What Makes Man Sociable?
April 29, 2019
What makes people naturally sociable? How do we come to together as a community or society?
Smith opens The Theory of Moral Sentiments with this famous line:
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.
Sympathy, according to Smith, is one of "the original passions of human nature." What do you think Smith meant by sympathy?
Later in the same chapter, Smith says:
Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator.
The film's narrator tells us that Smith believed sympathy and self-interest to be the basis of morality. Yet interests are characterized more with relation to materials goods- like the contents of Smith's dinner (3:42), all of which are provided solely for satisfying their producer's personal gain. This is the invisible hand in action, which the narrator tells us is amoral. So how exactky are sympathy and self-interest related?
I think the spectator has to come before sympathy. Sympathy is only derived from the comparison of our reaction with others (as an aside, I am reminded of the line from the Simpsons Season 3 Episode 20: "Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen"). With no one to compare ourselves to (even an imaginary spectator), there can be no sympathy.
By the way, I must say the documentary is great. I showed it in class the other day and it was well-received by the students
Thanks, Jon! We love to hear that students reacted well. Did you use any of the discussion questions by chance?
With regard to the "chicken and egg" question I posed, I think I agree with you... we also see Smith say that is a essentially an inherent feature of humankind- even "the greatest ruffian" is not altogether without sympathy. BUT, we CAN feel something akin to sympathy even when we literally cannot share in the passions of an individual, such as "the poor wretch... insensible of his own misery." So we rely on the spectator to interpret a situation and determine what sort and what quantity of sympathy is requisite for the situation. Could that be an argument for sympathy coming first?
It's clear that, while both sympathy and the spectator may always already exist in us in some kind of nascent, nebulous form, Smith thinks that they both require practice and work to reach their full capacity. Maybe I read too much Aristotle onto Smith, but I tend to think of sympathy and the spectator as virtues that we need to work at and make a habit of. Because if we don't, it's VERY easy to learn to ignore them both.
I think what's also interesting (to build off of Sarah's point), is that at times both sympathy and the impartial spectator can be mistaken at times. In Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) Section II Chapter III he talks about how through our imagination we naturally approve more of a palace than of a prison, even though a prison carries a far more patriotic sentiment than a palace does and is more use to the society (Pg .35). I wonder what normative implication are within Smith for the impartial spectator and sympathy more generally speaking. In which situations does Smith think its crucial that we act to change and adjust how we initially feel? If there is work to be done for sympathy and the impartial spectator, what are we working towards? Does it change over time, as the society we find ourselves in might change?
I think the other virtues which Smith connects sympathy with may help us to gain some insight. An example of this is demonstrated in the importance he places on prudence throughout TMS, specifically in Part VI Section I, where he speaks of the character of "the prudent man".
The prudent man example relates well to the question Amy raised of the relationship between sympathy and self-interest, because the prudent man is prudent not only for others who he surrounds himself with, but for himself. An example used in this section is how he studies so that he learns, and not to impress those with what he knows (Pg. 215). Now when considering the relationship between prudence and sympathy, when prudence is combined with other virtues (like justice) Smith indicates this is a person who would win our approval wholeheartedly (Pg. 216), and therefore perhaps who we would be able to sympathize with more completely or who would be able to more completely sympathize with us?
Anyways, I'm left with more questions than answers it seems. Then again with Smith, that always seems to be the case!