Monday, September 19, 2016

David Hume and Adam Smith

343 days until the start of class.

I am down to 17 Philosophy Bites podcast episodes. There has not been an episode posted since early August so I think this may be the end of it. It has given me a good overview of current philosophical concerns - and enough information to know that (1) there is a lot I do not know, but (2) I can make a useful contribution to the discussion.

Over at iTunes U, I am finishing up a course on Hume. I actually only have one lecture left.

And through my LibreVox app, I am going through Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Yes, that Adam Smith - the author of The Wealth of Nations.

[Note: One advantage of studying philosophy is that a lot of the material one might want to draw upon is in the public domain.]

For somebody who thinks that desires (sentiments) are the proper object of moral evaluation, and that they are to be evaluated according to their consequences, this is a useful resource.

And he was a good friend of David Hume's - which makes the study of Hume's theory of knowledge and of morality along side Smith's theory of moral sentiments particularly interesting.

Smith substantially has been giving me - at least so far - a guide to English culture in the late 1700s. I cannot read it without imagining a 17th century English court, or a 18th century street in working-class London, depending on what part of society Smith is writing about at the moment. If I were going to create a movie - a period piece set in the 1700s in England - I would require all of the actors to read Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Of course, I have no comparison with which to judge its accuracy. It is not as if I have lived in 18th century England and could see by observation that Smith's descriptions correspond to reality. However, it does provide fodder for the imagination and it is interesting enough to note that Smith (and others) at least respected this account as an accurate description of the moral sentiments of the time.

I wonder how much of David Hume's philosophy I see in Smith - who certainly knew Hume and had read Hume's earlier works during the writing of this book. And I imagine how much of Smith appears in Hume. That is to say (or to ask), "Can we gain some understanding of Hume's moral theory through Smith's interpretation and application?"

It may just be an idle question.

When it comes to evaluating the sentiments, there are elements in Smith's writing that I find necessary to reject.

According to Smith, we judge whether a sentiment properly fits its object or its cause by judging whether it would agree with our own sentiment in relevantly similar circumstances. Another's anger is proper if it would arouse a similar anger in us. Their grief is proper if a similar event would grieve us as much.

This may be descriptively true, but it does not answer the question of what emotional response and to what degree an agent should have. It is also descriptively true that we judge another person's belief true if we, also, believe it - and false if we do not. Yet, this psychological fact is distinct and separate from the question of whose belief is true in fact. Accordingly, we may judge the emotional response of another unfit or inappropriate if it does not agree with our own under similar circumstances, but the question of what is, in fact, the appropriate response is a different question entirely.

And Smith does allow that individuals can judge their own moral sentiments to be inappropriate. He writes about how envy can get in the way of our experiencing joy at the success of another person - that we may secretly harbor resentment while we give the outward appearance of support and applause. And that we may judge ourselves harshly if we cannot be as happy for our friends as their good fortune would warrant. So, we cannot say that Smith holds that we judge ourselves infallible in our emotional responses - that we are not subject to correction.

Relevant to this blog is the question of the degree to which Smith is willing to evaluate the molding of a sentiment according to its consequences - that the strength and the object of a sentiment can be judge by the degree to which a sentiment of that strength and with that object is socially useful. I have seen hints, but no strong evidence of this yet - though I am only a quarter of the way through the book.

Oh, and for those who may want to know, Smith is no great fan of the pride and arrogance of the wealthy, or of selfishness.

With Philosophy Bites and the Hume lectures coming to an end, I will have an opportunity to turn to new projects. One object will be to find papers written by the professors at the University of Colorado in Boulder and make comments on them before classes start. I wish to understand their interests and their philosophical positions before class starts.

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