Smith scholarship is conflicted on whether the apparent conflict between self-interest in the Wealth of Nations (WN) and sympathy in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) indicates an intractable problem or is merely the result of a misunderstanding of Smith’s overall system. This chapter is written as a response both to the believers in Das Adam Smith Problem and to those who offer a way of pulling the two texts together. In the first place, I argue that Das Adam Smith Problem highlights the complexity of Smith’s body of work and his belief that the motives for behavior in the private sphere will be different from and sometimes conflict with the rules of the public sphere. Secondly, I argue that the higher level economic order relies fundamentally on norms of behavior and rules of conduct that are nourished by the sympathy fostered in the lower level orders of family and friends. At the same time, the economic order affects these lower orders, influencing in turn the norms of behavior and rules of conduct that support economic activity. Understanding how these different levels of order interact is central to understanding the often murky link between economics and morality. Such an understanding also begs for a reevaluation of the social sciences from the silos of separate political and economic analysis back to a Smithian “moral philosophy” that takes into account human social behavior in its many forms.
Cognitive neuroscience is in the midst of what has been called an “affective revolution,” which places empathy at the center of a core set of moral competencies. While empathy has not been without its critics (Bloom, 2013; Prinz, 2011), both the radicals and the reactionaries routinely cite Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) as among the revolution’s vanguard. For Smith, justified moral judgment depends on the ability to sympathize—Smith’s term for the empathetic ability to imaginatively project into, or otherwise simulate the emotions of others. The impartial spectator is good at moral evaluation and the accurate assessment of the “fitness or propriety” of another’s sentiments “can be found nowhere but in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and well-informed spectator” (TMS VII.II.i.49).
Smith presupposes that a sufficiently unsympathetic moral agent is bound to moral distortion. But some of Smith’s readers, including Fonna Forman-Barzilai and Emma Rothschild, assume that so long as our other basic capabilities are in place, ample sympathy guarantees justified moral judgment. Other readers affirm the necessity of sympathy for impartiality, while remaining silent on the question of sufficiency.
This essay aims to drive a wedge between the ideal of a merely sympathetic spectator and that of the impartial spectator. Having defined sympathy, I present independent grounds for thinking that an excess of sympathy might prompt judgments which diverge from that of the impartial spectator. I then return to the text to argue that Smith himself is wary of what he calls “excess” or “indulgent sympathy.” One can, thus, be a sympathetic spectator without being an impartial spectator. While I do not address empathy’s critics directly, this more robust notion of the impartial spectator would allow Smith to side-step at least some of the more superficial objections cast against those who would champion empathy. I conclude by presenting considerations which attempt to explain why sympathy occupies such a central place in the TMS, despite not being sufficient for impartial spectatorship. These considerations, in turn, shed some light on the relation between the TMS and the Wealth of Nations (WN).
Cristiano Castelfranchi’s interesting article. For more on the invisible hand see Propriety and Prosperity: New Studies on the Philosophy of Adam Smith with the following contributions:
Metaphor Made Manifest: Taking Seriously Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ by Eugene Heath
The ‘Invisible Hand’ Phenomenon in Philosophy and Economics by Gavin Kennedy
Instincts and the Invisible Order: The Possibility of Progress by Jonathan B. Wight
Here is the opening paragraph to Vernon’s Foreward to Propriety and Prosperity. I would urge anyone interested in situated cognition to read his superb Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms amazingly an unknown classic to those of an externalist non-Cartesian persuasion. Also worth a read is Vernon’s memoir.
This book is a welcome addition to the resurgent scholarly and practical interest in Adam Smith’s contributions to market economics and its antecedents in the social order of human culture. In Smith, propriety concerned the rules that govern human sociability by mutual consent in local group interactions. Out of this experience were fashioned the rules of property, justice and the liberal order of political economy, and thence to economic prosperity. It is a grand narrative alive with meaning for the contemporary world in which side-by-side with markets the demand for sociability has found new expression in the social media companies. No wonder that in a seminar Kenneth Boulding could refer to Adam Smith as the first great post-Newtonian scientist.