Conscience and Moral Rules in Adam Smith

sympathy impartial spectator duty self-deceit moral sentiments

Edward J. Harpham for AdamSmithWorks

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August 11, 2021
In this essay I explore Adam Smith’s analysis of the origins of conscience and general moral rules in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I argue that Adam Smith offers a distinction between moral conscience and general moral rules that sidesteps the traditional distinction between universal and relative moral standards, leading to a fundamental rethinking of the problem of the variability of moral opinion and the demands of moral conscience and duty.

Moral Conscience
Like the thought of his mentor Francis Hutcheson and of his friend David Hume, Smith’s moral theory is rooted in an analysis of the workings of our moral sentiments. In its barest form, Smith’s argument is that we judge others when we use our imaginations to put ourselves into their situation and bring their case home to us.1 Either we do or do not sympathize with the sentiments and motives guiding the actions of the person we are observing. When the sentiments sparked in the spectator are congruent with those found in the agent, we approve of another’s actions or character as being appropriate.2 When they do not, we condemn them as inappropriate. Moral judgment thus arises from how we feel about a particular situation that we, as spectators, are observing. In order to correct for any biases that might intrude into our moral judgment from either our interests or our passions, Smith argues that we must assume the so-called “impartial spectator” position for viewing others’ actions and motives.3 Our senses of propriety and impropriety, as well as of merit and demerit, follow from our observations and judgments as spectators of ourselves and other people, with the adoption of an impartial spectator position to correct for any bias in our judgments.
Smith’s notion of moral conscience follows directly from this general approach. He believes we cultivate a moral conscience by learning to view ourselves, our intentions and our actions from a position of impartial spectatorship. From this position, we cultivate a concern with praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, not praise and blame. Being virtuous and having a fully developed moral conscience for Smith represents the highest stage in the moral development of an individual.
General Rules and Duty
Early in The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith appears to be confident in our ability to form moral judgments. A more cautious attitude emerges at the beginning of Chapter Four of Part III of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The impartial spectator, it seems, is no longer enough to help individuals make moral judgments in the real world.4 Smith begins the chapter by noting that the impartial spectator has its limitations in the world of action. We may try to view our own conduct from the perspective of the impartial spectator both before and after we do something. But our passions and emotions can affect the way we examine ourselves and often lead us to mistaken judgments in both circumstances. In general, it is easier to resist this partiality after the fact, when our passions and emotions have subsided and no longer dominate our moral perception of the world. Our ability to resist the partiality of the passions before an action is more problematic. We may want something so badly that we are unable to make a good decision about what should be done. Our passions want what they want, and there may be nothing that we can do about it.5
Smith labels this partiality brought into moral judgment by the passions and emotion “self-deceit,” and claims that it the “fatal weakness of mankind,” “the source of half the disorders of human life” (TMS: 158). The solution that “Nature” appears to have devised to the problem of self-deceit comes in the form of general rules concerning what is fit and proper to do and what must be avoided. The psychological source of these general rules that we use to guide our judgments about ourselves is surprising. They do not arise from our observations of our own behavior, but from our observations of the behavior of others. As Smith explains, “Our continual observations upon the conduct of others, insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided” (TMS: 159). The specific mechanism by which these rules are formed is considerably different from the cultivation of conscience. Take the emergence of negative rules or commands that order us not to do something. We observe another’s behavior and disapprove of it. We hear others express similar sentiments, and this confirms and reinforces our earlier judgment. We resolve never to be guilty of similar actions and exposed to similar disapprobation. “We thus naturally lay down to ourselves a general rule, that all such actions are to be avoided, as tending to render us odious, contemptible, or punishable, the objects of all those sentiments for which we have the greatest dread and aversion” (TMS: 159). In other words, general moral rules are formed out of our judgments of particular experiences that we observe in conjunction with the judgments of others. A desire for praise or an aversion to blame, not the moral conscience’s concern for praiseworthiness or aversion to blameworthiness, compels us to develop them. After these general rules are formed and “universally acknowledged and established by the concurring sentiments of mankind,” they are seen to be standards of judgment for evaluating other events in the world (TMS: 160).
This view of the origins of general moral rules carries four important consequences. First, it explains the tools available to individuals for escaping the limitations of the moral sentiments when judging oneself. Rather than trying to control or curtail one’s passions and emotions, an individual can use general rules through “habitual reflection” as a way to escape the misrepresentations of self-love and other passions. The rules are standards against which we can judge our actions before the fact and decide if they are appropriate behavior or not. Second, this view helps account for the enormous variability in moral rules across different cultures and historical periods. There is no guarantee that different societies will adopt the same general rules for overcoming the limitations of moral judgment in real individuals. Third, this account helps explain how moral rules themselves can become the objects of moral judgments. Individuals come to approve of general rules as being a good thing for society to the point that they may believe that they have a foundation independent of our moral sentiments. History is replete with examples of peoples claiming their rules were given to them by divine authority. Our natural sense of duty may be reinforced by a mistaken notion of the universality of the moral standards that have emerged in the society in which we live. Finally, this view explains how tensions arise when the judgments of our moral conscience might be displaced or, at least, come into conflict with the general rules that are established in a particular society and to which we feel deep sentimental attachments. In Smith’s world, there is no guarantee that the conclusions of our sense of moral conscience will dovetail neatly into our sense of duty.
The Sense of Duty
Smith’s conclusions about the difference between the dictates of moral conscience and our sense of duty to obey general rules are profound. Virtuous individuals guided by moral conscience cultivate the feelings that are appropriate to particular situations. For example, when confronted with the benevolent behavior of another, they feel gratitude towards that person and act appropriately. A person educated to one’s duty may never feel the appropriate sentiment of gratitude. But they may learn to act appropriately, based on their regard for the rules of gratitude established in their society. “The motive of his actions,” Smith explains, “may be no other than a reverence for the established rule of duty, as serious and earnest desire of acting, in every respect, according to the law of gratitude” (TMS: 162). A regard for the general rules of society may be a second-best option for human beings trying to live together with one another. Acting from a sense of duty may not point one to the most complete perfection of one’s moral character. But it does give rise to a society where individuals can treat one another with a “tolerable decency,” and, for most of one’s life, be able “to avoid any considerable degree of blame” (TMS: 163). More to the point, our sense of duty may be more important than our sentiments for virtue. “Without this sacred regard to general rules, there is no man whose conduct can be much depended upon” (TMS: 163).
The Tension between Conscience and Duty
For Smith, humans are subject to multiple commands in ethics, some stemming from the dictates of conscience and others from duty. When should the principle of duty be the sole principle regulating our conduct in the world, and when should it concur with other motives such as those provided by moral conscience? Conscience and duty introduce tension into Smith’s understanding of moral judgement and action in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Understanding that tension between the demands of conscience and duty lies at the heart of the final chapter of Part VI.
Some moral judgements are guided primarily by moral conscience; others are guided by general rules and our sense of duty. Given the characteristics of a particular passion, individuals may face a difficult task of balancing between the demands of conscience and of duty. For example, regarding benevolent and social sentiments like love, our moral judgements and actions flow naturally from our benevolent sentiments. Our sense of duty can be employed to watch over and moderate excessive benevolence. On the whole, the benevolent side of our moral character can be trusted to work appropriately. With regard to malevolent and unsocial passions such as resentment and anger, however, moral judgement and action should proceed entirely from a sense of duty, the passions themselves being too dangerous to allow unlimited play as a motive to our actions. Selfish passions are even more complicated. Our ordinary private interest ought to flow from a regard to the general rules, not from the objects themselves. But another, quite different, conclusion is reached regarding the “extraordinary and important objects of self-interest” involving advancement and social recognition (TMS: 173). Humans recognize that the actions of a prince in war, a member of parliament seeking reelection, or a tradesman seeking a special job, must be grounded, at least in part, by the passion of ambition, and not just duty or conscience, for successful advancement and social recognition.
A second issue that follows from the distinction between conscience and duty involves the precision and exactness of the general moral rules themselves. Some rules are clearer and more important to society than others. For example, Smith argues that the rules of such virtues as prudence, charity, generosity, gratitude and friendship “are in many respects loose and inaccurate, admit of many exceptions, and require so many modifications, that it is scarce possible to regulate our conduct entirely by a regard for them” (TMS: 174). In contrast, the rules of justice are accurate to the highest degree and admit of no exceptions.6 When we practice the former virtue, sentiment should be allowed to predominate rather than a specific regard for any particular rule. “But it is otherwise with regard to justice: the man who in that refines the least, and adheres with the most obstinate stedfastness to the general rules themselves, is the most commendable, and the most to be depended on” (TMS: 175).
Given its importance to human society, it is not surprising that Smith sees other sentiments in our nature bolstering our sense of duty, particularly the religious sentiment. Even in its crudest form, “during the ignorance and darkness of pagan superstition,” religion gave support to the rules of morality. People believed that the gods could be appealed to in order to reward the good and punish the bad. Similarly, our natural sense of religion supports our natural sense of duty by convincing us that the general rules of morality “are to be regarded as the commands and laws of the Deity, promulgated by those vicegerents which he has thus set up within us” (TMS: 165). There is a darker side to religion’s place in our moral life. Religion may complement the teaching of our natural sentiments and reinforce the importance of our sense of duty. False religion may pervert our natural sentiments and distort our notions of duty beyond recognition (TMS: 176).
The linkage drawn by Smith between the general rules of morality and “the commands and laws of the Deity” is one of the most confusing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and remains prone to misinterpretation. One might easily argue that what Smith means to say is that the conclusions of conscience are the general laws of morality backed by our religious sentiment. From this interpretation, conscience can easily be identified as “vicegerents of God” that reward us for following the law and punish us for breaking it. If my reading of the sharp distinction between duty and conscience is correct, this reading is seriously mistaken. As I argue above, our general rules of morality are generalizations based upon our observations of our moral judgments in conjunction with those of others. They are not conclusions of our moral conscience. Conscience deals with the problem of praiseworthiness, duty centers upon the problem of praise. All people have the capacity for moral generalization. All people do not have a highly functioning moral sense of conscience. The “vicegerents of God” that Smith is referring to are not just the sentiments involved with conscience. They encompass all our moral faculties, including our sense of propriety and impropriety, our sense of merit and demerit, and our sense of duty.
The significance of the distinction between conscience and duty in Smith’s thought is revealed most clearly at the end of Chapter V in Part III. Smith emphasizes that while he wants to distinguish between duty and conscience, he does not want to say they are necessarily antithetical to one another. On the contrary, for the most part they complement one another. He comments that “the general rules by which external prosperity and adversity are commonly distributed in this life” tend to encourage and promote virtue. Prudence is rewarded with success in business. Humanity is rewarded in our private lives with love. But there are times when some of our natural sentiments fly in the face of general rules by which society is governed. Smith explains,
The industrious knave cultivates the soil; the indolent good man leaves it uncultivated. Who ought to reap the harvest? Who starve, and who live in plenty? The natural course of things decides in favour of the knave: the natural sentiments of mankind in favour of the man of virtue (TMS: 168).
From the perspective of duty, the rules governing marketplace activity, that is property rights and the like, generally result in socially beneficial outcomes. The fact that wealth goes to the industrious knave rather than the lazy or indolent good man is acceptable to our sense of justice. But from the perspective of our other sentiments that tell us that goodness should be rewarded, another conclusion is sometimes reached. The efforts made by societies to redirect the natural distribution of wealth often reflect the conflicting demands that our sentiments make up the world. Sometimes these demands are misconceived. As Smith notes,
The natural course of things cannot be entirely controlled by the impotent endeavors of man: the current is too rapid and too strong for him to stop it; and though the rules of which direct it appear to have been established for the wisest and best purpose, they sometimes produce effects which shock all his natural sentiments (TMS: 168).
There are natural limits to what we can do to impose the teaching of our consciences upon the world. But that does not mean that we must deny our consciences out of hand. Indignation in the face of perceived unfairness is a natural response of our conscience to the world at times. We may not always be able to construct the world in the way that we wish, but we do not have to like it at the deepest levels of our being. In the end, humans live their lives trying to balance the conflicting moral demands of duty and virtue as best they can.

Related Links
Nir Ben-Moshe, Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?
Jonathan Jacobs, Adam Smith on Moral Education

  1. Smith uses the term sympathy in a number of different ways, often quite loosely. In one of his broadest definitions, Smith suggests that the term may be used “without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.” (TMS: 10) For the purposes in this paper, sympathy will refer to our imaginative capacity to enter into the sentiments of others. For a further discussion of Smith’s notion of sympathy, see Griswold (1999), Raphael (1985), Otteson (2002), Campbell and Skinner (1982).
  2. For a general discussion of the spectator-agent model see Beck (1975). For an application of this model in Smith’s moral thought see Harpham (2001, 2004, 2010), Campbell (1971), and Griswold (1999).
  3. Like sympathy, the idea of the impartial spectator has sparked considerable controversy in the secondary literature. Interestingly, in Parts II and III Smith uses the concept of the impartial spectator without adequately explaining what he means by it or all the circumstances under which individuals might use it. Elsewhere I have argued that the idea of the impartial spectator is not any one particular position for viewing and judging the conduct of another. It is not the unique position of an ideal spectator. There may be a variety of impartial spectator positions for viewing others, equally “impartial,” but characterized by different capacities for moral judgment or even different amounts of information available to the spectator for making a moral judgment. See Harpham (2001, 2004, 2010). For alternative views of Smith’s idea of the impartial spectator see Griswold (1999), Otteson (2002), Montes (2004), and Raphael (2007).
  4. “In order to pervert the rectitude of our own judgments concerning the propriety of our own conduct, it is not always necessary that the real and impartial spectator should be at a great distance. When he is at hand, when he is present, the violence and injustice of our own selfish passions are sometimes sufficient to induce the man within the breast to make a report very different from what the real circumstances of the case are capable of authorizing” (TMS: 157).
  5. This concern over the partiality of the passions and emotions lies at the heart of Smith’s rejection of Francis Hutcheson’s theory of moral sense. Essentially Smith’s argument is that if we had a moral sense, we would be able to judge our own actions and sentiments better than we are able to judge those of others. This, he believes, is clearly not the case and one of the major reasons that general rules emerge in society as standards for measuring our own behavior against. See TMS: 158. See also Hutcheson: 2003.
  6. This whole line of argument follows those developed by Hume in Book III of the Treatise. Echoing his friends, Smith writes, “The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate an indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it” (TMS: 176-77).

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