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The Commerce of Sympathy: Adam Smith on the Emergence of Morals EUGENE HEATH IN RECENT YEARS, there have been several attempts to show how normative constraints can function so as to counteract the effects of limited altruism, selfdefeating rationality, and scarce resources. In some accounts the discussion also focuses on whether or how norms could evolve without a centralized agency to implement them.' Although this aspect of the discussion usually takes place within the contemporary confines of game theory, the issue itself has an intellectual pedigree extending back to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries. In one form or another, the English Common Lawyers, Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, and Adam Smith, postulate the gradual evolution of social and moral practices. Of the eighteenth-century moral thinkers, Smith adumbrates the most explicit and complex theory of the evolution of moral conduct. In The Theory ofMoral Sentiments, 2 Smith not only delineates a normative ethical theory but also proffers a descriptive psychology to account for the origins of our patterns of moral behavior: Like twentieth-century game theoreRussell Hardin, CollectiveAction (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins, 1982); Robert Sugden, The Economicsof Rights, Co-operation,and Welfare (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986);Edna Ullmann-Margalit, The Emergenceof Norms (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977);and Viktor Vanberg, "Spontaneous Market and SocialRules:A CriticalExaminationof F. A. Hayek'sTheory of Cultural Evolution,"Economics and Philosophy 2 (1986): 75-1oo. See also the earlier workby David Lewis,Convention (Cambridge , Mass.: Harvard, 1969),83-1 a1. ' Citationsfrom the Moral Sentimentswillbe indicatedin the text usingthe paragraph numbers from the followingedition: The Theoryof Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Oxford: Oxford, 1976). sOccupyingmuch of his attention, the latter inquiry leadsSmithto exclaimat one point: "the present inquiry is not concerning a matter of right.., but concerninga matter of fact.Weare not at present examining upon what principles a perfect being would approve of the punishment of bad actions;but upon what principlessoweakand imperfect a creature asman actuallyand in fact approves of it" (II.i.5.1o). One might also consider Smith's distinction, in The Wealth of Nations, [447] 448 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY or PHILOSOPHY 33:3 JULY 1995 ticians, Smith endeavors to discover whether a common set of other-regarding principles can arise out of a situation in which in~lividuals--motivated only by self-interest and limited benevolence--are not constrained by moral demands. In order to provide a motive by which individuals will arrive at an interindividual agreement on standards of moral approval, Smith appeals to the pleasure which accrues to each individual whose sentiments correspond to (or are similar to) those of another individual. This correspondence of sentiments is what Smith refers to as "sympathy.'4 Together the capacity for sympathy and the ability to place oneself imaginatively in the situation of another function in such a way that "even the ordinary commerce of the world is capable of adjusting our active principles to some degree of propriety" (III.3.7).5 Although some of the ablest commentators recognize that Smith has a theory of the emergence of morals, 6 there has been no attempt to elucidate the difficulties inherent in the psychology which Smith employs to account for the emergence of a uniform standard for moral judgments. I hope to show how this psychology leaves underdetermined the conditions by which such a uniform agreement could emerge. In the first place, although Smith's account hinges on the pleasurable emotion of sympathy, such sympathy is pleasurable only under certain conditions. Moreover, even if pleasure did arise from every act of sympathy, it is not obvious that sympathetic pleasure is a sufficient motive for engaging the sympathetic imagination. Finally, even when a spectator engages the sympathetic imagination the pleasure of sympathy may not be strong enough to motivate the spectator to assume imaginatively whatever facts or values are necessary to achieve sympathy. Despite these problems, between the rules that emerge in common life and the systematicordering and arrangement of these rules by moral philosophers. An Inquiry into theNature and Causesof the Wealth ofNatiom, ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (Oxford: Oxford, 1976), II, 768-69. 4Thus, it is not sympathy which is the motive for such agreement but the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 447-466
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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