The Psychological and Normative Framework of TMS

Nir Ben-Moshe for AdamSmithWorks

May 27, 2020
In this brief overview of Smith’s moral thought in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereafter “TMS”), my aim is to introduce the reader to the psychological and normative framework that Smith proposes and that consists of (a) sympathy, (b) approbation and disapprobation, and (c) moral judgment. In particular, I will make the case that Adam Smith’s account of the impartial spectator in the TMS is a modest ideal observer theory of moral judgment in the following sense: the account specifies the hypothetical conditions that guarantee the reliability of an agent’s (or agents’) responses in constituting the standard in question, and, if an actual agent or an actual community of agents are not under those conditions, their responses are not reliable as setting this standard. However, the hypothetical conditions are themselves constructed from the psychology and interactions of actual human beings. In other words, facts about the morally appropriate and inappropriate are constituted from hypothetical conditions that––while agents in a given society might have yet to attain them––can be constructed from those agents’ shared experiences and are, therefore, attainable. The account offers a standard of moral judgment that can transcend the biases of the society that gave rise to it. I proceed as follows. I first present the two key psychological components of the TMS framework—Smith’s account of sympathy and approbation—(section 2), and then discuss the central normative component—his account of moral judgment—(section 3). I conclude by considering whether another normative component is possible/needed on Smith’s account, namely, reflective endorsement (section 4).

The Psychological Components: Sympathy and Approbation
The first building block in Smith’s TMS framework is sympathy. The hallmark of Smith’s account of sympathy is that we use our “imagination’ in order to “place ourselves” in the actor’s “situation” (TMS I.i.1.2), so that sympathy “does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it” (TMS I.i.1.10). The importance of this projection account of sympathy, according to which we project ourselves via our imagination into the situation of another person and thus simulate his or her mental states, can be appreciated against the backdrop of Hume’s contagion account of sympathy, according to which we can ‘catch’ emotions directly, much like a contagion. While the contagion account limits the spectator’s sympathy to a version of the actor’s actual feelings, the idea of projection can account for the many familiar instances when we sympathize with a person without feeling exactly as he does, perhaps because he or she is incapable of feeling a particular feeling. As Smith notes regarding this “illusive sympathy” (TMS II.i.2.5 & II.i.5.11), as he dubs it, “we sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality” (TMS I.i.1.10). Smith provides ample examples of this type of sympathy. Thus, he argues that “we blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behavior; because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner” (TMS I.i.1.10). Moreover, when someone has lost his mind and is incapable of appreciating his miserable condition, “the compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and […] was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment” (TMS I.i.1.11). And while a sick infant only feels the uneasiness of his present situation, his mother “joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder” (TMS I.i.1.12).
The second building block in Smith’s TMS framework is approbation and disapprobation, that is, approval or disapproval of the contents of our sympathy. Smith’s account of approbation and disapprobation is based on the observation that “every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another,” so that “I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love” (TMS I.i.3.10). This includes the judgments of affection, about which Smith notes that “it is scarce possible that we should make use of any other rule or canon but the correspondent affection in ourselves” (TMS I.i.3.9). When implementing these observations specifically to approbation and disapprobation and when taking into account that our patterns of approval and disapproval are based on our sympathetic reactions, we get the following picture:
When the original passions of the person principally concerned are in perfect concord with the sympathetic emotions of the spectator, they necessarily appear to this last just and proper […]; and, on the contrary, when, upon bringing the case home to himself, he finds that they do not coincide with what he feels, they necessarily appear to him unjust and improper […]. To approve of the passions of another, therefore, as suitable to their objects, is the same thing as to observe that we entirely sympathize with them; and not to approve of them as such, is the same thing as to observe that we do not entirely sympathize with them. [TMS I.i.3.1]

It is crucial for Smith’s account that a sentiment of approbation is not to be identified with sympathy, for, since approval is necessarily agreeable, identifying sympathy with approval would mean that sympathy is necessarily agreeable. However, sympathy is not always agreeable: sympathy is unpleasant when we sympathize with unpleasant sentiments. Thus, Smith notes in a footnote added to the second edition of TMS that we should differentiate between (a) “the sympathetic passion of the spectator,” and (b) “the emotion which arises from his observing the perfect coincidence between this sympathetic passion in himself, and the original passion in the person principally concerned” (TMS I.iii.1.9). While the former, the passion that is the product of sympathy, may be agreeable or disagreeable according to the nature of the original passion, the latter, the sentiment of approbation, is always agreeable. So Smith’s account of approbation can be formulated as follows. When the spectator recognizes that there is concordance between her sympathetic passion and the original passion of the actor, a sentiment of approval arises, and when she recognizes that there is a lack of concordance in passions, a sentiment of disapproval arises. Finally, our patterns of approval/disapproval can have one of two types of objects. First, we approve or disapprove of “the cause which excites it, or the motive which gives occasion to it”; this dependence on motive is the “propriety or impropriety” of the action. Second, we approve or disapprove of “the end which it proposes, or the effect which it tends to produce”. This dependence on intended effects is the “merit or demerit” of the action (TMS I.i.3.5-7).

The Normative Component: Moral Judgment
It would be a mistake to equate moral judgment with moral approbation, for if the latter is merely a psychological response then it seems to be subjective in ways in which we would hope that moral judgment is not. In particular, when we talk about the correctness of moral judgment, we are interested not only in the question of whether we approve of a certain character trait or action, but also whether that trait or action merits our approval. Smith uses the standpoint of the impartial spectator as a privileged standpoint for determining whether the objects of our approval merit that approval. Indeed, in Smith’s account, the “passions of human nature” become “proper” only “when the heart of every impartial spectator entirely sympathizes” with them (TMS II.i.2.2), and thus the “precise or distinct measure by which this fitness or propriety of affection can be ascertained or judged of […] can be found nowhere but in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and well-informed spectator” (TMS VII.ii.1.49). What is of particular interest in Smith’s account is the fact that the standpoint that constitutes the standard of moral judgment, the standpoint of the impartial spectator, is itself constructed in a given society: “There exists in the mind of every man, an idea of [exact propriety and perfection], gradually formed from his observations upon the character and conduct both of himself and of other people. It is the slow, gradual, and progressive work of the great demigod within the breast” (TMS VI.iii.25). The demigod in the breast is the impartial spectator, who plays a key role in the workings of our conscience, which, according to Smith, is a social construct from the start. In other words, the standpoint of the impartial spectator is not merely one from which we judge others, but it is a standpoint which also plays a role in the type of reactions we have towards ourselves given the ways others react towards us. In particular, Smith’s account of the development of conscience starts with the observation that it is part and parcel of human life that we judge others and find others judging us, that is, that people in human society mirror each other. This allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of others, by internalizing the way in which others respond to us, and thus to make judgments of propriety of our own sentiments (TMS III.1.3-5).
However, this cannot be all: if conscience were merely a product of actual spectators, and thus of prevalent social attitudes, how could it ever progress beyond these attitudes? Why should we assume that the people whose reactions we internalize provide the correct standard of moral judgment? Smith was sensitive to the fact that agents in a society might come to realize that the actual spectators who judge them are biased, either because they are not informed about the relevant non-normative facts or because they have a personal stake in the circumstances, and are thus unreliable sources for determining what is worthy of approval (TMS III.2.4-5). Indeed, Smith provides an explanation for the interest that people have in fully-informed and unbiased approval from others in the form of a desire to be worthy of approval. We are the type of creature that does not merely desire praise and dread blame, but that comes to desire to be praiseworthy and dread being blameworthy (TMS III.2.1). Given their desire to be worthy of approval, agents will seek to go beyond the actual bystanders they encounter and use their imagination to create a well-informed and impartial bystander: “We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it” (TMS III.1.2). The creation of an imagined impartial spectator does not happen ex nihilo. First, our repeated use of our sympathetic abilities—that is, our ability to imagine being in the situation we take the actor to be in—allows us to develop our imaginative capacities and to appreciate different points of view. Second, when we repeatedly adopt the point of view of others regarding our conduct, we tend to become more impartial, since our passions as reflected by others are less forceful than our original passions (TMS I.i.4.8). Therefore, while the impartial spectator is constructed from our interactions with the people whom we judge and who judge us, we use our imagination to build on these interactions to construct an image of a spectator who represents a well-informed and impartial point of view. Importantly, although the standpoint of the impartial spectator is constructed from our interactions with the people that we encounter, the end result is different from any one of these agents’ points of view. The impartial spectator is a judge that we set “between ourselves and those we live with”, a person “quite candid and equitable […] who has no particular relation either to ourselves, or to those whose interests are affected by our conduct, […] but is merely a man in general […] the representative of mankind.” The standard of the impartial spectator is, therefore, the standard of a modestly idealized spectator who is well-informed and unbiased and who determines what is “fit, and right, and proper to be done” (TMS III.5.5).
I wish to highlight two features of this account. First, Smith’s account of the impartial spectator is an account of moral judgment. In particular, Smith believed that our excessive self-love makes it difficult for us to see things from other people’s perspectives (TMS III.4.3). Thus, adopting the standpoint of the impartial spectator allows the spectator to humble his self-love, since the spectator sees that he is “but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it” (TMS II.ii.2.1 & III.3.4). Furthermore, this standpoint allows the spectator to correct his perception of his own interests (which are tied to his self-love) versus the interests of others. The key idea is simple. If we want to weigh the importance of our interests versus the importance of someone else’s interests, “[w]e must view them, 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 with impartiality between us” (TMS III.3.3). Therefore, the standard set by the impartial spectator is the type of standard we tend to associate with moral judgment, namely, a standard that takes into account the interests of all concerned rather than merely our own interests. Second, the standard set by the impartial spectator can transcend the biases of the society which gave rise to it. In particular, the account specifies the hypothetical conditions—the adoption of the standpoint of the impartial spectator—that guarantee the reliability of an agent’s (or agents’) responses in constituting the standard of moral judgment If an actual agent or an actual community of agents are not under these conditions, their responses are not reliable as setting this standard. Therefore, a justified charge can be made against actual agents and/or groups of actual agents who have not adopted the standpoint of the impartial spectator and are thus wrong in their moral judgments. Indeed, Smith explicitly notes that the standpoint of the impartial spectator can be used to correct the reactions of the actual people we encounter—both actors and spectators reacting to actors—when these reactions are not deemed appropriate from this standpoint (TMS III.2.32 & VII.iii.3.9).

Conclusion: A Further Normative Component?
I have presented Smith’s account of moral judgment as the normative component of his moral thought. Some commentators have argued that there is yet another normative component in the Smithian account: the standard of the impartial spectator needs to be endorsed upon reflection. However, Sayre-McCord has identified the following dilemma inherent in the attempt to use the reflective endorsement test in Smith’s account, a dilemma that arises when trying to identify the standard that governs reflection. According to the first horn of the dilemma, we should rely on the standard of the impartial spectator in reflecting upon this very standard and check whether the impartial spectator would approve of his own patterns of approval. However, according to Smith’s model of approbation, when we recognize that there is concordance between our sympathetic passion and the original passion of the agent in question, a sentiment of approval arises. Thus, the impartial spectator will necessarily approve of his own patterns of approval, for he will recognize, upon reflection, that he would have precisely the reactions which he does in fact have. Hence, the reflective test on this first alternative is trivially satisfied. According to the second horn of the dilemma, we require the approval of a second spectator, who is different from the impartial spectator, in order to defend the impartial spectator’s patterns of approval. While this would make the reflective test nontrivial, it raises a new worry: Why do one spectator’s patterns of approval set the standard of moral judgment, while the second spectator’s patterns of approval set the standard utilized in reflecting on the standard of moral judgment? Why can’t it be the case that one spectator plays both roles? Therefore, it is an open question whether the standard of the impartial spectator needs to pass the reflective endorsement test or whether the idealization inherent in the standard is sufficient and there is no need to defend the standard upon reflection. Given the limited use that Smith makes of the reflective endorsement test in TMS, I believe that the latter option is the correct one, but that is a discussion for another paper.