Philosophy 433                     History of Ethics                       Darwall                    Winter 2008



I.  The sentimentalist background of Smith’s metaethics.  Sentimentalist approaches, such as Hutcheson’s and Hume’s, generally hold that  moral judgments are made from the sort of impersonal standpoint more usually associated with aesthetic distance and agent-neutrality.  Motive and character are contemplated in a detached way, as part of the passing scene, and approved or disapproved from that point of view.  So considered, morality has nothing essentially to do with judgments we render from within the moral life as agents and patients interacting with each other.  It is not concerned, in any fundamental way, with reciprocity between equals or with any mutual accountability that expresses equal respect.  It is akin, rather, to aesthetics, and moral value is like a kind of beauty, as Hume explicitly says. 

II.  Smith on sympathy and the imagination.

Smith’s differences with Hume about the perspective of moral judgment relate to differences in their respective understandings of sympathy.  For Smith, sympathy is a specific form of ‘fellow-feeling’ that involves a projection into the other’s standpoint to see whether we can view his situation in the same emotionally- or motivationally-laden way he does.  What the sympathetic person has in view is not the other’s feeling viewed third-personally, but its object, viewed as the other would view it.  Smithian sympathy thus implicitly recognizes the other as having an independent perspective.  For Hume, on the other hand, sympathy is a psychological mechanism that transforms ideas of another’s feeling or passion, viewed third-personally, into ‘the very passion itself.’ (Treatise, p. 317)  It stays resolutely outside the other’s perspective, transforming ideas of his mental states, so viewed, into simulacra from one’s own point of view.

For Smith, when we judge an agent’s motive, we do so from the agent’s own perspective, viewing the practical situation as we imagine it to confront her in deliberation.  And when we judge someone’s feeling or reaction, we do so from her patient’s perspective, viewing the situation as we imagine it to confront her as someone responding to it.  Both judgments involve an implicit identification with, and thus respect for, the other as having an independent point of view. 

Consider the passages at: pp. 9,10, 11, 12

III.  Smith on judgments of the propriety of motives, feelings, and actions

It is ironic, and not a little misleading, therefore, that the term “impartial spectator” originates with Smith (and not with either Hutcheson or Hume), since the perspective of moral judgment, according to Smith, is not strictly a spectator’s standpoint at all.  For him, the primary moral judgment concerns no form of beauty, but what he calls “propriety,” whether of an agent’s motive or a patient’s feeling.[i]  And Smith holds that to judge whether a motive or feeling is warranted or proper, we must take up, not some external perspective, but that of the person who has the motive or feeling—the agent’s standpoint, in the case of motivation, the patient’s standpoint, in the case of feeling. (TMS.16-23)  Of course, Smith does believe that impartiality regulates moral judgment.  But it does so by disciplining the way in which we enter into the agent’s or patient’s point of view, not by providing its own perspective.  Moral judgment involves an impartial projection into the agent’s or patient’s standpoint.  We imaginatively project, not as ourselves; but impartially, as any one of us.  (TMS.82,137-138)  The judgment that the agent’s motive or the patient’s feeling is proper involves what Smith calls “sympathy”: an imaginative sharing of the agent’s motive or the patient’s feeling from his point of view. (TMS.10)

Consider the passages at: p. 16, 17, 18 (cf. Hume), 26 (impartial spectator—see also 82-85), 46 (Hume’s objection


[i] Smith distinguishes between propriety and beauty, specifically citing Hume’s account of beauty at TMS.187-188.