Adam Smith is a Scottish economist and philosopher who is a pioneer in the thinking of political economy and key figure during the Scottish Enlightenment.. He has written two classic works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
3:16: What made you become a philosopher?
Adam Smith: I am always willing to run some hazard of being tedious, in order to be sure that I am perspicuous. A man without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of man is, if possible, more contemptible that even a coward, and seems to be mutilated and deformed in a still more essential part of the character of human nature.
3:16: You're divisive aren’t you?
AS: Richard, it is not worth while to take notice even to you of the innumerable squibs thrown out upon me in the newspapers. I have however, upon the whole been much less abused than I had reason to expect; so that in this respect I think myself rather lucky than otherwise. A single, and as, I thought a very harmless sheet of paper, which I happened to write concerning the death of our late friend Mr Hume, brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.
3:16: Can you summarise your general philosophical position?
AS: Human society, when we contemplate it in a certain abstract and philosophical light, appears like a great, an immense machine.
3:16: Cool. You’ve written about the wealth of nations and we’ll come to that, but you’ve also developed a theory of moral sentiments. Let's start with sympathy. What is it in your theory?
AS: As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body and become in some measure him, and thence form some idea of his sensations and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.
3:16: So sympathy is about gaining knowledge about others through empathising with them?
AS: Yes Richard, this is the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others, that it is by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels. Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others. Sympathy, however, without much impropriety, is used to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.
3:16: Does every passion excite sympathy?
AS: No. There are some passions of which the expressions excite no sort of sympathy, but serve rather to disgust and provoke us against them. The furious behavior of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies. As we are unacquainted with his provocation, we cannot bring his case home to ourselves, nor conceive any thing like the passions which it excites. Sympathy does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it.
3:16: Why don’t you think everything we do boils down to selfishness?
AS: Well, both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration. A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks round and sees that no body laughs at his jests but himself. On the contrary, the mirth of the company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause. 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.
3:16: What makes approval sympathetic?
AS: To approve of the passions of another 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.
3:16: Do we always show our sympathy?
AS: Not always. For example Richard, we may often approve of a jest, and think the laughter of the company quite just and proper, though we ourselves do not laugh, because, perhaps, we are in a grave humour, or happen to have our attention engaged with other objects.
3:16: Out of this notion of sympathy and propriety comes your high regard for society and conversation don’t they? You think they are good for our well being? If we’re feeling a bit down you recommend we should all get out more and talk with others?
AS: Society and conversation are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquillity, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it; as well as the best preservatives of that equal and happy temper, which is so necessary to self-satisfaction and enjoyment. Men of retirement and speculation, who are apt to sit brooding at home over either grief or resentment, though they may often have more humanity, more generosity, and a nicer sense of honour, yet seldom possess that equality of temper which is so common among men of the world.
3:16: You think there are two important virtues that bring about sympathy don’t you?
AS: Indeed I do Richard. The soft, the gentle, the amiable virtues, the virtues of candid condescension and indulgent humanity, are founded upon the one: the great, the awful and respectable, the virtues of self-denial, of self-government, of that command of the passions which subjects all the movements of our nature to what our own dignity and honour, and the propriety of our own conduct require, derive their origin from the other. To love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us.
3:16: It’s important that we keep our sympathetic responses at the right level of propriety isn’t it?
AS: The propriety of every passion excited by objects peculiarly related to ourselves the pitch which the spectator can go along with, must lie, it is evident, in certain mediocrity. If the passion is too high, or if it is too low, he cannot enter into it. Grief and resentment for private misfortunes and injuries may easily, for example, be too high, and in the greater part of mankind they are so. They may likewise, though this more rarely happens, be too low. We denominate the excess, weakness and fury: and we call the defect, stupidity, insensibility, and want of spirit. We can enter into neither of them, but are astonished and confounded to see them.
This mediocrity, however, in which the point of propriety consists, is different in different passions. It is high in some, and low in others. There are some passions which it is indecent to express very strongly, even upon those occasions, in which it is acknowledged that we cannot avoid feeling them in the highest degree. And if we consider all the different passions of human nature, we shall find that they are regarded as decent, or indecent, just in proportion as mankind are more or less disposed to sympathize with them.
3:16: Can you give some examples of what you mean?
AS: It is indecent to express any strong degree of those passions which arise from a certain situation or disposition of the body; because the company, not being in the same disposition, cannot be expected to sympathize with them. A disappointment in love, or ambition, will call forth more sympathy than the greatest bodily evil. The loss of a leg may generally be regarded as a more real calamity than the loss of a mistress. It would be a ridiculous tragedy, however, of which the catastrophe was to turn upon a loss of that kind. A misfortune of the other kind, how frivolous soever it may appear to be, has given occasion to many a fine one.
3:16: Is that why we laugh at people who are in love?
AS: Yes. If he is in love, though we may think his passion just as reasonable as any of the kind, yet we never think ourselves bound to conceive a passion of the same kind, and for the same person for whom he has conceived it. The passion appears to every body, but the man who feels it, entirely disproportioned to the value of the object; and love, though it is pardoned in a certain age because we know it is natural, is always laughed at, because we cannot enter into it. All serious and strong expressions of it appear ridiculous to a third person; and though a lover may be good company to his mistress, he is so to nobody else.
3:16: What about the passions of hatred and resentment?
AS: With regard to all such passions, our sympathy is divided between the person who feels them and the person who is the object of them. The villain, in a tragedy or romance, is as much the object of our indignation, as the hero is that of our sympathy and affection. We detest Iago as much as we esteem Othello; and delight as much in the punishment of the one, as we are grieved at the distress of the other. The plaintive voice of misery, when heard at a distance, will not allow us to be indifferent about the person from whom it comes. As soon as it strikes our ear, it interests us in his fortune, and, if continued, forces us almost involuntarily to fly to his assistance. But it is quite otherwise with the expressions of hatred and resentment. The hoarse, boisterous, and discordant voice of anger, when heard at a distance, inspires us either with fear or aversion.
3:16: What are the social passions? They’re like the opposite of hatred and resentement aren’t they?
AS: Generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem, all the social and benevolent affections, when expressed in the countenance or behaviour, even towards those who are peculiarly connected with ourselves, please the indifferent spectator upon almost every occasion. Those amiable passions, even when they are acknowledged to be excessive, are never regarded with aversion. There is something agreeable even in the weakness of friendship and humanity.
And yes, Richard, it is quite otherwise with hatred and resentment. Too violent a propensity to those detestable passions, renders a person the object of universal dread and abhorrence, who, like a wild beast, ought, we think, to be hunted out of all civil society.
3:16: And we have to watch out for selfish passions too don’t we?
AS: Yes. There is a malice in mankind, which not only prevents all sympathy with little uneasinesses, but renders them in some measure diverting. Hence the delight which we all take in raillery, and in the small vexation which we observe in our companion, when he is pushed, and urged, and teased upon all sides. Men of the most ordinary good-breeding dissemble the pain which any little incident may give them; and those who are more thoroughly formed to society, turn, of their own accord, all such incidents into raillery, as they know their companions will do for them.
3:16: What are the effects of prosperity and adversity upon the judgment of mankind with regard to the propriety of action; and why it is more easy to obtain their approbation in the one state than in the other?
AS: It is agreeable to sympathize with joy; and wherever envy does not oppose it, our heart abandons itself with satisfaction to the highest transports of that delightful sentiment. But it is painful to go along with grief, and we always enter into it with reluctance. Nature, it seems, when she has loaded us with our own sorrows, thought that they were enough, and therefore did not command us to take any further share in those of others, than what was necessary to prompt us to relieve them.
3:16: Is this the root cause of ambition and class divisions?
AS: Yes. It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. It is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty. For to what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and pre-eminence?
3:16: So wanting to be noticed and taken to be in a positive state is the reason why we are ambitious and look for distinction in what we do?
AS: What are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition Richard? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it. It is the vanity, not the ease, or the pleasure, which interests us, always founded upon the belief of our being the object of attention and approbation.
The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world, and that mankind are disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions with which the advantages of his situation so readily inspire him. At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and he is fonder of his wealth upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him. The poor man, on the contrary, is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that it places him out of the sight of mankind and to feel that we are taken no notice of necessarily damps the most agreeable hope, and disappoints the most ardent desire, of human nature.
3:16: So the rich and high ranking are like theatrical beings for the rest of us?
AS: When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it, it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries, we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favour all their inclinations, and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that any thing should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation! We could even wish them immortal; - Great King, live for ever! is the compliment, which after the manner of eastern adulation, we should readily make them, if experience did not teach us its absurdity.
3:16: So people like the rich and the high ranking because of this?
AS: Our obsequiousness to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their good-will. Their benefits can extend but to a few; but their fortunes interest almost every body. Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it. That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature.
3:16: And that’s why high ranking people don’t have to be anything but the theatrical?
AS: Louis XIV during the greater part of his reign, was regarded, not only in France, but over all Europe, as the most perfect model of a great prince. But what were the talents and virtues by which he acquired this great reputation? Was it by the scrupulous and inflexible justice of all his undertakings, by the immense dangers and difficulties with which they were attended, or by the unwearied and unrelenting application with which he pursued them? Was it by his extensive knowledge, by his exquisite judgment, or by his heroic valour? It was by none of these qualities. But he was, first of all, the most powerful prince in Europe, and consequently held the highest rank among kings; and then, says his historian, “he surpassed all his courtiers in the gracefulness of his shape, and the majestic beauty of his features.
The sound of his voice, noble and affecting, gained those hearts which his presence intimidated. He had a step and deportment which could suit only him and his rank, and which would have been ridiculous in any other person. ” These frivolous accomplishments, supported by his rank, and, no doubt, too, by a degree of other talents and virtues, which seems, however, not to have been much above mediocrity, established this prince in the esteem of his own age, and have drawn, even from posterity, a good deal of respect for his memory. No other virtue appeared to have any merit. Knowledge, industry, valour, and beneficence, trembled, were abashed, and lost all dignity before them.
3:16: So should we be stoics when it comes to our sympathies?
AS: The philosophy of the stoics is a philosophy which affords the noblest lessons of magnanimity, is the best school of heroes and patriots, and to the greater part of whose precepts there can be no objection, except that honourable one, that they teach us to aim at a perfection altogether beyond the reach of human nature. According to the stoical philosophy, to a wise man all the different conditions of life were equal. If I am going to fail, says Epictetus, I choose the best ship, and the best pilot, and I wait for the fairest weather that my circumstances and duty will allow. Prudence and propriety, the principles which the gods have given me for the direction of my conduct, require this of me; but they require no more: and if, notwithstanding, a storm arises, which neither the strength of the vessel, nor the skill of the pilot are likely to withstand, I give myself no trouble about the consequence. All that I had to do, is done already. The directors of my conduct never command me to be miserable, to be anxious, desponding, or afraid. Whether we are to be drowned, or to come to a harbour, is the business of Jupiter, not mine. I shall not stop to examine this. I shall only observe that the most dreadful calamities are not always those which it is most difficult to support.
3:16: So Stoicism isn’t really all that helpful because it ignores public esteem and asks too much?
AS: Right. A brave man is not rendered contemptible by being brought to the scaffold; he is, by being set in the pillory. “Great dangers,” says the Cardinal de Retz, “have their charms, because there is some glory to be got, even when we miscarry. But moderate dangers have nothing but what is horrible, because the loss of reputation always attends the want of success.” Compared with the contempt of mankind, all other evils are easily supported.
3:16: Are rewards and punishments important to your theory?
AS: Yes Richard. There is another set of qualities ascribed to the actions and conduct of mankind, distinct from their propriety or impropriety, their decency or ungracefulness, and these are merit and demerit, the qualities of deserving reward, and of deserving punishment.
3:16: So what conduct deserves reward?
AS: The action that must appear to deserve reward, which appears to be the proper and approved object of that sentiment, which most immediately and directly prompts us to reward, or to do good to another. And in the same manner, that action must appear to deserve punishment, which appears to be the proper and approved object of that sentiment which most immediately and directly prompts us to publish, or inflict evil upon another.
3:16: And what sentiments attach to reward and punishment?
AS: Gratitude and resentment. To reward, is to recompense, to remunerate, to return good for good received. To punish, too, is to recompense, to remunerate, though in a different manner; it is to return evil for evil that has been done. There are some other passions which interest us in the happiness or misery of others; but none which so directly excite us to be the instruments of either.
3:16: What are the roles of beneficence and justice in this?
AS: Actions of a beneficent tendency, which proceed from proper motives, seem alone to require reward; because such alone are the approved objects of gratitude, or excite the sympathetic gratitude of the spectator. Actions of a hurtful tendency, which proceed from improper motives, seem alone to deserve punishment; because such alone are the approved objects of resentment, or excite the sympathetic resentment of the spectator.
Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment; because the mere want of beneficence tends to do no real positive evil. There is however another virtue, of which the observance is not left to the freedom of our own wills, which may be extorted by force, and of which the violation exposes to resentment, and consequently to punishment. This virtue is justice: the violation of justice is injury: it does real and positive hurt to some particular persons, from motives which are naturally disapproved of.
3:16: And how do these two things work out in practice?
AS: As every man doth, so shall it be done to him, and retaliation seems to be the great law which is dictated to us by Nature. Beneficence and generosity we think due to the generous and beneficent. Those whose hearts never open to the feelings of humanity, should, we think, be shut out from the affections of all their fellow-creatures, and live in the midst of society, as in a great desert where there is nobody to care for them, or to inquire after them. The violator of the laws of justice ought to be made to feel himself that evil which he has done to another; and he ought to be over-awed by the fear of his own.
3:16: So even if we are selfish we can’t admit this?
AS: Yes. For example, though it may be true that every individual naturally prefers himself to all mankind, yet he dares not look mankind in the face, and avow that he acts according to this principle. He feels that in this preference they can never go along with him, and that how natural soever it may be to him, it must always appear excessive and extravagant to them. When he views himself in the light in which he is conscious that others will view him, he sees that to them he is but one of the multitude in no respect better than any other in it. If he would act so as that the impartial spectator may enter into the principles of his conduct, which is what of all things he has the greatest desire to do, he must, upon this, as upon all other occasions, humble the arrogance of his self-love, and bring it down to something which other men can go along with.
3:16: So this attitude brings in a notion of fair play to what looks like naked greed for honours and wealth?
AS: Exactly. In the race for wealth and honours, and preferments, he may run as hard as he can, and strain every nerve and every muscle, in order to outstrip all his competitors. But if he should jostle, or throw down any of them, the indulgence of the spectators is entirely at an end. It is a violation of fair play, which they cannot admit of. This man is to them, in every respect, as good as he: they do not enter into that self-love by which he prefers himself so much to this other, and cannot go along with the motive from which he hurt him. They readily, therefore, sympathize with the natural resentment of the injured, and the offender becomes the object of their hatred and indignation. He is sensible that he becomes so, and feels that those sentiments are ready to burst out from all sides against him.
3:16: So a sense of justice restrains us us?
AS: The violator of the more sacred laws of justice can never reflect on the sentiments which mankind must entertain with regard to him, without feeling all the agonies of shame, and horror, and consternation. When his passion is gratified, and he begins coolly to reflect upon his conduct, he can enter into none of the motives which influenced it. They appear now as detestable to him as they did always to other people. By sympathizing with the hatred and abhorrence which other men must entertain for him, he becomes in some measure the object of his own hatred and abhorrence. The situation of the person, who suffered by his injustice, now calls upon his pity.
He is grieved at the thought of it; regrets the unhappy effects of his own conduct, and feels at the same time that they have rendered him the proper object of the resentment and indignation of mankind, and of what is the natural consequence of resentment, vengeance and punishment. The thought of this perpetually haunts him, and fills him with terror and amazement. He dares no longer look society in the face, but imagines himself as it were rejected, and thrown out from the affections of all mankind. He cannot hope for the consolation of sympathy in this his greatest, and most dreadful distress. The remembrance of his crimes has shut out all fellow-feelings with him from the hearts of his fellow-creatures.
The sentiments which they entertain with regard to him, are the very thing which he is most afraid of. Every thing seems hostile, and he would be glad to fly to some inhospitable desert, where he might never more behold the face of a human creature, nor read in the countenance of mankind the condemnation of his crimes. But solitude is still more dreadful than society. His own thoughts can present him with nothing but what is black, unfortunate, and disastrous, the melancholy forebodings of incomprehensible misery and ruin. The horror of solitude drives him back into society, and he comes again into the presence of mankind, astonished to appear before them, loaded with shame and distracted with fear, in order to supplicate some little protection from the countenance of those very judges, who he knows have already all unanimously condemned him.
Such is the nature of that sentiment, which is properly called remorse; of all the sentiments which can enter the human breast the most dreadful. It is made up of shame from the sense of the impropriety of past conduct; of grief for the effects of it; of pity for those who suffer by it; and of the dread and terror of punishment from the consciousness of the justly provoked resentment of all rational creatures.
3:16: Very Dostoevsky Adam. And these are, as it were, natural feelings that run us, not the result of philosophical reasoning or theology?
AS: Our untaught, natural sentiments, all prompt us to believe, that as perfect virtue is supposed necessarily to appear to the Deity, as it does to us, for its own sake, and without any further view, the natural and proper object of love and reward, so must vice, of hatred and punishment.
3:16: What actions and thoughts can we fairly blame, and which can’t we?
AS: Whatever praise or blame can be due to any action, must belong either, first, to the intention or affection of the heart, from which it proceeds; or, secondly, to the external action or movement of the body, which this affection gives occasion to; or, last, to all the good or bad consequences, which actually, and in fact, proceed from it. These three different things constitute the whole nature and circumstances of the action, and must be the foundation of whatever quality can belong to it. That the two last of these three circumstances cannot be the foundation of any praise or blame, is abundantly evident; nor has the contrary ever been asserted by any body.
3:16: You don’t think we always abide by this insight do you because our sentiments rule us more than we like to think?
AS: Scarce, in any one instance, perhaps, will our sentiments be found, after examination, to be entirely regulated by this rule, which we all acknowledge ought entirely to regulate them. The causes of pain and pleasure, whatever they are, or however they operate, seem to be the objects, which, in all animals, immediately excite those two passions of gratitude and resentment. We are angry, for a moment, even at the stone that hurts us. A child beats it, a dog barks at it, a choleric man is apt to curse it. The least reflection, indeed, corrects this sentiment, and we soon become sensible, that what has no feeling is a very improper object of revenge. When the mischief, however, is very great, the object which caused it becomes disagreeable to us ever after, and we take pleasure to burn or destroy it. We should treat, in this manner, the instrument which had accidentally been the cause of the death of a friend, and we should often think ourselves guilty of a sort of inhumanity, if we neglected to vent this absurd sort of vengeance upon it.
3:16: So much of what we do in terms of blame and reward are the result of these feelings ruling our minds?
AS: Yes. The Dryads and the Lares of the ancients, a sort of genii of trees and houses, were probably first suggested by this sort of affection, which the authors of those superstitions felt for such objects, and which seemed unreasonable, if there was nothing animated about them. What chiefly enrages us against the man who injures or insults us, is the little account which he seems to make of us, the unreasonable preference which he gives to himself above us, and that absurd self-love, by which he seems to imagine, that other people may be sacrificed at any time, to his conveniency or his humour. The glaring impropriety of this conduct, the gross insolence and injustice which it seems to involve in it, often shock and exasperate us more than all the mischief which we have suffered.
3:16: We’re in the grip of our feelings and make irrational decisions because of them?
AS: Yes Richard. So, though in the intentions of any person, there was either no laudable degree of benevolence on the one hand, or no blameable degree of malice on the other; yet, if his actions should produce either great good or great evil some gratitude is apt to arise towards him in the one, and some resentment in the other. A shadow of merit seems to fall upon him in the first, a shadow of demerit in the second.
3:16: Why is this important?
AS: The effect of this is, first, to diminish our sense of the merit or demerit of those actions which arose from the most laudable or blamable intentions, when they fail of producing their proposed effects: and, secondly, to increase our sense of the merit or demerit of actions, beyond what is due to the motives or affections from which they proceed, when they accidentally give extraordinary pleasure or pain.
3:16: So we need to start thinking more carefully about how we apportion blame and merit or else we’re going to continue to see merit in good luck and blame in bad luck?
AS: Yes. And if man should unfortunately either give occasion to those evils which he did not intend, or fail in producing that good which he intended, nature has not left his innocence altogether without consolation, nor his virtue altogether without reward. He then calls to his assistance that just and equitable maxim, that those events which did not depend upon our conduct ought not to diminish the esteem that is due to us. He strives to regard himself in the light in which he would have appeared had his generous designs been crowned with success, and in which he would still appear, notwithstanding their miscarriage, if the sentiments of mankind were either altogether candid and equitable, or even perfectly consistent with themselves.
The more candid and humane part of mankind entirely go along with the efforts which he thus makes to support himself in his own opinion. They exert their whole generosity and greatness of mind, to correct in themselves this irregularity of human nature, and endeavour to regard his unfortunate magnanimity in the same light in which, had it been successful, they would, without any such generous exertion, have naturally been disposed to consider it.
3:16: Why is vanity a high vice for you?
AS: Well Richard, to be pleased with such groundless applause is a proof of the most superficial levity and weakness. Vanity is the foundation of the most ridiculous and contemptible vices, the vices of affectation and common lying; follies which, if experience did not teach us how common they are, one should imagine the least spark of common sense would save us from. Vanity arises from so gross an illusion of the imagination, that it is difficult to conceive how any rational creature should be imposed upon by it.
3:16: So gaining the approval of others must be based on what we feel is true about ourselves?
AS: Yes. A great part, perhaps the greatest part, of human happiness and misery arises from the view of our past conduct, and from the degree of approbation or disapprobation which we feel from the consideration of it. But in whatever manner it may affect us, our sentiments of this kind have always some secret reference either to what are, or to what upon a certain condition would be, or to what we imagine ought to be the sentiments of others. We examine it as we imagine an 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.
3:16: We’re full of bullshit about ourselves though aren’t we?
AS: Sadly yes. 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.
3:16: Is there a way out?
AS: Yes. 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.
It satisfies us that we view them in the proper light, when we see other people view them in the same light. 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. We thus naturally lay down to ourselves a general rule, that all such actions are to be avoided, as tending to render us odious, contemptible, or punishable, the objects of all those sentiments for which we have the greatest dread and aversion.
3:16: Is this how we get to have morals?
AS: Yes. It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of. We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions; because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed by finding from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of. His detestation of crime arises instantaneously and antecedent to his having formed to himself any general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, which he might afterwards form, would be founded upon the detestation which he felt necessarily arise in his own breast, at the thought of this, and every other particular action of the same kind.
3:16: This reverses a common way of thinking about how morals come about. So morals are kind of post hoc rationalisations of feelings?
AS: Indeed. The general rules which determine what actions are, and what are not, the objects of each of those sentiments, can be formed no other way than by observing what actions actually and in fact excite them.
3:16: So it is these things, based on our understanding of which actions cause which sentiments, that are the basis of our sense of duty and conscience – even our feeling that such duties are expressions of the will of God even. Where do duties come from?
AS: Well, Richard, none but those of the happiest mould are capable of suiting, with exact justness, their sentiments and behaviour to the smallest difference of situation, and of acting upon all occasions with the most delicate and accurate propriety. There is scarce any man, however, who by discipline, education, and example, may not be impressed with a regard to general rules, as to act upon almost every occasion with tolerable decency, and through the whole of his life avoid any considerable degree of blame. Without this sacred regard to general rules, there is no man whose conduct can be much depended upon. This reverence is still further enhanced by an opinion which is first impressed by nature, and afterwards confirmed by reasoning and philosophy, that those important rules of morality, are the commands and laws of the Deity, who will finally reward the obedient, and punish the transgressors of their duty.
3:16: So is following religious duty the only way to behave well ?
AS: No. That the sense of duty should be the sole principle of our conduct is no where the precept of Christianity; but that it should be the ruling and governing one, as philosophy, and as, indeed, common sense directs. It may be a question however, in what cases our actions ought to arise chiefly or entirely from a sense of duty, or from a regard to general rules; and in what cases some other sentiment or affection ought to concur, and have a principal influence.
The decision of this question, which cannot, perhaps, be given with any very great accuracy, will depend upon two different circumstances; first, upon the natural agreeableness or deformity of the sentiment or affection which would prompt us to any action independent of all regard to general rules; and secondly, upon the precision and exactness, or the looseness and inaccuracy of the general rules themselves. So firstly, all those graceful and admired actions, to which the benevolent affections would prompt us, ought to proceed as much from the passions themselves, as from any regard to the general rules of conduct.
And secondly, the general rules of almost all the virtues, the general rules which determine what are the offices of prudence, of charity, of generosity, of gratitude, of friendship, are in many respects loose and inaccurate, admit of many exceptions, and require so many modifications, that it is scarce possible to regulate our conduct entirely by a regard to them. The common proverbial maxims of prudence, being founded in universal experience, are perhaps the best general rules which can be given about it.
3:16: Self-approbation is important in these circumstances aren’t they?
AS: Yes. A bigotted Roman Catholic, who, during the massacre of St. Bartholomew, had been so overcome by compassion, as to save some unhappy protestants, whom he thought it his duty to destroy, would not seem to be entitled to that high applause which we should have bestowed upon him, had he exerted the same generosity with complete self-approbation. We might be pleased with the humanity of his temper, but we should still regard him with a sort of pity which is altogether inconsistent with the admiration that is due to perfect virtue. It is the same case with all the other passions. We do not dislike to see them exert themselves properly, even when a false notion of duty would direct the person to restrain them.
A very devout Quaker, who upon being struck upon one cheek, instead of turning up the other, should so far forget his literal interpretation of our Saviour’s precept, as to bestow some good discipline upon the brute that insulted him, would not be disagreeable to us. We should laugh and be diverted with his spirit, and rather like him the better for it. But we should by no means regard him with that respect and esteem which would seem due to one who, upon a like occasion, had acted properly from a just sense of what was proper to be done. No action can properly be called virtuous, which is not accompanied with the sentiment of self-approbation.
3:16: What role has utility in your theory?
AS: That utility is one of the principal sources of beauty has been observed by every body, who has considered with any attention what constitutes the nature of beauty. The cause too, why utility pleases, has of late been assigned by an ingenious and agreeable philosopher, who thinks the utility of any object pleases by perpetually suggesting the pleasure or conveniency which it is fitted to promote. The object in this manner becomes a source of perpetual satisfaction and enjoyment.
3:16: You think great wealth a matter of trivialities don’t you?
AS: Power and riches appear to be enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor.
3:16: So we overestimate the utility of riches?
AS: Yes, and though this splenetic philosophy, which in time of sickness or low spirits is familiar to every man, thus entirely depreciates those great objects of human desire, when in better health and in better humour, we never fail to regard them under a more agreeable aspect. Our imagination, which in pain and sorrow seems to be confined and cooped up within our own persons, in times of ease and prosperity expands itself to every thing around us. We are then charmed with the beauty of that accommodation which reigns in the palaces and economy of the great; and admire how every thing is adapted to promote their ease, to prevent their wants, to gratify their wishes, and to amuse and entertain their most frivolous desires. If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling.
3:16: And it’s out of this that your idea of the workings of an invisible hand comes?
AS: It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants.
3:16: So how does this process lead to the trickle down effect whereby wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor?
AS: Richard, the rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.
3:16: Are fashion and custom important?
AS: Principles of custom and fashion extend their dominion over our judgments concerning beauty of every kind and have a considerable influence upon the moral sentiments of mankind, and are the chief causes of the many irregular and discordant opinions which prevail in different ages and nations concerning what is blameable or praise-worthy.
3:16: Are they distorting? Should we beware of them then?
AS: The principles of the imagination, upon which our sense of beauty depends, are of a very nice and delicate nature, and may easily be altered by habit and education: but the sentiments of moral approbation and disapprobation, are founded on the strongest and most vigorous passions of human nature; and though they may be somewhat warped, cannot be entirely perverted.
3:16: You’re as much an anthropologist as a philosopher and economist aren’t you?
AS: True. The different situations of different ages and countries, are apt, in the same manner, to give different characters to the generality of those who live in them, and their sentiments concerning the particular degree of each quality, that is either blameable, or praise-worthy, vary according to that degree, which is usual in their own country, and in their own times. So, for instance, among civilized nations, the virtues which are founded upon humanity, are more cultivated than those which are founded upon self-denial and the command of the passions. Among rude and barbarous nations, it is quite otherwise, the virtues of self-denial are more cultivated than those of humanity. The savages in North America, we are told, assume upon all occasions the greatest indifference, and would think themselves degraded if they should ever appear in any respect to be overcome, either by love, or grief, or resentment.
Their magnanimity and self-command, in this respect, are almost beyond the conception of Europeans. In a country in which all men are upon a level, with regard to rank and fortune, it might be expected that the mutual inclinations of the two parties should be the only thing considered in marriages, and should be indulged without any sort of control. This, however, is the country in which all marriages, without exception, are made up by the parents, and in which a young man would think himself disgraced for ever, if he showed the least preference of one woman above another, or did not express the most complete indifference, both about the time when, and the person to whom he was to be married. The weakness of love, which is so much indulged in ages of humanity and politeness, is regarded among savages as the most unpardonable effeminacy.
3:16: Should we learn to relativise our judgements in the light of these differences between civilisations?
AS: No. Can there be greater barbarity, for example, than to hurt an infant? Yet the exposition, that is, the murder of newborn infants, was a practice allowed of in almost all the states of Greece, even among the polite and civilized Athenians. Aristotle talks of it as of what the magistrate ought upon many occasions to encourage. When custom can give sanction to so dreadful a violation of humanity, we may well imagine that there is scarce any particular practice so gross which it cannot authorize. Such a thing, we hear men every day saying, is commonly done, and they seem to think this a sufficient apology for what, in itself, is the most unjust and unreasonable conduct. There is an obvious reason why custom should never pervert our sentiments with regard to the general style and character of conduct and behaviour, in the same degree as with regard to the propriety or unlawfulness of particular usages. There never can be any such custom. No society could subsist a moment, in which the usual strain of mens conduct and behaviour was of a piece with the horrible practice I just now mentioned.
3:16: So are morals universal?
AS: No. As they are all of them, in this respect, founded upon natural principles, they are all of them in some measure in the right. But as many of them are derived from a partial and imperfect view of nature, there are many of them too in some respects in the wrong.
3:16: So in what does virtue consist?
AS: You mean what is the tone of temper, and tenor of conduct, which constitutes the excellent and praise-worthy character, the character which is the natural object of esteem, honour, and approbation?
3:16: Ok, let’s say that.
AS: We examine the first question when we consider whether virtue consists in benevolence, as Dr. Hutcheson imagines; or in acting suitably to the different relations we stand in, as Dr. Clarke supposes; or in the wise and prudent pursuit of our own real and solid happiness, as has been the opinion of others. The different accounts which have been given of the nature of virtue, or of the temper of mind which constitutes the excellent and praise-worthy character, may be reduced to three different classes.
3:16: What’s the first one?
AS: According to some, virtue consists in propriety. According to Plato, to Aristotle, and to Zeno, virtue consists in the propriety of conduct, or in the suitableness of the affection from which we act to the object which excites it. Besides these ancient, there are some modern systems, according to which virtue consists in propriety; or in the suitableness of the affection from which we act, to the cause or object which excites it, for example, the system of Shaftesbury, which places it in maintaining a proper balance of the affections, and in allowing no passion to go beyond its proper sphere.
3:16: What’s the second one?
AS: According to others virtue consists in prudence. The most ancient of those systems which make virtue consist in prudence, and of which any considerable remains have come down to us, is that of Epicurus. According to Epicurus, bodily pleasure and pain were the sole ultimate objects of natural desire and aversion. All the pleasures and pains of the mind were, according to Epicurus, ultimately derived from those of the body. In ease of body, therefore, and in security or tranquillity of mind, consisted, according to Epicurus, the most perfect state of human nature, the most complete happiness which man was capable of enjoying.
To obtain this great end of natural desire was the sole object of all the virtues, which, according to him, were not desirable upon their own account, but upon account of their tendency to bring about this situation. It may seem extraordinary that this philosopher should never have observed that, whatever may be the tendency of those virtues, or of the contrary vices, with regard to our bodily ease and security, the sentiments which they naturally excite in others are the objects of a much more passionate desire or aversion than all their other consequences; that to be amiable, to be respectable, to be the proper object of esteem, is by every well-disposed mind more valued than all the ease and security which love, respect, and esteem can procure us; that, on the contrary, to be odious, to be contemptible, to be the proper object of indignation, is more dreadful than all that we can suffer in our body from hatred, contempt, or indignation; and that consequently our desire of the one character, and our aversion to the other, cannot arise from any regard to the effects which either of them is likely to produce upon the body.
3:16: So you disagree with these?
AS: This system of Epicurus is, no doubt, altogether inconsistent with that which I have been endeavouring to establish. It agreed with those of Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno, in making virtue consist in acting in the most suitable manner to obtain the primary objects of natural desire. It differed from all of them in two other respects; first, in the account which it gave of those primary objects of natural desire; and secondly, in the account which it gave of the excellence of virtue, or of the reason why that quality ought to be esteemed. The primary objects of natural desire consisted, according to Epicurus, in bodily pleasure and pain, and in nothing else whereas, according to the other three philosophers, there were many other objects, such as knowledge, such as the happiness of our relations, of our friends, of our country, which were ultimately desirable for their own sakes.
Virtue too, according to Epicurus, did not deserve to be pursued for its own sake, nor was itself one of the ultimate objects of natural appetite, but was eligible only upon account of its tendency to prevent pain and to procure ease and pleasure. In the opinion of the other three, on the contrary, it was desirable, not merely as the means of procuring the other primary objects of natural desire, but as something which was in itself more valuable than them all. Man, they thought, being born for action, his happiness must consist, not merely in the agreeableness of his passive sensations, but also in the propriety of his active exertions.
3:16: You said there was a third class of approaches to what virtue consisted of?
AS: Yes Richard. This is the system which makes virtue consist in benevolence. It seems to have been the doctrine of the greater part of those philosophers who, about and after the age of Augustus, called themselves Eclectics, who pretended to follow chiefly the opinions of Plato and Pythagoras, and who upon that account are commonly known by the name of the later Platonists. In the divine nature, according to these authors, benevolence or love was the sole principle of action, and directed the exertion of all the other attributes. After the reformation it was adopted by several divines of the most eminent piety and learning, and of the most amiable manners; particularly, by Dr. Ralph Cudworth, by Dr. Henry More, and by Mr. John Smith of Cambridge. But of all the patrons of this system, ancient or modern, the late Dr. Hutcheson, was undoubtedly beyond all comparison, the most acute, the most distinct, the most philosophical, and what is of the greatest consequence of all, the soberest and most judicious.
3:16: Is this the approach you take?
AS: In part. That virtue consists in benevolence is a notion supported by many appearances in human nature. Benevolence bestows upon those actions which proceed from it, a beauty superior to all others.
3:16: Does utilitarianism rest upon this idea?
AS: Those actions which aimed at the happiness of a great community, as they demonstrated a more enlarged benevolence than those which aimed only at that of a smaller system, so were they, likewise, proportionally the more virtuous. The most virtuous of all affections, therefore, was that which embraced as its object the happiness of all intelligent beings. In directing all our actions to promote the greatest possible good, in submitting all inferior affections to the desire of the general happiness of mankind, in regarding ones self but as one of the many, whose prosperity was to be pursued no further than it was consistent with, or conducive to that of the whole, consisted the perfection of virtue.
3:16: Selfishness and the promotion of ones own happiness is not a good thing then because it lacks benevolence?
AS: Self-love was a principle which could never be virtuous in any degree or in any direction. It was vicious whenever it obstructed the general good. Dr. Hutcheson was so far from allowing self-love to be in any case a motive of virtuous actions, that even a regard to the pleasure of self-approbation, to the comfortable applause of our own consciences, according to him, diminished the merit of a benevolent action. This was a selfish motive, he thought, which, so far as it contributed to any action, demonstrated the weakness of that pure and disinterested benevolence which could alone stamp upon the conduct of man the character of virtue. In the common judgments of mankind, however, this regard to the approbation of our own minds is so far from being considered as what can in any respect diminish the virtue of any action, that it is rather looked upon as the sole motive which deserves the appellation of virtuous.
3:16: Is this why you part company with this approach of Dr Hutchinson?
AS: Yes. It doesn’t sufficiently explain from whence arises our approbation of the inferior virtues of prudence, vigilance, circumspection, temperance, constancy, firmness. The view and aim of our affections, the beneficent and hurtful effects which they tend to produce, are the only qualities at all attended to in this system. Their propriety and impropriety, their suitableness and unsuitableness, to the cause which excites them, are disregarded altogether. Regard to our own private happiness and interest too, appear upon many occasions very laudable principles of action.
The habits of economy, industry, discretion, attention, and application of thought, are generally supposed to be cultivated from self-interested motives, and at the same time are apprehended to be very praise-worthy qualities, which deserve the esteem and approbation of every body. Benevolence may, perhaps, be the sole principle of action in the Deity but whatever may be the case with the Deity, so imperfect a creature as man, the support of whose existence requires so many things external to him, must often act from many other motives. The condition of human nature were peculiarly hard, if those affections, which, by the very nature of our being, ought frequently to influence our conduct, could upon no occasion appear virtuous, or deserve esteem and commendation from any body.
3:16: So you think all three are a bit unrealistic because they don’t honour human nature enough? Is this why, although you don’t like them you find the systems of Rochefoucault and Dr. Mandeville interesting?
AS: Though the notions of both these authors 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, and afterwards more fully represented with the lively and humorous, though coarse and rustic eloquence of Dr. Mandeville, have thrown upon their doctrines an air of truth and probability. Dr. Mandeville, the most methodical of those two authors, considers whatever is done from a sense of propriety, from a regard to what is commendable and praise-worthy, as being done from a love of praise and commendation, or as he calls it from vanity. Man, he observes, is naturally much more interested in his own happiness than in that of others, and it is impossible that in his heart he can ever really prefer their prosperity to his own.
All public spirit, therefore, all preference of public to private interest, is, according to him a mere cheat and imposition upon mankind. He endeavours to point out the imperfection of human virtue in many other respects. In every case, he pretends, it falls short of that complete self-denial which it pretends to, and, instead of a conquest, is commonly no more than a concealed indulgence of our passions.
3:16: Where is he wrong?
AS: It is the great fallacy of Dr. Mandeville’s book to represent every passion as wholly vicious, which is so in any degree and in any direction.
3:16: How and by what means does the mind prefer one tenor of conduct to another, denominates the one right and the other wrong; considers the one as the object of approbation, honour, and reward, and the other of blame, censure, and punishment?
AS: Self-love, reason, and sentiment are the three different sources which have been assigned for this principle of approbation.
3:16: Can you take us through these.
AS: Self love is the source assigned for this principle of approbation according to Mr. Hobbes, and many of his followers like Puffendorff. For Mandeville, man is driven to take refuge in society, not by any natural love which he bears to his own kind, but because without the assistance of others he is incapable of subsisting with ease or safety. It is well known to have been the doctrine of Mr. Hobbes, that a state of nature, is a state of war; and that antecedent to the institution of civil government, there could be no safe or peaceable society among men. Virtue is the great support, and vice the great disturber of human society. But sympathy, however, cannot, in any sense, be regarded as a selfish principle.
3:16: You say reason is an alternative to self love here?
AS: Yes. That virtue consists in conformity to reason, is true in some respects, and this faculty may very justly be considered, as in some sense, the source and principle of approbation and disapprobation, and of all solid judgments concerning right and wrong. But though reason is undoubtedly the source of the general rules of morality, and of all the moral judgments which we form by means of them; it is altogether absurd and unintelligible to suppose that the first perceptions of right and wrong can be derived from reason, even in those particular cases upon the experience of which the general rules are formed. Pleasure and pain are the great objects of desire and aversion: but these are distinguished not by reason, but by immediate sense and feeling. Dr. Hutcheson had the merit of being the first who distinguished with any degree of precision in what respect all moral distinctions may be said to arise from reason, and in what respect they are founded upon immediate sense and feeling.
3:16: So do you agree with him in this?
AS: Yes. He has explained this so fully, and, in my opinion, so unanswerably, that, if any controversy is still kept up about this subject, I can impute it to nothing, but either to inattention to what that gentleman has written, or to a superstitious attachment to certain forms of expression, a weakness not very uncommon among the learned, especially in subjects so deeply interesting as the present, in which a man of virtue is often loath to abandon, even the propriety of a single phrase which he has been accustomed to.
3:16: You disagree with him regarding the idea that we have a moral sense though don’t you?
AS: Yes. It must be said, that when the approbation with which our neighbour regards the conduct of a third person coincides with our own, we approve of his approbation, and consider it as, in some measure, morally good; and that on the contrary, when it does not coincide with our own sentiments, we disapprove of it, and consider it as, in some measure, morally evil. It must be allowed, therefore, that, at least in this one case, the coincidence or opposition of sentiments, between the observer and the person observed, constitutes moral approbation or disapprobation. And if it does so in this one case, I would ask, why not in every other? To what purpose imagine a new power of perception in order to account for those sentiments?
3:16: Is working out systems of ethics useful?
AS: Such works present us with agreeable and lively pictures of manners. By the vivacity of their descriptions they inflame our natural love of virtue, and increase our abhorrence of vice: by the justness as well as delicacy of their observations they may often help both to correct and to ascertain our natural sentiments with regard to the propriety of conduct, and suggesting many nice and delicate attentions, form us to a more exact justness of behaviour, than what, without such instruction, we should have been apt to think of. In treating of the rules of morality, in this manner, consists the science which is properly called Ethics, a science, which though like criticism, it does not admit of the most accurate precision, is, however, both highly useful and agreeable. The two useful parts of moral philosophy are Ethics and Jurisprudence.
3:16: You’ve not only developed this theory of sentiments, but you’ve enquired into the peculiar world of English capitalism with its odd disassociation of the economy from society, religion and politics at a time, as the anthropologist and historian Alan Macfarlane points out, when a system only existed in a tiny part of north-western Europe and in America - perhaps five per cent of the world population. Now of course the system of market or consumer capitalism, with its division of spheres, division of labour, its in-built separation of fact and value and combination of private vice and public benefit, is almost universal. So it’s important that we all try and understand how it works. So firstly, do you link this analysis to your work on morals?
AS: Ah yes, Professor Macfarlane is indeed well worth reading Richard. Well, as I’ve indicated, the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved but as I also said, as we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.
3:16: So we have to be careful about assuming we do know what other people want and that’s why you’re cautious about regulations especially to do with markets?
AS: Yes. Every such regulation introduces some degree of real disorder into the constitution of the state, which it will be difficult afterwards to cure without occasioning another disorder.
3:16: Mr Colbert is a good case study for you of the harms of overregulation isn’t he?
AS: Mr. Colbert, the famous minister of Louis XIV, was a man of probity, of great industry and knowledge of detail, of great experience and acuteness in the examination of public accounts, and of abilities, in short, every way fitted for introducing method and good order into the collection and expenditure of the public revenue. That minister had unfortunately embraced all the prejudices of the mercantile system, in its nature and essence a system of restraint and regulation, and such as could scarce fail to be agreeable to a laborious and plodding man of business, who had been accustomed to regulate the different departments of public offices, and to establish the necessary checks and controls for confining each to its proper sphere. The industry and commerce of a great country he endeavoured to regulate upon the same model as the departments of a public office; and instead of allowing every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice, he bestowed upon certain branches of industry extraordinary privileges, while he laid others under as extraordinary restraints.
3:16: So this is why you’re in favour of free markets?
AS: The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations.
3:16: But you also think that people often want something because it seems a good thing rather than that it actually being a good thing?
AS: Yes. The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition pursues wealth without knowing what it is really like, because it seems—falsely—to be useful.
3:16: And you’ve already spoken about valuable things being largely useless haven’t you?
AS: Yes, the things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use.
3:16: So what is the chief role of government in this system?
AS: Justice is the first and chief design of every system of government. It should also maintain and erect a broad range of public works and public institutions for the good of the whole society. And the first duty of the sovereign is that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, which can be performed only by means of a military force.
3:16: And is justice particularly important to trading nations?
AS: Commerce and manufactures can seldom flourish long in any state which does not enjoy a regular administration of justice, in which the people do not feel themselves secure in the possession of their property, in which the faith of contracts is not supported by law, and in which the authority of the state is not supposed to be regularly employed in enforcing the payment of debts from all those who are able to pay. Commerce and manufactures, in short, can seldom flourish in any state in which there is not a certain degree of confidence in the justice of government.
3:16: You say in your theory of moral sentiments that you shouldn’t force people to be beneficent. Does this mean that governments and civil law can’t either?
AS: No. The civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree. I say don’t take this too far though because that would be destructive of all liberty, security, and justice and result in many gross disorders and shocking enormities. Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all. I also think, Richard, those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as the most despotical.
3:16: And are taxes good? Some say taxes are a restriction on liberty? You approve of high taxes though don’t you? England in your day had high taxes compared to elsewhere and you thought this a good thing didn’t you?
AS: They’re a badge of liberty Richard. Yes. Mind you, I dislike all taxes that may affect the necessary expenses of the poor. They, according to circumstances, either oppress the people immediately subject to them, or are repaid with great interest by the rich, i.e. by their employers in the advanced wages of their labour.
3:16: And you’re in favour of the state promoting secularism as well aren’t you?
AS: Yes Richard, as an antidote to the poison of religious enthusiasm and superstition.
3:16: And you also think educated professionals in the arts and humanities should be well paid don’t you?
AS: Education in the ingenious arts and in the liberal professions is tedious and expensive. The pecuniary recompense, therefore, of painters and sculptors, of lawyers and physicians, ought to be much more liberal; and it is so accordingly.
3:16: And you think ridiculously wealthy people and high profits are harmful?
AS: Our merchants and master manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods, both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits; they are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains; they complain only of those of other people. With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches; which, in their eye, is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves. In their eyes, the merit of an object, which is in any degree either useful or beautiful, is greatly enhanced by its scarcity, or by the great labour which it requires to collect any considerable quantity of it; a labour which nobody can afford to pay but themselves.
3:16: It’s idleness you really think doesn’t fit in this new system of capitalism. To fit in with it, we’ve all become work addicted haven’t we?
AS: It’s true. As a man of a civil profession seems awkward in a camp or a garrison, and is even in some danger of being despised there, so does an idle man among men of business.
3:16: How important is labour to this kind of society?
AS: Labour alone, never varying in its own value, is alone the ultimate and real standard by which the value of all commodities can at all times and places be estimated and compared. It is their real price; money is their nominal price only. Labour is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities. The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.
3:16: Yet the sources of revenue in this society aren’t just from this toil and trouble are they?
AS: No. Wages, profit, and rent, are the three original sources of all revenue, as well as of all exchangeable value. All other revenue is ultimately derived from someone or other of these. The revenue derived from labour is called wages; that derived from stock, by the person who manages or employs it, is called profit; that derived from it by the person who does not employ it himself, but lends it to another, is called the interest or the use of money.
3:16: A key to the new form of capitalism you analyse is the division of labour to creating wealth. Can you explain what this to us?
AS: The greatest improvements in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment, with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour. To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture, but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of a pin-maker: a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty.
But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.
But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth, part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.
3:16: Do you think this specialisation has negative effects on the wellbeing of the workers despite the increased productivity it brings about?
AS: Of course. The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.
3:16: What should be done about this?
AS: Education. Look Richard, in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it. The education of the common people requires, perhaps, in a civilised and commercial society the attention of the public more than that of people of some rank and fortune. But though the common people cannot, in any civilised society, be so well instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations.
For a very small expense the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education. In Scotland the establishment of such parish schools has taught almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of them to write and account. In England the establishment of charity schools has had an effect of the same kind. If in those little schools the books, by which the children are taught to read, were a little more instructive than they commonly are, and if, instead of a little smattering of Latin, which the children of the common people are sometimes taught there, and which can scarce ever be of any use to them, they were instructed in the elementary parts of geometry and mechanics, the literary education of this rank of people would perhaps be as complete as it can be.
3:16: And should people be forced to undergo such schooling?
AS: Yes. The public can encourage the acquisition of those most essential parts of education by giving small premiums, and little badges of distinction, to the children of the common people who excel in them but can impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education, by obliging every man to undergo an examination or probation in them before he can obtain the freedom in any corporation, or be allowed to set up any trade either in a village or town corporate.
3:16: You see the division of labour as developing accidentally out of human nature?
AS: Yes. This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature, which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.
3:16: And is this what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom?
AS: By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a grey-hound, or a grey-hound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd's dog. Those different tribes of animals, however, though all of the same species are of scarce any use to one another. The strength of the mastiff is not in the least supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd's dog. The effects of those different geniuses and talents, for want of the power or disposition to barter and exchange, cannot be brought into a common stock, and do not in the least contribute to the better accommodation and conveniency of the species.
Each animal is still obliged to support and defend itself, separately and independently, and derives no sort of advantage from that variety of talents with which nature has distinguished its fellows. Among men, on the contrary, the most dissimilar geniuses are of use to one another; the different produces of their respective talents, by the general disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, being brought, as it were, into a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men's talents he has occasion for. Let’s face it Richard, nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.
3:16: What limits the impact of this division of labour?
AS: The market! As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or, in other words, by the extent of the market.
3:16: And money derives from this need to barter and exchange surplus goods?
AS: Yes. In old times, we find things were frequently valued according to the number of cattle which had been given in exchange for them. There is at this day a village in Scotland, where it is not uncommon, I am told, for a workman to carry nails instead of money to the baker’s shop or the ale-house.
3:16: And how do we price labour?
AS: The value of any commodity, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities. In this popular sense, therefore, labour, like commodities, may be said to have a real and a nominal price. Its real price may be said to consist in the quantity of the necessaries and conveniencies of life which are given for it; its nominal price, in the quantity of money. The labourer is rich or poor, is well or ill rewarded, in proportion to the real, not to the nominal price of his labour.
3:16: And how are commodity prices fixed?
AS: In that early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land, the proportion between the quantities of labour necessary for acquiring different objects, seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them for one another. In a civilized country there are but few commodities of which the exchangeable value arises from labour only, rent and profit contributing largely to that of the far greater part of them, so the annual produce of its labour will always be sufficient to purchase or command a much greater quantity of labour than what was employed in raising, preparing, and bringing that produce to market. There is in every society or neighbourhood an ordinary or average rate, both of wages and profit, in every different employment of labour and stock. This rate is naturally regulated, partly by the general circumstances of the society, their riches or poverty, their advancing, stationary, or declining condition, and partly by the particular nature of each employment.
3:16: Landlords emerged as private property emerged didn’t they?
AS: As soon as land becomes private property, the landlord demands a share of almost all the produce which the labourer can either raise or collect from it. His rent makes the first deduction from the produce of the labour which is employed upon land.
3:16: Do we get higher wages if we’re in a rich nation then?
AS: Actually no. It is not the actual greatness of national wealth, but its continual increase, which occasions a rise in the wages of labour. It is not, accordingly, in the richest countries, but in the most thriving, or in those which are growing rich the fastest, that the wages of labour are highest. England was certainly, when I was writing, a much richer country than any part of North America.
The wages of labour, however, were much higher in North America than in any part of England. Back then China had long been one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous, countries in the world. It seemed, however, to have been long stationary. The accounts of all travellers, inconsistent in many other respects, agree in the low wages of labour, and in the difficulty which a labourer finds in bringing up a family in China. The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpassed that of the most beggarly nations in Europe at that time. Marriage was encouraged in China, not by the profitableness of children, but by the liberty of destroying them. In all great towns, several were every night exposed in the street, or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this horrid office was even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence.
3:16: But even China back then was better than the places run by colonialist merchants like the East India Company?
AS: Well yes. China, though it did, perhaps, stand still, did not seem to go backwards. Its towns were nowhere deserted by their inhabitants. The lands which had once been cultivated, were nowhere neglected. But it would be otherwise in a country where the funds destined for the maintenance of labour were sensibly decaying. This was nearly the state back then of Bengal, and of some other of the English settlements in the East Indies. The difference between the genius of the British constitution, which protected and governed North America, and that of the mercantile company which oppressed and domineered in the East Indies, cannot, perhaps, be better illustrated than by the different state of those countries.
3:16: You think the system requires free trade and so do you think monopolies like the East India Company harmful to the system as a whole?
AS: A monopoly granted either to an individual or to a trading company, has the same effect as a secret in trade or manufactures. The monopolists, by keeping the market constantly understocked by never fully supplying the effectual demand, sell their commodities much above the natural price, and raise their emoluments, whether they consist in wages or profit, greatly above their natural rate. The price of monopoly is upon every occasion the highest which can be got. The natural price, or the price of free competition, on the contrary, is the lowest which can be taken, not upon every occasion indeed, but for any considerable time together.
3:16: What do you think of colonial rule by the East India Company generally then?
AS: Monopolies of this kind are properly established against the very nation which erects them. Since the establishment of the English East India Company, for example, the other inhabitants of England, over and above being excluded from the trade, must have paid in the price of the East India goods which they have consumed, not only for all the extraordinary profits which the company may have made upon those goods in consequence of their monopoly, but for all the extraordinary waste which the fraud and abuse, inseparable from the management of the affairs of so great a company, must necessarily have occasioned.
It has not been uncommon, I am well assured, for the chief, that is, the first clerk of a factory, to order a peasant to plough up a rich field of poppies and sow it with rice or some other grain. The reason? To give the chief an opportunity of selling at a better price a large quantity of opium, which he happened then to have upon hand. Upon other occasions the order has been reversed; and a rich field of rice or other grain has been ploughed up, in order to make room for a plantation of poppies; when the chief foresaw that extraordinary profit was likely to be made by opium.
3:16: And this abuse is because these companies – like all our huge multi-national corporations - are not really sovereign rulers but businesses?
AS: Yes. In almost all countries the revenue of the sovereign is drawn from that of the people. But a company of merchants are, it seems, incapable of considering themselves as sovereigns, even after they have become such. Trade, or buying in order to sell again, they still consider as their principal business, and by a strange absurdity regard the character of the sovereign as but an appendix to that of the merchant. Their mercantile habits draw them in this manner, almost necessarily, though perhaps insensibly, to prefer upon all ordinary occasions the little and transitory profit of the monopolist to the great and permanent revenue of the sovereign. As sovereigns, their interest is exactly the same with that of the country which they govern.
As merchants their interest is directly opposite to that interest. Its administration in India is necessarily composed of a council of merchants, a profession no doubt extremely respectable, but which in no country in the world carries along with it that sort of authority which naturally overawes the people and can command obedience only by the military force with which they are accompanied, and their government is therefore necessarily military and despotical.
Their proper business, however, is that of merchants. It is a very singular government in which every member of the administration wishes to get out of the country, and consequently to have done with the government as soon as he can, and to whose interest, the day after he has left it and carried his whole fortune with him, it is perfectly indifferent though the whole country was swallowed up by an earthquake. Such exclusive companies, therefore, are nuisances in every respect; always more or less inconvenient to the countries in which they are established, and destructive to those which have the misfortune to fall under their government.
3:16: So you don’t like the colonialist empires of your day?
AS: In the system of laws which has been established for the management of our American and West Indian colonies, the interest of the home consumer has been sacrificed to that of the producer with a more extravagant profusion than in all our other commercial regulations. A great empire has been established for the sole purpose of raising up a nation of customers who should be obliged to buy from the shops of our different producers all the goods with which these could supply them. For the sake of that little enhancement of price which this monopoly might afford our producers, the home consumers have been burdened with the whole expense of maintaining and defending that empire. It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interest has been so carefully attended to; and among this latter class our merchants and manufacturers have been by far the principal architects.
3:16: Interestingly, you think slavery makes no economic sense don’t you?
AS: It appears from the experience of all ages and nations that the work done by freemen comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves. It is found to do so even at Boston, NewYork, and Philadelphia, where the wages of common labour are so very high.
3:16: And as we’ve noted earlier, you think workers should get good wages? You were writing before the development of labour movements so your opinions on this matter are pretty innovative.
AS: Well Richard, the wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days, perhaps, in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low; in England, for example, than in Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns, than in remote country places.
3:16: The system of capitalism and industrialisation seems to favour the rich and powerful over the poor?
AS: Yes Richard. It is the industry which is carried on for the benefit of the rich and powerful, that is principally encouraged by our mercantile system. That which is carried on for the benefit of the poor and the indigent, is too often, either neglected, or oppressed.
3:16: You note that the bosses complain of workers joining forces but they themselves do the same don’t they?
AS: Indeed Richard. We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject.
3:16: What do you say to those who argue that if you give people good wages they become lazy?
AS: That men in general should work better when they are ill fed than when they are well fed, when they are disheartened than when they are in good spirits, when they are frequently sick than when they are generally in good health, seems not very probable. Years of dearth, it is to be observed, are generally among the common people years of sickness and mortality, which cannot fail to diminish the produce of their industry.
3:16: Are the voices of labour heard in this system?
AS: Sadly no. Though the interest of the labourer is strictly connected with that of the society, he is incapable either of comprehending that interest, or of understanding its connection with his own. His condition leaves him no time to receive the necessary information, and his education and habits are commonly such as to render him unfit to judge, even though he was fully informed. In the public deliberations, therefore, his voice is little heard, and less regarded; except upon particular occasions, when his clamour is animated, set on, and supported by his employers, not for his, but their own particular purposes.
3:16: Is there a point of all this increase in production?
AS: Shopping. Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.
3:16: Ok, this new capitalist system seems more like Mandeville’s worldview with its emphasis on raw greed and selfishness – how do you square this with your moral theory?
AS: Well. The great affair, we always find, is to get money. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. But remember Richard, to be amiable and to be meritorious, that is, to deserve love and to deserve reward, are the great characters of virtue, and to be odious and punishable, of vice. But all these characters have an immediate reference to the sentiments of others.
Virtue is not said to be amiable or to be meritorious, because it is the object of its own Love or of its own gratitude; but because it excites those sentiments in other men. Man is considered as a moral, because he is regarded as an accountable being. 3:16: So this need to be approved by others checks the system’s inbuilt tendency to greed? AS: The applause of the whole world will avail but little if our own conscience condemns us; and the disapprobation of all mankind is not capable of oppressing us when we are absolved by the tribunal within our own breast, and when our own mind tells us that mankind are in the wrong.
3:16: So our natural conscience makes us moral even if the system we’re living in doesn’t work by moral principles?
AS: When we first come into the world, being desirous to please those we live with, we are accustomed to consider what behaviour is likely to be agreeable to every person we converse with, to our parents, to our masters, to our companions. We address ourselves to individuals, and for some time fondly pursue the impossible and absurd project of rendering ourselves universally agreeable, and of gaining the good will and approbation of every body. We soon learn, however, from experience, that this universal approbation is altogether unattainable.
3:16: So by setting up conscience as an internal judge we are able to stop depending on fitting in with others? In this way greed is tempered?
AS: It is only by consulting this judge within that we can see whatever relates to ourselves in its proper shape and dimensions, or that we can make any proper comparison between our own interests and those of other men. The selfish and original passions of human nature, the loss or gain of a very small interest of our own, appears to be of vastly more importance, excites a much more passionate joy or sorrow, a much more ardent desire or aversion, than the greatest concern of another with whom we have no particular connection.
So we must change our position. We must view them from the place and with the eyes of a third person, who has no particular connection with either and who judges with impartiality between us. It is from this station only that we can see the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own for the yet more important interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves.
3:16: You earlier discounted stoicism as being too demanding, but this sounds a little stoical?
AS: The real littleness of ourselves and of whatever relates to ourselves can be seen from this station only; and it is here only that we can learn the great lesson of Stoical magnanimity and firmness, to be no more affected by what befalls ourselves than by what befalls our neighbour, or, what comes to the same thing, than our neighbour is capable of being affected by what befalls us. ‘When our neighbour, says Epictetus, loses his wife or his son, there is nobody who is not sensible that this is a human calamity, a natural event altogether according to the ordinary course of things. But, when the same thing happens to ourselves, then we cry out, as if we had suffered the most dreadful misfortune. We ought, however, to remember how we were affected when this accident happened to another, and such as we were in his case such ought we to be in our own.’
3:16: But you think this is often too hard to do?
AS: Well Richard. Even the judge within is often in danger of being corrupted by the violence and injustice of our selfish passions, and is often induced to make a report very different from what the real circumstances of the case are capable of authorizing.
3:16: And finally are there five books you can recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
Other Interviews: Buchner ,Lange, Newton, Berkeley, Hobbes, Locke, Cudworth, Hume, Leibniz, Leporin Erxleben, Fichte, Schiller, Herder, Kierkegaard, Schelling, Kant, Dilthey, Marx, Descartes, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche
About the Author
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.