Hume and Smith on utility, agreeableness, propriety, and moral approval

History of European Ideas 45 (5):675-704 (2019)


OVERVIEWWe ambitiously reexamine Smith’s moral theory in relation to Hume’s. We regard Smith's developments as glorious and important. We also see them as quite fully agreeable to Hume, as enhancement, not departure. But Smith represents matters otherwise! Why would Smith overstate disagreement with his best friend?One aspect of Smith’s enhancement, an aspect he makes very conspicuous, is that between moral approval and beneficialness there is another phase, namely, the moral judge's sense of propriety. With that phase now finding formulation, Smith, if only implicitly, generates a spiral of beneficialness and propriety, a spiral shown in Figure 7 in the present paper. We consider Figure 7, illustrating the spiral, to be the most important arrival point in the present paper; it highlights the non-foundationalism of Smith's ethics. But to arrive at the spiral, we must engage in extensive exegesis.In Part IV of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith presents a foil against which he develops his own theory, a foil supposedly representing Hume. According to the foil, moral approval derives from ‘utility.’ But, in multiple ways, the foil is misleading. We provide an interpretation of Hume, notably his four-factor account of moral approval, before examining Smith's representation of Hume.One twist is that Smith used the words utility and useful differently than Hume did – Smith quietly stretched them to include species of agreeableness, thereby obscuring the importance of agreeableness in Hume’s theory.Another, more significant problem is that Smith allows the impression that in Hume moral approval derives quite determinately from beneficialness. In fact Hume conveys the interpretive and sentimental spaciousness of the operations that generate moral approval; here, Hume even speaks repeatedly of ‘proper sentiments’, thus almost using the term propriety himself.But the propriety phase in Smith opens up to a key facet of Smith’s development on Hume: He poeticizes a locus of sympathy not emphasized in Hume – namely, that between the moral judge and her own man within the breast; that locus enters the theory in addition to the sympathies emphasized in Hume, not in lieu of them. We distinguish lateral sympathy, which is important in Hume’s thought, and vertical sympathy, which is especially characteristic of Smith’s more inner-directed and allegorical thought. Smith embraces Hume’s lateral sympathy and enhances moral theory by adding formulations that elaborate vertical sympathy.Next, we come to something of a twist in the whole matter: We show that – as Smith well knew all along! – propriety is a species of agreeableness! Smith’s propriety phase represents another dimension within which such agreeableness lives: Smith’s vertical dimension thus gives rise to a spiral representing the diachronic development of the judge herself. It is a spiral of beneficialness and propriety: Each propriety phase in the next loop of the spiral engenders a species of agreeableness now as a part of beneficialness.Smith's developments on Hume, then, involve the following three facets: formulation of the propriety phase; the poetic elaboration of vertical sympathy; the diachronic spiral of propriety and beneficialness.The three facets come together, especially in Ed. 6 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The whole development goes beyond Hume, but, really, is agreeable to Hume – though Smith himself portrays his developments as disagreeing with features of Hume's moral theory.We speculate that Smith was more or less aware of all that that we say, including the absense of any really substantive disagreement. Why, in that case, would Smith have proceeded as he did? We address that question at the end of the piece. Our speculations suggest a method in the madness.

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Erik Matson
George Mason University
Daniel Klein
Harvard University

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