Monday, October 03, 2016

Smith vs. Hume on Evaluating Moral Sentiments

Class begins in 329 days.

What can I accomplish in 329 days?

I would actually like to write a couple of papers - papers that I can later turn into presentations. I have discovered that graduate students do have opportunities to give such presentations.

With an idea of writing a paper on Sidgwick's arguments concerning the evaluation of motives, I have downloaded and converted to text Towards that end, I am converting Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics to speech so that I can listen to it while I exercise. I will certainly have reason to go through it more than once.

I am nearly finished with Adam Smith's, Theory of Moral Sentiments - and will likely have it done in a couple more days. It has some weaknesses, but, over all, it has been quite valuable.

I have answered the question of whether Davis Hume had an influence on Adam Smith's work. Smith wrote:

The same ingenious and agreeable author who first explained why utility pleases, has been so struck with this view of things, as to resolve our whole approbation of virtue into a perception of this species of beauty which results from the appearance of utility. No qualities of the mind, he observes, are approved of as virtuous, but such as are useful or agreeable either to the person himself or to others; and no qualities are disapproved of as vicious but such as have a contrary tendency. (Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part IV, Section 1, Chapter 2)

This follows Hume's theory too closely for this to have been some other ingenious and agreeable author.

Yet, Smith disagreed with this view. In doing so, he gave two reasons.

Smith objected that the quality that we assign to character traits is immediately recognized as being of a different type than the quality that we assign to useful artifacts.

For first of all, it seems impossible that the approbation of virtue should be a sentiment of the same kind with that by which we approve of a convenient and well-contrived building; or that we should have no other reason for praising a man than that for which we commend a chest of drawers. (Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part IV, Section 1, Chapter 2)

That is to say, the value of prudence and benevolence appear directly to be of a different quality than the value of a pocket watch or umbrella.

Hume argued that the beauty of a ship is found in the ship having those qualities that make it a good and fast ship - one that sails quickly and smoothly. The shape of a beautiful ship is the shape that suits it to perform the function of a ship, and the appearance of a beautiful house is one that fits it to perform the functions of a house.

According to Smith, Hume falsely believes that we can find beauty in a character trait in virtue of its utility. He argues that reason, applied to the highest pursuits in mathematics, has very little utility, but it is still prized.

In response, I can distinguish three different ways in which we may assess the value of something; practically, aesthetically, and morally.

In the first instance, we look only at the usefulness of something - of a watch's ability to tell us the time of day or an umbrella's ability to keep the rain off.

In the second instance, we look only at the direct appreciation of its qualities - the degree to which it pleases or displeases people directly. This identifies the way in which we may appreciate a piece of music, a painting, or the appearance of a building.

In the third instance, we look at the reasons that exist for promoting a certain level of approval or disapproval - the reasons that exist for causing people to like or dislike something. Here, we look at the reasons for promoting an aversion to lying or intellectual recklessness, breaking promises, or refusing to pay debts.

According to Smith, Hume argued that the value of the second type follows from the value of the first type. Recall how the beauty of a ship is found in those qualities that provide smooth and speedy sailing. Yet, it is odd to argue that the same can be said of the aesthetic evaluation of a piece of music or a painting.

However this difficulty gets resolves, Smith's point is that the moral appreciation of character traits is, unlike the appreciation of a ship, grounded on its usefulness. Instead, the immediate evaluation of a character trait - like that of a piece of music or a painting - may not be found in the appreciation of the object itself. He does not consider the reaction that people generally might have reason to cause others to have.

It would be a mistake to argue that Smith fails to distinguish between the sense of applause or condemnation that a person may have to expressions of a particular character trait from the reaction that the same agent ought to have. The measure of the reaction that a person ought to have is determined by the applause or condemnation that would be given by a detached observer - a person with no specific attachment to the person expressing such a trait. This is the reaction that an agent should try to copy.

Hume's view of morality is such that we should look not only at the actual and immediate appraisal of a character trait - the degree to which we (or even detached observers) are immediately disposed to applaud or condemn it - but also at the reasons that we may have to create a community in which people applaud or condemn that trait. We may be disposed to applaud a trait that people generally have reason to condemn. Smith would have us continue to applaud it. Hume would have us condemn it.

On this matter, fairness requires that I report that Smith would have rejected the idea that we are disposed to applaud traits that we have reason to condemn, or condemn traits we have reason to applaud. Smith believed that humans are the product of a creator who has given us the sentiments that best suit our interests in civil society. Readers may be interested to note that Smith sometimes assert that this creator is a god who has designed us intelligently, but elsewhere argued that we may have acquired these traits through nature fitting us to our environment. Still, the fact that there is this match between the traits we tend to applaud and those that are beneficial, we are not disposed to applaud them because they are beneficial. Rather, we have been made to applaud those traits for their own sake that also, and at the same time, happen to be beneficial (and, perhaps, not accidentally so).

Yet, this runs into my long-standing objection to these types of arguments. If this is true, then why is it that we praise and condemn? Why is praise an appropriate response in some cases and condemnation an appropriate response in others? I argue that it is because praise and condemnation do useful work - promoting those sentiments that are praised and those aversions to act-types that are condemned. This response supports Hume over Smith in that it argues that we decide which traits are virtues and vices, rather than having the decision made for us by an outside force.

This leads to the second of Smith's arguments against Hume.

Reason 2: We learn the value of each sentiment directly, not by an evaluation of its usefulness.

And secondly, it will be found, upon examination, that the usefulness of any disposition of mind is seldom the first ground of our approbation; and that the sentiment of approbation always involves in it a sense of propriety quite distinct from the perception of utility. We may observe this with regard to all the qualities which are approved of as virtuous, both those which, according to this system, are originally valued as useful to ourselves, as well as those which are esteemed on account of their usefulness to others.

It seems quite true that we base our judgments of character traits on our immediate appraisal based on our immediate like and dislike. In this, Smith is providing an accurate account of what happens. However, here we can argue that Smith fails to distinguish between what we do and what we should do. The slave master, the individual who condemns homosexual or interracial marriage, and the like, are telling us what they feel about those types of relationships. However, the fact that this is how they feel is not a measure of how they should feel - or a measure of the feelings that people have reason to promote or inhibit. When we get into moral disagreements, it is here where we turn to the utility of particular traits in order to determine which ones people generally have reason to promote or inhibit.

I have an interest in looking deeper into this matter. I need to do some research to see if anything might have already been written. With a little luck, perhaps I could get one of those papers I was talking about out of this.

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