Paradigm Lock: Part 2

impartial spectator self interest domestic politics moral imagination paradigm lock confirmation bias cancel culture

Douglas J. Den Uyl for AdamSmithWorks

February 15, 2023

 What are the pathologies morality may be subject to, and how can we avoid becoming dangerously locked in a moralistic paradigm? Den Uyl thinks Smith would share our worries about divisiveness today.

In the previous segment we examined the power of the imagination when it came to governing the appropriateness or order or fittingness of our actions and circumstances. We noted that the imagination’s power in this regard is strong enough to override what would appear to be our self-interest. In saying this, one cannot help but be reminded of the very opening sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS): “how selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”(TMS I.i.I.1) This socializing principle suggests we are moved by acts of “seeing” that begin to form our imagination towards appropriate forms of conduct, as we saw in the first segment. While this is a good thing, we ended by noting that there may be dimensions of this process that might not be so desirable. Let’s look at those dimensions now.
Smith notes that the call for impartiality of a spectator has led to two schools of thought, both of which intend to insure impartiality between self and others, such that the standard of fittingness deployed is not biased towards the self. Both of these schools are, however, aberrations of the moral imagination. One of the schools wants to correct bias by increasing our sensibilities towards others, while the other wants our sensibility towards ourselves to equal what others would have towards us (and thus be diminished). Both of these attempts are “a good deal beyond the just standard of nature and propriety.”(TMS III.3.8) That is, they are both pathologies of our moral imagination. Smith describes the first case as being composed of “whining and melancholy moralists” who seem unhappy with our insufficient degree of concern for others no matter how generous that concern may be. If there is any unhappiness among others anywhere, for example, we are not entitled to any of our own. The second school involves a kind of Stoicism where we are not allowed to feel any more happiness or misery than do others, who are not experiencing what has befallen us, might feel towards us were they to consider our experiences from their point of view. Thus, if you were to lose a son or daughter, your feelings of grief would not be proper if they extended beyond what another hearing about the matter might feel. This school then discourages sensibility to a wrong degree while the first school encourages it too strongly. Neither of these approaches is acceptable, for it is natural for us to feel more concerning those close to us than those at a distance, and it is natural to allow ourselves some happiness or grief even in the face of others who may not be experiencing such anywhere close to the same degree. The corrective for these pathologies is ordinary experience. There are times when favoring, or not diminishing ourselves, is not only appropriate, but also of practical value to ourselves and others. Experience teaches that the world is often a better place when we devote more attention to ourselves and our own circumstances and sentiments than we do to the circumstances and sentiments of others.
A similar point about the corrective of experience can be made regarding our intentions, and not just to our sentiments, as per the cases above. One might think that given the importance of the model of fittingness we have been describing, that the design behind our actions would be the sole standard of their worthiness. Not so, says Smith: “that this world judges by the event, and not by the design, has been in all ages the complaint, and is the great discouragement of virtue.”(TMS II.iii.1) Thus, however good one's intentions might be, should the consequences turn out badly, our judgment of the propriety of the act will be negative. Similarly, we are not allowed to rest our judgment of bad intentions solely on the intention itself prior to its execution. As Smith notes,
Sentiments, designs, affections, though it is from these that according to cool reason human actions derive their whole merit or demerit, are placed by the great Judge of hearts beyond the limits of every human jurisdiction,…That necessary rule of justice, therefore, that men in this life are liable to punishment for their actions only, not for their designs and intentions, is founded this salutary and useful irregularity in human sentiments concerning merit or demerit…(TMS II.iii.3.2)

The contrast between design and outcome constitutes the “irregularity” that can exist between the two when it comes to passing judgment and assessing propriety. We are, according to Smith, creatures “made for action,” so consequences do matter. Just as we do not fully blame a person for her evil thoughts, until bad actions based upon them actually appear, we also do not give a “full measure of applause, unless he has actually produced [something]” however laudable his goals and plans might be.(TMS II.iii.3.3)1 The world of experience is a complicated world, and our models of propriety and impropriety do not capture all its subtleties and permutations. Experience then both puts a check upon our designs as well as offering ways to further refine our judgments and our expectations of outcomes.
Given both the power and priority of our moral imagination, are there other pathologies we might consider that perhaps carry some of Smith’s worries even further. I want to suggest that one of them, let’s call it “moralization,” is increasingly common today and motivates much of the divisiveness we see around us. Moralization occurs when every dimension of a situation takes on moral significance according to some model of moral order held by the imagination that excludes, reforms, or interprets experience solely in terms of that model. Smith’s “man of system” would be one example in the realm of politics. Unfortunately, politics is not the only realm in which moralization is to be found, nor is the man of system example the only one to be found in politics. Moralization depends on a number of factors. The first is what might be called paradigm locking. Here we lock in all the associated conclusions we have drawn about morality such that experience cannot penetrate the paradigm. In this regard, Smith’s belief that experience will check the excesses of a paradigm seems somewhat naïve, for the power of the paradigm is such that experience itself—and by experience we mean both actions and intentions—is transformed into what conforms to the paradigm. An example might be the relatively recent “whipping” case of border guards on horseback supposedly whipping illegal immigrants as they were crossing the border into the US. Instead of waiting for an explanation, extending any sympathy to the border guards, or making any effort to see the situation impartially, a number of political leaders held a paradigm in which the border guards were “racists” or anti-immigration. Consequently, they were actually seeing the guards whip the immigrants, when actually the guards were legitimately using those straps on their horses as a way of maneuvering them. The paradigm is thus powerful enough to shape the experience.
Paradigm lock is often accompanied by paradigm packing where further experiences are interpreted in light of the original paradigm. We generally know this phenomenon as “confirmation bias,” but packing is a bit more than just bias. “Packing” has to do not simply with confirmation but with embeddedness. The experiences that are seen to support some paradigmatic framework not only provide evidence but also further lock down the paradigm such that other explanations or possibilities become increasingly harder to see. If there was a moral component to begin with, the righteousness of that position only gets reinforced by these “confirming” experiences. Paradigm packing is particularly problematic in the moral case because Smith’s remedy for any pathologies of our sentiments—namely experience—becomes increasingly unhelpful. The paradigm comes to rule the experience rather than the other way around. And if we now couple all that with the natural need for sociability—which in this case would mean the desire to share the paradigm--we have the setting for a culture of virtue signalers and dogmatic moralists. Smith, I believe, worried about this same problem:
If the hurtfulness of the design, if the malevolence of the affection, were alone the causes which excited our resentment, we should feel all the furies of that passion against any person in whose breast we suspected or believed such designs or affections were harboured, though they had never broke out into any action….There would be no safety for the most innocent and circumspect conduct. Bad wishes, bad views, bad designs, might still be suspected; and while these excited the same indignation with bad conduct, while bad intentions were as much resented as bad actions, they would equally expose the person to punishment and resentment.(TMS II.iii.3.2)

Needless to say, one cannot help being reminded of our own “cancel culture” when reading lines like these. For drowning out speakers before they have spoken or censoring content on the basis of its perceived affiliation with certain sources, are certainly “furies of passion.” Furthermore, one sees in this moralization process a weaponization of morality. It is not just that everything turns into a moral issue, but also that the paradigm is used to define “them versus us.” Thus there is an endeavor to coerce cooperation among those whose paradigms have not already been locked in a likeminded way and to scorn others perceived to be opposed to, or unsympathetic with, the favored paradigm.
Assuming this is not a desirable situation, what can be done about it—at least in theory? Strangely, the answer may lie in letting back in some of what morality was designed to counter, namely self-interest. Recall first that in many respects the function of morality is to temper our self-love. We do this not out of a natural benevolence or sense of humanity but through an impartial spectator or conscience; “the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.”(TMS III,3,4) It is not the love of our neighbor or mankind that moves us to virtue, Smith argues, but our love of what we conceive of as worthy and noble—that is, a paradigm of moral conduct. We need to realize, however, that the paradigm itself is set in an even broader context, one that recognizes that nature has intended the “happiness and perfection of the species”(TMS II.iii.3.2) to be the regulator or morality itself. Moralization and weaponization do not produce conditions of happiness and tranquility. Quite the opposite. So morality itself is limited. Its function is to help the process of socialization and to contribute what it can to our happiness. Self-interest has a necessary and positive role to play in this process.2 That all in the end is subject to morality is no more true than saying all reduces to self-interest. Both have been said of Smith, and both our mistaken.
In Aristotelian fashion then, we are trying to find the mean between self-interest and morality, or rather the legitimate scope of each. We are used to countering claims of self-interest with moral principles. We are less used to thinking about how to counter over moralizing the actions and views of others. What comes to mind in this latter case is Smith’s “system of natural liberty.” Leaving individuals the freedom to direct their own lives as they see fit is a way of encouraging a proper self-interest. It will certainly bump up against morality, but that bumping itself allows self-interest a place rather than obliterating it. Freedom and tolerance are the antidote of moralization. To move in that direction is what will eventually soften the grip of the locked paradigm and let unbiased experience guide us. Adam Smith was a first rate moral theorist because he knew morality wasn’t everything.

Want more?
Daniel Klein, The Regularity of Irregularity, at AdamSmithWorks.
Elaine Sternberg, Ethics in Aristotle and Adam Smith, at AdamSmithWorks.
Edward Harpham, Adam Smith: Self-Interest and the Partiality of the Moral Sentiments, at AdamSmithWorks.

  1. Smith also notes (TMS II.iii.3.6) that we can ignore actual consequences and substitute the expected ones and thus render more positive judgments about the actors as a way of sympathizing with them.
  2. “Regard to our own private happiness and interest, too, appear upon many occasions very laudable principles of action. The habits of œconomy, industry, discretion, attention, and application of thought, are generally supposed to be cultivated from self-interested motives, and at the same time are apprehended to be very praise-worthy qualities, which deserve the esteem and approbation of every body.”(TMS VII.ii.3.16)