Smith Snark on François de La Rochefoucauld

sympathy conscience smith snark

John Alcorn for AdamSmithWorks

The third entry in a new series on Adam Smith getting snarky. We're looking at people and ideas that Adam Smith disagreed with vehemently. John Alcorn invites us to consider Adam Smith contra François de La Rochefoucauld on Sympathy, Conscience, and Deception.
François de La Rochefoucauld, author of Maxims [M] (1665), and Adam Smith, author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments [TMS] (1759), invite comparison, partly because these masterpieces crown distinct traditions in social psychology; and partly because Smith decries the Maxims*, which he deems mistaken but seductive:
 [Such theories seem to] take away altogether the distinction between vice and virtue [… .] Though the notions […] are in almost every respect erroneous, there are, however, some appearances in human nature, which, when viewed in a certain manner, seem at first sight to favour them. These, first slightly sketched out with the elegance and delicate precision of the duke of Rochefoucault, […] have thrown upon their doctrines an air of truth and probability which is very apt to impose upon the unskilful.
(TMS VII.ii.4.6)
As a courtesy to La Rochefoucauld’s family, Smith redacted explicit condemnation of La Rochefoucauld in the 6th (final) edition of the book. Nonetheless, TMS implicitly engages the Maxims here, there, and everywhere. I will focus on the analyses of sympathy, conscience, and deception.
La Rochefoucauld highlights systematic injustice in moral sentiments. Here are some examples:
The evil we do doesn’t attract to us as much persecution and hatred as do our good qualities.
(M 29)

Had we no faults, we wouldn’t take so much pleasure at noting faults in others.
(M 31)

The same pride, which makes us blame faults, from which we think we ourselves exempt, leads us to scorn the good qualities we don’t have.
(M 462)
Smith, by contrast, discerns sympathy among subjects (empathy, fellow-feeling). Sympathy is part of human nature:
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.1.1)
Smith takes aim at self-centeredness, the core motivation in La Rochefoucauld’s framework:
whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary. Those who are fond of deducing all our sentiments from certain refinements of self-love, think themselves at no loss to account, according to their own principles, both for this pleasure and this pain.
(TMS, I.i.2.1)
 Smith emphasizes sympathy’s wide valence range, from mudita (positive empathy) to condolence (negative empathy):
We run not only to congratulate the successful, but to condole with the afflicted […].
(TMS, I.i.2.6)
He highlights second-order sentiments about sympathy (and about lack of sympathy); for example, (a) one’s pleasure at another’s sympathy for oneself, (b) one’s pain at another’s lack of sympathy for oneself, (c) one’s pleasure at one’s sympathy for another, and even (d) one’s pain at one’s lack of sympathy for another:
As the person who is principally interested in any event is pleased with our sympathy, and hurt by the want of it, so we, too, seem to be pleased when we are able to sympathize with him, and to be hurt when we are unable to do so.
(TMS, I.i.2.6) 
Unlike La Rochefoucauld, Smith asserts that we aim negative emotions justly, against those who have engaged in malice and wrongdoing:
though in general we are averse to enter into the unsocial and malevolent affections, though we lay it down for a rule that we ought never to approve of their gratification, unless so far as the malicious and unjust intention of the person against whom they are directed renders him their proper object;
(TMS, II.ii.2.7)
Smith clarifies that sympathy—unlike the psychology of justice (respect for innocence)—scarcely extends to outsiders:
In order to enforce the observation of justice, […] nature has implanted in the human breast that consciousness of ill desert, those terrors of merited punishment, which attend upon its violation, as the great safeguards of the association of mankind, to protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty. Men, though naturally sympathetic, feel so little for an another, with whom they have no particular connection, in comparison of what they feel for themselves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow-creature, is of so little importance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own; they have it so much in their power to hurt him, and may have so many temptations to do so, that if this principle did not stand up within them in his defence, and overawe them into a respect for his innocence, they would, like wild beasts, be at all times ready to fly upon him; and a man would enter an assembly of men as he enters a den of lions.
(TMS, II.ii.3.4)
Given that Smith acknowledges sympathy’s limited scope and extreme dilution towards outsiders, we may pinpoint the sphere of his quarrel with La Rochefoucauld: they disagree sharply about social psychology among persons who have a “particular connection.”
Both authors articulate psychological theories of conscience, as critical self-esteem. However, La Rochefoucauld divorces conscience from social psychology. Numerous maxims sketch how self-centered motivations (interest, pride) co-opt, overpower, and outmaneuver virtuous motivations. 
The virtues lose themselves in interest, like the rivers lose themselves in the sea.
(M 171)

The natural good, which boasts of being so sensitive, is often choked by the slightest interest.
(M 282) 

Pride always indemnifies itself, and loses nothing even when it renounces vanity.
(M 33) 

The refusal of praise is a desire to be praised twice.
(M 149)
Conscience depends crucially on a sense of personal consistency over time in moral judgments: 
Nothing must so diminish the satisfaction, which we have about ourselves [our self-esteem] as to see that we disapprove at one time what we approve at another.
(M 51) 
This criterion of integrity over time is narrowly self-centered. Thus conscience is asocial.
By contrast, Smith engages in social analysis. He explains that conscience (critical self-esteem) requires plausible hypothetical esteem by “an impartial spectator” (a social concept): 
We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it.
(TMS, III.1.2)
Smith situates conscience in a family of moral concepts, which he often uses interchangeably; for example, in his famous portrait of the moral psychology of a “a man of humanity” towards remote peoples. There Smith draws a distinction between (a) absolute primacy of self-love in relations of comparison and (b) bedrock moral, psychological limits to self-interest in face-to-face interaction:
If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren […]. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. What makes this difference? [… .] It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.
Deception & self-deception
La Rochefoucauld interprets social psychology through the hermeneutics of suspicion. Accordingly, motivations are murky; self-knowledge and trust elude us; and we camouflage our self-centered motivations to conform to our community’s normative hierarchy of motivations. 
Interest speaks all manner of languages and plays all manner of characters, even the disinterested type.

We labor under an illusion that our behavior is action: 
Man believes often that he leads himself when he is led; and while he has a goal in mind, his heart drives him imperceptibly to a different goal.
(M 43)
La Rochefoucauld traces a tangle of deception and self-deception.
Our mistrust justifies deception of [and by] others.
(M 86)
Deception leads to self-deception: 
We are so accustomed to disguising ourselves to others, that in the end we disguise ourselves to ourselves.
(M 119) 
Self-deception is easy, deception hard:
It is as easy to deceive oneself without realizing it, as it is hard to deceive others without them realizing it.
(M 115) 
To fake being deceived is the greatest subtlety of strategic rationality; and one most exposes oneself to being deceived when one tries to deceive others.
 The most subtle of all finesses [mind games] is to know to pretend to fall into the traps, which others set for us; and one never is so easily deceived as when one fancies to deceive others.
(M 117) 
A conceit of sophistication only makes oneself more vulnerable:
The true way to be deceived [by others] is to deem oneself more rational than others.
(M 127) 
One who is true is thereby vulnerable to deception:
 The intention never to deceive, exposes us to being deceived often [by others].
(M 118)
Smith diagnoses self-deception as a pathology that human nature counteracts by psychological formation of rules in conformity with moral sentiments. These rules, which I shall call moral norms, are shaped by a chain of individual and social mechanisms: (1) observation of behaviors (private cognition); (2) spontaneous repugnance or approbation (emotional reaction); (3) observation of shared repugnance or approbation (social epistemology, confirmation); (4) reverberation (sympathy); (5) amplification of repugnance or approbation (feedback, reinforcement); and (6) private commitment to avoid blameworthiness and to seek praiseworthiness (bright lines, conformity). Smith writes: 
This self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind, is the source of half the disorders of human life. If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight.
Nature, however, has not left this weakness, which is of so much importance, altogether without a remedy; nor has she abandoned us entirely to the delusions of self-love. Our continual observations upon the conduct of others insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided. Some of their actions shock all our natural sentiments. We hear every body about us express the like detestation against them. This still further confirms, and even exasperates, our natural sense of their deformity. [… .] We resolve never to be guilty of the like, nor ever, upon any account, to render ourselves in this manner the objects of universal disapprobation.
(TMS, III.4.6)
In a nutshell, a person’s moral norms derive from natural sentiments and social norms. Moral norms (enforced by guilt) and social norms (enforced by shame) dovetail and reinforce each other. Smith then describes how the same process develops also around spontaneous feelings of approbation.
Moreover, Smith explains that even persons who have “natural coldness” (little disposition to sympathy) can internalize social rules—can acquire “a sense of duty”—by observing social behaviors or through education:
Many men behave very decently, and through the whole of their lives avoid any considerable degree of blame, who yet, perhaps, never felt the sentiment upon the propriety of which we found our approbation of their conduct, but acted merely from a regard to what they saw were the established rules of behaviour. (TMS, III.5.1) 
For example, Smith—unlike La Rochefoucauld—holds that even a cold person may conform to rules of gratitude, thoroughly and “without hypocrisy” (TMS, III.5.1):
The motive of his actions may be no other than a reverence for the established rule of duty, a serious and earnest desire of acting, in every respect, according to the law of gratitude.
(TMS, III.5.1)
Thus moral norms emerge by a complex process among people motivated by natural sentiments and sympathy; and then cold persons earnestly follow moral norms.
Contra La Rochefoucauld, Smith identifies several positive mechanisms in social psychology: 1) Sympathy operates among persons who have “a particular connection.” 2) Beyond the limited sphere of sympathy, self-love reigns absolutely in relations of comparison; but conscience and natural sentiments of justice check potential predation. 3) Self-deception often undermines conscience and sentiments of justice. 4) Moral norms emerge from sympathy, induce conformity even among the cold of heart, and counteract self-deception. The first three mechanisms (sympathy, conscience, self-deception), taken together, leave outsiders vulnerable to predation. We may wonder: How broadly effective is the fourth mechanism? Do moral norms protect also outsiders?
Smith contends that La Rochefoucauld propounds thoroughly false theories, which erase the distinction between vice and virtue. Are Smith’s criticisms fair? 
In my judgment, No. The Maxims are full of precise, profound insights into the human mind. La Rochefoucauld does distinguish vice and virtue, but unflinchingly elucidates behind-the-back psychological mechanisms whereby vice camouflages itself as virtue and fuels self-deception. Hypocrisy plays a great role in human affairs, but presupposes the reality of virtue. Vice cannot always eclipse virtue. 
We have seen that Smith, invoking sympathy and the impartial spectator, disagrees sharply with La Rochefoucauld about social psychology among persons who have a particular connection. In this context, the two authors differ like sunlight and twilight. The mind has many mechanisms, variously light, shadowy, and dark. To understand social sentiments, we need both Smith and La Rochefoucauld.

*I provide fresh translations of La Rochefoucauld’s maxims. The striking elegance of a subset of his maxims has led translators to put elegance before accuracy. However, La Rochefoucauld puts precision before elegance. Therefore, I translate for accuracy. 

Online original texts:
François de la Rochefoucauld, Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales (1665):
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759):

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Related items:
Correspondence and Commentary by John Rae about letters between Smith and François de la Rochefoucauld's family members at EconLib
Edward J. Harpham's Conscience and Moral Rules in Adam Smith on AdamSmithWorks
Erik W. Matson's A Brief History of the Editions of TMS: Part I and Part 2 on AdamSmithWorks
Henry Clark's book La Rochefoucauld and the Language of Unmasking in Seventeenth-Century France ( affiliate link) and his Great Antidote podcast on The Enlightenment