The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Goodreads link.

Start Date: 2018-08-12

End Date: 2018-11-26 (approximately)

How did I start this? I had planned to read The Wealth of Nations for ages, but the past couple of years of listening to Russ Roberts’ EconTalk podcast, and reading and loving Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy moved me to pick up The Theory of Moral Sentiments first. It took a very long time to read, and I think my reading of it suffered because of that – and I should, in 2019, reread it a section at a time so that I can read and record it closer. But from what I remember, these stands out:

  • Russ Roberts’s repeated invocation of “Man desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely,” just did not seem to me to be the most important or even one of the most important insights in TMS.
  • But that said, it tied in very nicely with other things I was listening to, like the In Our Time episode on The Fable of the Bees.
  • Adam Smith talks about three different classes of morality and motivation; but doesn’t seem to actually specifically say “This is the one I am plumping for.” Maybe he did, and it was the eighteenth century language; and my own failure at reading that made me fail to notice. The reread should make things clearer. (My own position right now on what motivates human beings – self-interest or altruism – is that we are capable of being motivated by either.)
  • The standout passages for me in the superficial reading were Smith claiming that mutual resentment of things is a better binder of people than mutual liking of things (hence the business case for the app Hater); and Smith’s explanation for how pride (thinking highly of yourself) is not the same as vanity (wanting others to think highly of you).
  • Arising out of the last, I wonder if vanity is a more appropriate inclusion in the list of deadly sins than pride; and I should reread DMC to see what she has to say on the subject.
  • Also very standout was the formulation that some virtues require us to feel what somebody else is feeling; and others require us to restrain our feelings so that an impartial spectator won’t think we are idiots.

This passage may explain the fascination for kings which Vimes is so aghast at:

When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it. it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries, we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favour all their inclinations, and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that any thing should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation!

But at least Smith ends up on the side of Vimes:

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

This passage made me think that it may be the root reason for why joint families and the caste system are dangerous and cities are great engines for making us moral:

The propriety of our moral sentiments is never so apt to be corrupted, as when the indulgent and partial spectator is at hand, while the indifferent and impartial one is at a great distance.

This passage made me remember Om talking about the crowd stoning the heretic in Small Gods, though Pratchett and Smith aren’t talking about the exact same thing (Pratchett was sympathetic enough to suggest that the crowd was being motivated by the thankfulness that it wasn’t them.)

Yet surely if we saw any man shouting with admiration and applause at a barbarous and unmerited execution, which some insolent tyrant had ordered, we should not think we were guilty of any great absurdity in denominating this behaviour vicious and morally evil in the highest degree, though it expressed nothing but depraved moral faculties, or an absurd approbation of this horrid action, as of what was noble, magnanimous, and great. Our heart, I imagine, at the sight of such a spectator, would forget for a while its sympathy with the sufferer, and feel nothing but horror and detestation, at the thought of so execrable a wretch. We should abominate him even more than the tyrant who might be goaded on by the strong passions of jealousy, fear, and resentment, and upon that account be more excusable. But the sentiments of the spectator would appear altogether without cause or motive, and therefore most perfectly and completely detestable. There is no perversion of sentiment or affection which our heart would be more averse to enter into, or which it would reject with greater hatred and indignation than one of this kind; and so far from regarding such a constitution of mind as being merely something strange or inconvenient, and not in any respect vicious or morally evil, we should rather consider it as the very last and most dreadful stage of moral depravity.

But somehow that moral depravity judgment doesn’t seem to exist in India; since we love seeing barbarous and unmerited executions.

I’m not sure that this passage is true, as I think there are enough people who are quite happy with unmerited praise:

And as we cannot always be satisfied merely with being admired, unless we can at the same time persuade ourselves that we are in some degree really worthy of admiration; so we cannot always be satisfied merely with being believed, unless we are at the same time conscious that we are really worthy of belief.

All in all, at least one more close rereading has to be done. The question is, 2019 or 2020?


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