William James' Pragmatism and Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments

philosophy just sentiments pragmatism william james psychology epistemology

Marcus Shera for AdamSmithWorks

Shera explores the connection between thinking and conduct in William James and Adam Smith's philosophical works.

"Meaningful beliefs come with practical habits, and the value of those habits is a test of truth."

August 24, 2022
Those who maintain the notion of an is-ought gap often appeal to a passage in David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (Treatise). It should be remembered that Hume disavowed the Treatise and that the suggestion of an is-ought gap does not arise in any of his subsequent writings. Moreover, interpretations of the original passage vary.[1]
The embrace of an is-ought gap sometimes goes with readings of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) as a descriptive work of moral psychology rather than an endeavor in moral education. Smith himself indicates at one point that his inquiry is “a matter of fact” and not “a matter of right” (TMS 77.10). That “matter of fact,” however, concerns the principles upon which man approves of the punishment of bad actions. I see Smith in TMS as ranging over moral psychology and ethics. He maintains a two-way bridge between concrete moral problems to matters more intellectual and abstract. 
In Part III of TMS, Smith compares the judgments of poets and men of letters to mathematicians and natural philosophers in the same manner that he treats the judgments of a man in the street approving or disapproving of the conduct of his neighbors (124.18-23). Smith is concerned with the notion of propriety in both mathematical discourses and in moral sermons. He even speaks of recognizing a certain degree of laughter as proper in proportion to the funniness of a joke (16.1). 
Around the turn of the twentieth century, William James led a school of philosophy, drawing on the writings of his friend Charles Sanders Peirce, called “Pragmatism”.[2] James’ main idea is that the meaningfulness of a belief always relates to its practical implications. The difference between belief and disbelief in a proposition makes a difference in how one engages with the world. For James, every sort of thinker from the laborer lending attention to his tools to the philosopher writing a treatise, tacitly relates his or her thought to some practical aspect of life. The belief that an all-knowing and all-powerful God exists has “cash value”, as James would say: Believing in such a God, I cannot expect to hide from him; I expect him to have the final say in the narrative of the universe; I must attempt to live according to his standards.  If a belief in a proposition does not recommend any changes in my active habits, including my sentimental habits, investigating that proposition cannot be part of truth-seeking. The question of whether God is pink or blue, on its face, would seem to be one such proposition. 
The relationship between meaning and practicality underlies James’s pragmatist theory of truth. He treated the inner life of the mind as coextensive with the outer life of our bodily conduct. “Truth” refers to ideas thought good, that is, thought worth believing, or putting stock in. James wrote: 
“[T]ruth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it.” 
(James 1908, 75)
The proposition that some idea is true but not something that one ought to believe would be absurd. That an action is good and that one ought to do it correspond by construction, and the same goes for truth and belief. James proposes that we commit to that way of thinking and speaking. (It is good to do so!) When the action is believing a statement about reality, then, if it is deemed good, we say the statement is ‘true.’ That is not to say we are always right to do so. People disagree about many things about reality, and they cannot all be right. Meaningful beliefs come with practical habits, and the value of those habits is a test of truth.
A propositional idea about reality that a woman named Beth deems good is a belief of Beth’s. It is a true belief if Beth does so properly or justly; and in that case it has, James says, a “marriage-function” between Beth and the object of belief. Though the object of belief may exist independent of any knower, we can only say that ideas about that object are true. Truth happens to ideas. Beliefs are fashioned like a set of armor from raw ore and scraps of leather. Armor is not functional until it is crafted, and an idea is not true until it fits the believer’s movements or doings in the world. James (1908, 69) writes, 
“[Pragmatism] converts the absolutely empty notion of a static relation of ‘correspondence’... between our minds and reality, into that of a rich and active commerce…between particular thoughts of ours, and the great universe of other experiences in which they play their parts and have their uses.” 
James is saying that the system of correspondence that our mind develops is developed for service to our purposes. 
Thinking is complicit in acting, and acting complicit in thinking. The virtuous man must be wise, and the wise man virtuous. Your mental activity is a cardinal faculty that has to be nurtured along with virtues manifested in bodily motions, including writing and speech. 
“Truth for us is simply a collective name for verification-processes, just as health, wealth, strength, etc., are names for other processes connected with life, and also pursued because it pays to pursue them. Truth is MADE, just as health, wealth and strength are made.” 
(James 1907, 218) 
The pragmatist conception of truth makes apparent the implicit “ought” in every “is”. Michael Polanyi argued that every statement that “X is true” involves the tacit claim “I believe X,” and likely by extension “you ought to believe it too.” Saying that “X is true” is a practical “ought” statement for how we should relate to some part of the world. Polanyi separates each sentence into the articulate content of the sentence, and the assertion that the sentence is true tacit in its utterance (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy.  London: Routledge, 1962, 267). 
“Ises” correspond to “oughts”. Furthermore, when we recognize that ‘ought’ derives from the verb ‘to owe,’ we see ‘ought’ statements as statements about what one being owes another being, and thus the ‘ought’ statement is every bit as much an ‘is’ statement as “Jim owes Mary ten pounds.” The distinctiveness of ‘ought’ statements is a distinctiveness among fellow ‘is’ statements; it is not a distinctiveness that makes them something other than ‘is’ statements. Finally, if the emotivist interprets “You ought to do X” as “You doing X is my desire”,  he has in that fashion shown how “oughts” correspond to “ises,” and if we should care about the speaker’s approval or disapproval, then those ‘ises’ are pertinent. 
In his 1902 lectures on religious experience at Edinburgh, James said: 
“What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. The Continental schools of philosophy have too often overlooked the fact that man's thinking is organically connected with his conduct. It seems to me to be the chief glory of English and Scottish thinkers to have kept the organic connection in view.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Routledge 1905, 442-3).
One can build a strong case for that “organic connection” in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Daniel Klein (2021) finds an angle by the way that Smith uses the word “justice” (Daniel Klein, “Commutative, distributive, and estimative justice in Adam Smith”. Adam Smith Review, 2021). Building from Smith’s paragraph on senses of the word justice (269-270.10), Klein finds three uses of “justice” in TMS. First is “commutative justice,” the simple abstention from another’s ‘stuff’ (person, property, and promises-due). Second is “distributive justice,” the proper and becoming use of one’s own resources. Third is “estimative justice,” granting the proper degree of admiration or esteem towards some object and pursuing it accordingly.[3] It is the third sense that primarily concerns us here. 
Klein finds 68 instances where Smith uses “just” as estimative justice (Klein 2021, 94, 98), 36 of which are from TMS.  That beliefs, estimations, and systems of thought are practically relevant objects is not lost on Smith (although a statement at TMS 315.3 is exoterically quite otherwise). Smith treats a mental faculty as an ethical one by treating estimating or judging as an action, a phenomenon stemming from the will (TMS 122.6, 130.32). The title of TMS highlights sentiments, themselves a mental phenomenon, and with a natural relation to the actions they motivate. Discovering the analogy between the act of judging and bodily acts helps us think about a Smithian theory of intellectual propriety. Within estimative justice, we might delineate a province in which the object for estimation is something we call an idea, notion, theory, hypothesis, philosophy, school of thought, and so on, and we might call that province of estimative justice epistemic justice.
For moral sentiments, the object of contemplation in TMS is a person’s conduct, including her believing, say, a philosophical system or a theory. Her believing these objects involves judgments which we may find agreeable or disagreeable. Smith compares the sentiments of mathematicians and poets, saying that mathematicians are less concerned with public opinion (123-126). The curiosity is how seamlessly Smith compares the truth of a mathematical theorem with the beauty of poetry, two things often considered apples and oranges. The differences he finds between the mathematician and the poet are more to do with the precision, accuracy, or determinateness that the mathematician finds in his theorem without the approval of others. Many writers since Smith’s time have spoken of such features as the theorem’s ‘objectivity,’ whereas the disagreement and uncertainty over a poem’s beauty is said to arise from its lack of ‘objectivity.’ Smith understands that poets are seeking something less certain than the objects in the quarry of mathematicians. The level of certainty or ‘accuracy’ that their object of estimation affords speaks to the way in which humans relate to aspects of the world. But that there is a beauty to be pursued in poetry and a truth in mathematics or physics is never abandoned.
Smith a few times seems to distinguish between “moral” and “intellectual” virtues. For example, 
“[Superior prudence] necessarily supposes the utmost perfection of all the intellectual and of all the moral virtues.” 
When Smith speaks about the sympathy we have with another person as the two of us judge a matter with no particular connection to either of us, he elaborates on the man of attention, taste, and superior justness who leads us into deeper and more wonderful understandings of the same object. The praise we bestow on the intellectual leader is due to his “intellectual virtues” (20.3). The distinction is not so interesting as the fact that ‘intellectual virtue’ is easily and naturally interpreted as a species of ‘moral,’ since thinking is a type of acting, like talking, if only to oneself, and thus can be estimated for its propriety or beauty. That way of contemplating the intellect solidifies the organic connection between thinking and conduct that James found in the British tradition.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments offers a set of descriptive statements about human judgments, but those statements often imply further statements about Smith’s judgments about what it is good to do, including believe. The pragmatist approach impels us to see Smith’s claims as a guide to the human faculties of judgment. In order to improve his readers’ ability to judge, Smith teaches us the features of our judging apparatus, and how our apparatus relates to that of others. We judge better when our sense of duty is directed towards a higher impartial spectator—the one to whom ‘oughts’ are owed. A hidden faith of all who make judgments of any kind is that there are good judgments to make. Reading TMS as but a work of moral psychology takes a silent or agnostic position as to the reality of goodness. Smith maintains the reality of goodness; he presupposes the reality of justice; he sustains a reality commitment—just as his friend Hume teaches us to. As Erik Matson writes in the Adam Smith Review, Smith’s ‘wonder’ and surprise—at himself!—at the end of Smith’s “History of Astronomy” is perhaps an ironic way of teaching us that even those most self-consciously pragmatist should be equally conscious of their reality commitment. 
A proto-pragmatist reading may help those who read TMS as psychology and not moral philosophy, and it may also bring more attention to Smith as a member of the canon of philosophizing about epistemology.

This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

Marcus Shera is a PhD student in Economics at George Mason University where he studies economic history of religion, and Smithian Political Economy. His research investigates the political economy of monasticism. He also writes and makes videos at theeconplayground.com.

[1] For an argument that Hume worked to dissolve the distinction between ises and oughts, see Nicholas Capaldi, Hume’s Place in Moral Philosophy (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1989).
[2] James called the pragmatist philosophy “A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking”. He said that Socrates, Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume all had made significant contributions to truth by using the pragmatic method, but they did not see it as a philosophy with a universal mission. William James,Pragmatism (New York: Routledge, 1908, Lecture 2).
[3] “Estimative justice” is a term coined by Klein (2021) which Smith speaks of without naming it (270.10).