Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Adam Smith on Moral Approval and Disapproval

342 days until the start of class.

I am continuing my reading of Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments..

Part II of the book concerned "Merit and demerit: The objects of reward and punishment" - or, in other words, praise and condemnation.

Smith's view, as I wrote yesterday, is substantially intersubjective. What is praiseworth is what impartial judges in a community are disposed to praise, and what is worthy of condemnation is what people in a community are disposed to punish. This means that if a community of individuals are disposed to execute somebody like you, then you deserve to die. In fact, he discusses self-hatred and remorse as a sentiment that comes from the recognition of how others are disposed to see the person.

However, his account continues and, for a time, it runs along a track parallel to desirism.

For example, what people are disposed to condemn are actions that cause harm - or, as desirism would understand it, the thwarting of desires. This is what arouses our sense of sympathy for those harmed and, in turn, gives rise to the sentiment of resentment (the foundation for condemnation and punishment) of those who caused the harm.

However, this is only a part of the story. We must also look at the motives of those who caused the harm. If the motives are bad, then the resentment that the harms inflicted on others finds a proper object. However, if the motives are good, then there is resentment for the harms done. Thus, the harms inflicted by the judicial punisher under the direction of the courts acting to preserve the public order gives rise to no resentment.

In short, as Smith tells us, we must look to two measures to determine if condemnation is warranted. First, there must be a harm done - something that would give rise to our sympathy. Second, the harm done must not come from a good motive. If both of these conditions are met, the proper response that all of mankind would have is resentment for - an impulse to condemn or even to punish - the transgressor.

Technically, there is one more element we need to look at in our judgment. Smith acknowledges that it is possible for a person to perform the right action, but to do so from the wrong motives. He acknowledges that a person can go through the motions of gratitude, for example, without feeling any gratitude. When this happens - when a person performs a right action from a wrong motive - so long as they go through the right actions - they deserve no punishment. They deserve no great praise, either, but they are not to be punished.

I did not see in Smith's treatment how to evaluate actions that cause no harm but which are of a type that would tend to cause harm. He does not describe how attempted murder relates to murder. However, I suspect that Smith would have no problem qualifying his judgment to be of actions of a type that tend to cause harm, rather than those that actually cause harm.

Then, desirism and Smith's theory diverge again on the question of how we determine whether the motive is a good motive or a bad motive. According to Smith, we evaluate a desire according to whether people generally are disposed to approve of or disapprove of the motive. According to desirism, we evaluate a motive according to whether it tends to bring about the fulfillment or thwarting of other desires if universalized.

At this point, what Smith's account of reward and punishment is missing - what all of moral philosophy seems to be missing and what may count as one of my contributions to the discussion once I get to graduate school - is the idea that praise and condemnation are not mere reflex reactions to a good or bad act. Praise and condemnation exist for a reason. They serve a purpose. On the basis of this, we can evaluate their use according to how well or how poorly they serve that purpose.

That purpose is not merely to provide incentives and deterrence. Incentives and deterrence exist well outside of morality. I can provide an incentive for my neighbor's child to rake the leaves in my yard by offering to pay her. Yet, this transaction exists far outside of the realm of morality. Similarly, I may refuse to pay for half of the gas when my co-traveller asks for a detour to see a historic site without suggesting that there is anything morally objectionable in wanting to see this historic site.

Rewards and punishments only take on a moral dimension when they include an element of praise and condemnation. The soldier who is given a medal at a public ceremony that consists, not only of the medal, but a heaping dose of praise for the actions that prompted the award, is being provided with a moral assessment of his actions. The cost - the fine or imprisonment - that comes with condemnation (a claim that the punishment is deserved) makes a statement that the action was wrong.

But why is it that we meet some actions with praise and others with condemnation?

The answer is because these things do work. They act on the brain, not only on the person praised or condemned, but on others who may even contemplate being praised or condemned, to mold their characters along certain lines. Dispositions to approve of that which is praised are reinforced, and aversions to that which is condemned are weakened.

This, then, gives us reason to ask, "What should we praise?" and "What should we condemn?" - which is the same as asking, "What do we generally have the most and strongest reasons to praise?" and "What do we generally have the most and strongest reasons to condemn?"

Smith, as is the habit of moral philosophers generally, treat praise and condemnation as a mere reflex action. It is simply that which marks its object as morally good or morally bad - and nothing more.

In short, I am finding many of the elements of desirism in Smith - or, at least, accounts that are quite similar to those of desirism. Actions are evaluated according to their disposition to cause harm (thwart desires). Even here, we must also look at whether the action is motivated by a good sentiment (desire) or a bad sentiment (desire). A right action is still a right action (in the sense of not deserving punishment) if it is something that a person with good motives would do, even if the agent is not acting from the same motives.

However, insofar as Smith does not recognize the work that praise and condemnation are meant to do, he has us evaluating motives on whether impartial judges would unanimously approve or disapprove of them, rather than evaluating them on whether people generally have many and strong reasons to strengthen or weaken them.

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