Paradigm Lock: Part 1

self-interest approbation imagination

Douglas J. Den Uyl for AdamSmithWorks

February 8, 2023

"...Smith, often the reputed defender of self-interest,1 shows us how “self-interest” can be trumped by something even more powerful. That more powerful force is our obsession with symmetry, order, perfection, or fittingness. Smith first uses a watch to make this point."
Perhaps one of the least noticed or commented upon examples in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) is his furniture example.(TMS IV.I.4) It could be that the relative lack of notice is because this example comes just before the most noticed and commented upon example in the book, viz., the case of “poor boy.” But for me the furniture example was, and is, even more compelling, and its implications possibly even more far reaching. This is where Smith, often the reputed defender of self-interest,1 shows us how “self-interest” can be trumped by something even more powerful. That more powerful force is our obsession with symmetry, order, perfection, or fittingness. Smith first uses a watch to make this point.
a watch…that falls behind above two minutes in a day, is despised by one curious in watches. He sells it perhaps for a couple of guineas, and purchases another at fifty, which will not lose above a minute in a fortnight. The sole use of watches, however, is to…hinder us from breaking any engagement….But the person…will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned upon any other account, to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it.(TMS IV.I.5)

It is the fittingness or perfection of function that captivates and motivates the watch owner, and not its ability to serve his practical ends. It is not that practical ends—ends for which an item is usually obtained—do not matter. Rather, they come to matter secondarily to the integrity of the device in question. What this suggests is that our imagination of the fittingness or coherence of a thing or situation can come to rule over how well it may serve our purposes, provided it still serves our practical purpose in some credible way. Smith’s furniture example is meant to make the same point, but I would argue it extends beyond it. In this example, we have a person sacrificing his own “interest” for the sake of the integrity of his imagination.
When a person comes into his chamber, and finds the chairs all standing in the middle of the room, he is angry with his servant, and rather than see them continue in this disorder, perhaps takes the trouble himself to set them all in their places…To attain this conveniency he voluntarily puts himself to more trouble than all he could have suffered from the want of it; since nothing was more easy, than to have set himself down upon one of them, which is probably what he does when his labour is over.

We can easily imagine someone coming home from a long day at work, tired and looking towards reclining in his easy chair, but finding the room in which it sits in disarray. Instead of satisfying his ease, he expends energy straightening out his room before he reclines, even though he could have gone over to his chair immediately upon arrival and set himself down. It is not that this example in its particulars applies to everyone. Some people will indeed just go sit down. But all of us, no doubt, can think of examples in our own cases where our convenience was sacrificed to our sense of order. One might still want to argue that this is all self-interest. It is just that in this case our self-interest lies in seeking order or fittingness rather than convenience. If, however, our intention was convenience, which then gets overridden by order, it does not seem accurate to say that we have replaced one self-interested objective with another. Rather, because the latter objective (order) is dependent on the former (convenience) as a reaction to it--in that there would be no sense of displacement if the latter (order) was alone the object of an action--it makes more sense to speak of overriding our interest than adding to it.2
This contrast between self-interest and order becomes all the more pertinent when one recognizes the difference between the sources of action. In the one case (convenience), we find simply desire pushing towards its end. In the other case, one finds the desire that is present to be a consequence of an act of imagination (envisioning the order). These are quite different processes, and to call them both “self-interest” simply obscures that difference. Our general point then is quite simple: acts of imagination can be more powerful than simple desires in motivating action, even as the first desire remains. Smith shows this in a number of ways. One example might be the “poor boy” example itself. The poor boy, “whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition,”(TMS IV.I.8) imagines that if he only gains wealth and reputation he will achieve tranquility and repose. This image of wealth “appears in his fancy” and obsessively motivates him such that “he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power” in his pursuit of that imagined life. Indeed, to some extent for all of us, “the pleasures of wealth and greatness…strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it.”(TMS IVI.9) The poor boy is perhaps more attached to this image than is normal and thus sacrifices more to it; but the rest of us are called to it as well.3 In all cases, the pursuit of an imagined order of things disrupts a tranquility that would otherwise be our object were it not for the presence of either an imagined disorder in need of correction or an imagined order to come.
So far our discussion has concerned only patterns of order or fitness that apply to us as individuals. However, the disposition to impose order based upon a model of how things should fit together can be directed towards others as well. Indeed, the social dimensions of what is fitting may be the paradigmatic ones. Smith’s “man of system” comes immediately to mind. Smith’s man of system is “so enamoured with the supposed Beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”(TMS VI.ii.2.17) Such individuals, when in positions of power, ignore the various interests of individuals in an effort to move them into positions that match the imagined patterns of the ideal plan. Yet however dangerous and generally problematic such endeavors are, they are but an excess of what all of us might be inclined towards, and not something only manifested by the power hungry. “[T]he same love of system, the same regard to the beauty of order, of art and contrivance, frequently serves to recommend those institutions which tend to promote the public welfare….We take pleasure in beholding the perfection of so beautiful and grand a system, and we are uneasy till we remove any obstruction that can in the least disturb or encumber the regularity of its motions.”(TMS IV.I.11) Thus although “love of system” in this political case is not about overriding one’s own desires or interests (though that might be possible also), interests do nonetheless take a back seat to the political orders suggested by any man of system’s imagination.
What is behind this power of the imagination to override interest? I want to suggest that the root of this power is most forcefully found in morality; and because it is rooted here, there are both positive and negative dimensions to it, as we shall see. Perhaps the simplest way to get into this idea is to recall Smith’s distinction between praise and praiseworthiness. That distinction is grounded in a basic sociological fact:
Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favourable, and pain in their unfavourable regard. She rendered their approbation most flattering and most agreeable to him for its own sake; and their disapprobation most mortifying and most offensive.(TMS III.2.6)

Hence given our desire to please our brethren and be pleased by them, one would think that praise would be among the first things we would value. Indeed, from Smith’s statement one might expect that one would pay little attention to praiseworthiness as long as one was being praised. No doubt praise is pleasant, but seeking it turns out to take a distinct second place to our desire to be praiseworthy: “nature, accordingly, has endowed [us] not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of.”(TMS III.2.7) And, “to obtain approbation where it is really due, may sometimes be an object of no great importance to [us]. But to be that thing which deserves approbation, must always be an object of the highest.”(TMS III.2.7) Most importantly, “the love of praise-worthiness is by no means derived altogether from the love of praise….so far is the love of praise-worthiness from being derived altogether from that of praise; that the love of praise seems, at least in great measure, to be derived from that of praise-worthiness.”(TMS.2.2)4 We are, it seems, more drawn to principles of appropriateness than we are to receiving praise, however pleasant that may be. Appropriateness is just another way of talking about an order or notion of fittingness when applied to our conduct.
For Smith the guardians of our ideas of appropriateness go under such titles as “spectator,” “man within the breast,” “conscience,” “the man within,” “the great judge and arbiter,” or “impartial spectator.” There may be differences associated with these terms, but for our purposes here, we can ignore those subtleties. The point is that an understanding of what is appropriate or fitting, whether applied to ourselves or to others, is independent of our desires or interests, and is “a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of passions.” There is then an internal forum we apply to those interests to monitor and measure their worthiness. “[I]t is only by consulting this judge within, that we can ever see what relates to ourselves in its proper shape and dimensions; or that we can ever make any proper comparison between our own interests and those of other people.”(TMS III.3.1) We must view those interests “neither from our own place nor yet from his, neither with our own eyes nor yet with his, but from the place and with the eyes of a third person who has no particular connexion with either, and who judges impartially between us.”(TMS 3.3) This endeavor to get straight in our minds the standards of appropriateness we need to apply, is what we first long to discover. The endeavor is not motivated as a consequence of acts of praising and blaming, but rather is sought in order to be the occasion for assessing such acts. Our conceptions of fittingness and order can thus rule over our desires, just as they did in our furniture example. All such conceptions of order and fittingness are exercised through spectating, and spectating is largely an act of the imagination that comprehends and employs an ordered relationship of norms of conduct or a set thereof.
Though our disposition towards order and fittingness applies to everything we might encounter, from virtuous conduct to organizing our possessions, it seems plausible to claim that our social nature would give priority to the moral dimension. Acceptance into society is predicated upon knowing its standards and proceeding accordingly. Once we have a good sense of that, we can go about conducting our business. The poor boy certainly comes to form his ideas about desirable modes of living by observing others, and even what constitutes the proper arrangement of a house is no doubt learned from experience with the houses of others. This is not to suggest that there is such a thing as moral furniture arranging, but rather to indicate that the imagination’s power to order our experience into patterns of fittingness is very powerful—indeed powerful enough to override or define interests, as we have been suggesting. Our moral standards are no doubt the most profound in this regard and thereby of the highest priority.
In saying all this, we have been focusing mostly on the good to be found in our disposition of the imagination to define an order and monitor our experience in light of it. But Smith also recognized that this disposition could be carried too far. In the segment to follow next week, we shall discuss some of the “irregularities” associated with the moral imagination.

Want More?
Lauren Hall, Self Interest Rightly Understood, at AdamSmithWorks.
Erik Matson, Perspectives From Smith on Wealth and Happiness, at AdamSmithWorks.
Dig deeper into Smith on Approbation with our TMS Reading Guide.

  1. As Maria Paganelli pointed out to me, the term “self-interest” is ironically almost nowhere to be found in the Wealth of Nations.(henceforth WN) It is much more present in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.
  2. Smith is not inclined to see every inclination as best described as self-interest. See, for example, TMS I.i.2.1).
  3. Smith tells us there is an upside to all this, namely it spurs on industry which benefits us all. (TMS IV.I.10)
  4. Smith notes also that, “the agreement or disagreement both of the sentiments and judgments of other people with our own, is, in all cases,…of more or less importance to us, exactly in proportion as we ourselves are more or less uncertain about the propriety or our own sentiments, about the accuracy of our own judgments.”(TMS III.2.16) Note that the degree of clarity with which we understand what is praiseworthy is the degree to which we can withstand not being praised by others, for we know our acts were worthy.