discussion, both because it remains controversial and because it seems to me to bear, directly and indirectly, on the mechanisms of art. In a particularly famous passage, Smith envisions a calamity befalling China, an earthquake swallowing up its inhabitants, and then images the reaction of an Englishman on hearing of the news:

The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

We are daily beset by the news of tragedy abroad – of conflicts in the Middle East, earthquakes in the Third World – and though we often make a great show of caring deeply for the suffering of others, what Smith says seems patently true: that the least disturbance in our routine or comfort will cause us more real despair than the news of any calamity abroad. I don’t mean to suggest that we are entirely heartless or incapable of empathy with the plight of others – quite the contrary. I mean only that our ability to entertain this suffering imaginatively is severely limited: we can envision the suffering of others but we can’t, in any real sense, experience it. One of the miracles of art is that it works to tear down this barrier. In reading a good novel or poem, the words provoke in us a fellow-feeling with the characters, often against our will, so that we even find ourselves strangely allied with a Macbeth.

The Theory Of Moral Sentiments is an exhaustive – and, therefore, frequently exhausting – look at what makes us human, about what it means to be human. In reading it, I was continually astounded at how many of Smith’s observations are echoed in more modern attempts at the same project, incorporating both neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Indeed, philosophers of evolutionary biology Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker have found in Smith a mighty ancestor