A Sense of How to Respond

Janet Bufton for AdamSmithWorks

April 24, 2020


Part of what makes a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic so unsettling is that the established rules have to go out the window... Luckily, we have more than an inflexible list of rules. We have our moral sentiments. 
Adam Smith’s Essays on Philosophical Subjects includes an essay on our physical senses with a thorough description of how someone establishes that a table is a physical object. In part:
When I lay my hand upon the table, the table presses upon my hand, or resists the further motion of my hand, in the same manner as my hand presses upon the table. But pressure or resistance necessarily supposes externality in the thing which presses or resists. The table could not press upon, or resist the further motion of my hand, if it was not external to my hand. I feel it accordingly, as something which is not merely an affection of my hand, but altogether external to, and independant of my hand….

In moving my hand along the table it soon comes, in every direction, to a place where this pressure or resistance ceases. This place we call the boundary, or end of the table; of which the extent and figure are determined by the extent and direction of the lines or surfaces which constitute this boundary or end. (Of the Physical Senses, para 3–4)

No one—at least no adult—thinks through even a portion of this when reaching for a table. It becomes instinctual. Smith's breakdown of how we develop our automatic reactions to the world after enough experience to support them is mirrored in his theory of morality. 

The Theory of Moral Sentiments just as painstakingly describes how repeated interactions help us to develop a moral sense. When we’re rude, expressed disapproval from others is like the table pushing back against our hand: it tells us that we’ve acted inappropriately and we feel shame. When we make someone happy, we see their happiness and we feel happy for them and with ourselves. Over time, we internalize these reactions until we can judge ourselves as others would. We feel indignant when the rules are broken and become part of their enforcement.

Some find the idea of relying on rules that emerge based on our moral sentiments terribly unsatisfying. It would be much better, they think, to have a firm set of rules about what’s right and what’s wrong than to leave it to anything so fickle as our feelings.

But what happens if one day you reach out and your hand passes through the table?


What are the rules now? 
Predictability makes rules possible, whether it’s the assumption that a table will push back against your hand or knowing how to be polite. 

Part of what makes a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic so unsettling is that the established rules have to go out the window. It can feel a bit like our hand just passed through a table. Luckily, we have more than an inflexible list of rules. We have our moral sentiments. 

Imagine it’s 2019. A workplace issues a notice that any employees may work from home, but in reality only management employees have the option. In normal times, warehouse workers would justifiably feel slighted. 

But today, staying home isn’t a luxury. It’s an obligation. Why?

Warehouse employees, cashiers, line cooks, and other front-line service workers are suddenly putting themselves at risk to help keep our complex world running. Our emotional response to their work shifts to something more like we might have felt towards a firefighter only a few weeks ago. It is irresponsible and ungrateful to put those who are willing to risk themselves for us at any greater risk. If we can, we should stay home. We feel indignation and disappointment when someone chooses not to, and our disapproval signals to those who don’t share our feelings that the rules have changed. 

The emotional response to rudeness or injustice, our Smithian sympathy, is helping us write the new rules for pandemic manners almost automatically. And thank goodness. We could never implement so many changes without each of us playing a part in their development and enforcement.


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