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Adam Smith’s Moral Path through Quagmire


Adam Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments offers a path through a dangerous social quagmire. Namely, the law increasingly demands that peaceful acts conform to a specific state-approved morality. The process turns morality into a matter of state and law rather than one of individual conscience.

The politically correct justify mandatory morality in the name of social justice or a paternalism by which the elite know what is better for people than the people do themselves. For example, in signing the recent minimum-wage law in California, Gov. Jerry Brown stated, “Economically, minimum wages may not make sense” but “[morally] and socially and politically, they make every sense.” By this, Brown meant the law made moral sense to him and to his ideological associates, who were willing to impose it upon anyone who disagreed.

The religious Right justify mandatory morality in the name of God or decency, especially in matters of sex. For example, an April 2016 article in Mother Jones attacked Ted Cruz’s record as a Texas solicitor general (2003–2008). There, his legal team crusaded to criminalize the sale of dildos. A brief filed on behalf of Cruz argued that Texas had “police-power interests” to protect “public morals” by “discouraging prurient … sexual gratification” and “discouraging … autonomous sex.” By this, Cruz meant that autonomous sex was prurient to him and he was willing to impose his sexual standards upon others.

Some say “pick your poison.” But a third alternative is to push the poison away in recognition of the fact that law and morality are separate realms. Or should be. Law should prohibit violence and enforce contracts in order to promote peace and justice. Morality should address the proper way for peaceful people to interact.

Smith drew this distinction when he asked whether a man deserved praise for not aggressing against a neighbor. The answer was “no.” Nonaggression was a duty every human being owed to all others and a person should not be applauded for fulfilling a responsibility. Praise came into play when a person went beyond duty to assist others through acts inspired by sentiments such as kindness, compassion, and fellowship.

Smith’s theory of morality as sentiments is a large step toward clarifying and maintaining the separation between law and morality. For one thing, law is geared toward controlling behavior, not beliefs. In other words, the only way law controls beliefs is through controlling the acts that express them. The beliefs themselves remain intact. The same is true of morality.

What is the theory of moral sentiments?

Despite his impact on economics, Smith was not primarily an economist. He held a professorship in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, and preferred ethics to politics or economics. The Wealth of Nations is certainly his best-known work but his first major book, and the one he regarded with most pride, was The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). (Note: Each was originally issued in volumes rather than in one book.) Indeed, since passages in The Wealth of Nations are difficult to understand without having read TMS, the two books can be viewed as a set.

In TMS, Smith focused on ethics and the psychology that underpinned ethical behavior such as charity, which is often pitted against self-interest. Smith tried to resolve the perceived conflict by asking why self-interested men make moral judgments at all. Why do they have a conscience? Smith grounded the answer in human nature so that morality itself sprang from man’s self-interest — that is, from acting according to his nature.

He wrote,

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others…. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane…. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

But why would anyone increase his own sorrow by sympathizing with another person? One reason: the ability to empathize also increases the joy of life because it allows people to share in the pleasure of others. Another reason: empathy is simply in the nature of man. Humans are profoundly social beings with a natural need to belong and to interact.

The desire of being believed, the desire of persuading, of leading and directing other people, seems to be one of the strongest of all our natural desires. It is, perhaps, the instinct upon which is founded the faculty of speech, the characteristical faculty of human nature. No other animal possesses this faculty, and we cannot discover in any other animal any desire to lead and direct the judgment and conduct of his fellows.

Smith rooted social interaction in self-interest that was not economic but in a natural instinct to interact; it fulfilled a deep psychological need. “The desire of being believed” or understood meant extending empathy to others was in a person’s self-interest because he craved the same empathy in return. The “exchange” was not a calculation, however, but an instinctual response. Otherwise stated, morality results from man’s social nature; there is no conflict with his self-interest because morality is an expression of it. (Note: some other philosophers ground morality in man’s nature but view reason as its source. By contrast, Smith grounds morality in man’s psychology.)

Many salutary results spring from self-interest. For example, justice emerges from the social instinct because human beings need to live together without constantly harming each other. In this manner, self-interest is the basic building block of social harmony.

Law and moral sentiments

Collapsing the perceived conflict between self-interest and society has profound implications for the current legal system. It eliminates the need to impose “morality” upon selfish people for the good of society. For example, thousands of laws preemptively rein in the greed of people, especially business people, who are predefined as predatory. Such regulations should be removed immediately … and for the good of society.

But Smith’s theory does more than that. Laws imposing morality by prohibiting specific peaceful acts or by mandating them become absurdities. If morality lies in sentiments, such as compassion, then there is no right or wrong expression of it.

Consider a scenario. A schoolteacher’s husband dies and the community rallies to support her. One person pays her rent for the next month while another stocks her fridge with food. A third spends hours with his arm around her shoulders, allowing her to cry into his. A child leaves flowers on her doorstep and walks her dog every day, twice a day. Her next-door neighbor decides to forgive an ongoing feud and leaves the schoolteacher in peace. Every person in the town might express the moral sentiment of kindness differently but no expression is right or wrong, because morality resides in the sentiment itself.

If no such act is right or wrong, then the law cannot logically mandate any act as “the” moral response. Nor can the law create a moral sentiment, such as generosity, where none exists. The law is effectively shut out of playing the morality game. Instead, it is relegated to the appropriate sphere of prohibiting violence and enforcing contracts.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).