Friday, October 07, 2011

Book Review: Treatise on Moral Sentiments, Parts 1 & 2

Since tackling Wealth of Nations in the spring, I felt like I needed to read the Treatise, since so many people remark on its contrast.  I wanted to see Das Adam Smith Problem for myself and see if I could see things the way Halteman does, that Smith's system contains a telos.

However, I find this book extraordinarily dry and unmotivating and probably will move to other more pressing things. But here's what I've gotten so far:
Part 1 deals with Smith's idea of sympathy -- "our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever" (8).  What makes us rejoice with someone or grieve with someone, or them with us?  Basically, when we're like-minded with them and can put ourselves in their shoes or they can do the same with us.  We judge others by our own standards:
"I judge of your sight by might sight...I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging..."

Anger repulses us unless it's righteous anger, with righteousness shared universally (appealing to the "impartial spectator"):
"We admire that noble and generous resentment which governs its pursuit of the greatest the indignation which they naturally call forth in that of the impartial spectator...which never...desires to inflict any grater punishment, than what every indifferent person would rejoice to see executed" (37). Smith continues:

"As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us" (37). 

Smith believes that contrary to common opinion "(O)ur propensity to sympathize with joy is much stronger than our propensity to sympathize with sorrow" (79).

What is love, what is passion?  Why do we feel the way we do?  Is it better to be loved by all quickly, like an instant celebrity, or to slowly build esteem and reputation over time?

The similarities between Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations are that they are both a compilation of his own observations about life.  One is about the feelings of the people, the other about their economic interactions.  Inasmuch, Smith strikes me as someone who had too much time on his hands. Smith's optimism also comes across in both books:

"What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience?...This situation, however, may very well be called the natural and ordinary state of mankind.  Notwithstanding the present misery and depravity of the world, so justly lamented, this really is the state of the greater part of men" (81). With the caveat that "Though little can be added to this state, much can be taken of it."

Since Locke and the Enlightenment taught us that government arises from the consent of the governed, I found this quote interesting:
"That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature. Nature would teach us to submit to them for their own dread their displeasure" (100).

I think many of us resonate with this idea:
“Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half mankind before you" (105). 

I liked Smith's observations about contemporary politics.  Politicians aren't the brightest or best public servants-- they're the most electable celebrity. The good ones make sure to hire a good support staff to do the heavy lifting and policymaking. We submit to our superiors because we wish we were them, not because we wish them well (paraphrasing, pgs. 95 and 113-114).

Part 2 gets more into the idea of what is kindness, what is justice?  Why do we punish someone caught trying to break into a home much less than someone who actually broke into the home? (II.III.17)  It illustrates Smith's belief in a God that would allow justice to be meted out in the afterlife, if not in this one:

"As every man doth, so shall it be done to him, and retaliation seems to be the great law which is dictated to us by Nature," (II.II.10).  "But if the murderer should escape from punishment...he would call upon God to avenge, in another world, that crime which the injustice of mankind had neglected to chastise upon earth" (II.II.25).

Justice is desirable because we see it as holding society together. The rebellious youth problem is universal across generations:
"We frequently hear the young and the licentious ridiculing the most sacred rules of morality, and professing, sometimes from the corruption, but more frequently from the vanity of their hearts, the most abominable maxims of conduct...and the consideration which first occurs to us, is the disorder and confusion of society which would result from the universal prevalence of such practices" (II.II.22).

What is misfortune?  How do all these affect our feelings and why?  These are the questions Smith is asking and answering.  (It's not even as interesting as this post makes it sound.  )

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