Adam Smith and the sociology of morals

Campbell, Thomas D (1970) Adam Smith and the sociology of morals. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Many criticisms of Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments assume that this book was intended to be a contributed to normative moral philosophy. Its true significance can be appreciated only if it is seen to be an early example of social science. Analyses of the Lectures on Rhetoric and the Essays on Philosophical Subjects show that Smith was aware of the nature of modern science and, in particular, realised the importance of combining imaginative theorising with detailed empirical tests. In spite of Smith's intense interest in practical affairs it is clear that the Wealth of Nations and, even more, the Moral Sentiments are primarily attempts to apply his understanding of Newtonian scientific methods to the study of society. Much that seems obscure or irrelevant in the Moral Sentiments falls into place when this book is regarded as an explanation of the social origin and function of moral rules. In the process of giving the explanation Smith outlines theories of action and social origin and function of moral rules. In the process of giving the explanation Smith outlines theories of action and social development which, while they make certain fundamental assumptions about human nature, take into account the importance of the social environment in determining human behaviour; Smith also provides theistic teleological explanations based on his observations of the unintended beneficial consequences of human action. These have certain similarities to modern functionalist theories. The core of Smith's moral theory is the hypothesis that men approve of the behaviour of others when they "agree with", or share, their sentiments, and disapprove when they do not share these sentiments. The key concept of sympathy, which is often wrongly thought of as a species of benevolence, has to do with the ways in which men come to be aware that they either do, or do not, share the sentiments of persons in situations different from their own. The ability to sympathise with, or share, the sentiments of others, is greatly affected by the workings of the imagination and Smith presents several empirical generalisations concerning the operation of the imagination which he uses to explain many normal and some anomalous or "irregular" facts about the moral judgments which prevail in different types of society. The sociological nature of Smith's theory is apparent in the importance which he places on every man's desire to win approval and avoid the disapproval of other men. He uses this fact to explain why, in each society, there evolves an agreed standard of mortality. Smith expounds this in terms of the "impartial spectator", an empirical concept which has little in common with modern "Ideal Observer" theories. The spectator represents the attitudes which are common to all ordinary persons when they are in the position of observing the behaviour of those with whom they have no special relationship. Smith describes how consciences originates in men's desire to please others and sometimes comes to acquire a limited degree of independence. Smith's theory assumes that, given certain facts about man's "natural" (pre-moral) desires and a knowledge of the mechanism of sympathy, it is possible to build up a picture of the development of moral rules within a society, and explain the emergence of conscience in each individual, without invoking any special "moral sense" or rational apprehension of moral truths. The theory is tested by observing how far it can account for the basic similarities in, and minor variations between, the moral codes of different types of society and social groups. In particular he considers that it can explain the differences between the moralities of primitive and commercial societies, and between the moralities of inferior and superior social classes. His theory accords with the fact that men in general approve of prudence as well as benevolence and Smith claims that he is able to account for the particularly stringent obligations connected with the rules of justice embodied in the civil and criminal law of all nations. Some examples of this are to be found in the Lectures on Jurisprudence. The same principles are used to explain economic motivation and social stratification. Despite Smith's frequent attacks on the view that moral rules originate in men's awareness of their utility, his own moral presuppositions are shown to involve a form of utilitarianism. This comes out clearly in his political theory and can also be seen in his statements of final causation. The ultimate justification for his own moral principles depends on his belief in a benevolent Deity, which, in turn, rests primarily on the argument from Design. The Moral Sentiments, by demonstrating the intricate workings of the social mechanism, supports this belief. Interpreted in this way the Moral Sentiments represents a considerable intellectual achievement, although Smith fails to demonstrate that its hypotheses can be adequately tested by detailed empirical observations.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Adviser: D B Raphael
Keywords: Philosophy, Ethics
Date of Award: 1970
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:1970-73159
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 14 Jun 2019 08:56
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2019 08:56

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