Philosophy 433                                     History of Ethics                       Darwall            Winter 2008


I.  Smith on judgments of justice.

According to Smith, when we judge an agent’s action or motive, again, we do so by projecting (impartially, as though we were anyone) into the agent’s perspective and viewing the practical situation as we imagine it to confront her in deliberation.  If the person’s actual decision and motive match those we simulate under these ideal conditions, then we judge them to be “proper.”  And when we judge someone’s feeling or reaction, we do so from her perspective as a patient, viewing the situation, as we imagine it to face her, as someone responding to it. 

It is important that Smithian moral judgments involve an implicit identification with others as having an independent point of view.  This already pushes Smith’s thought away from the observer-based virtue ethics of Hutcheson and Hume.  Although Smith is a metaethical sentimentalist, like Hume and Hutcheson,  it is an important difference between his view and theirs that Smithian judgments of propriety are made not from a third-person perspective but from idealized (impartially disciplined versions) of personal and interpersonal standpoints.  What takes Smith even farther from Hutcheson and Hume, and into the second-person standpoint, is his metaethics of justice. 

Injustice, for Smith, is essentially tied to warranted resentment.  (TMS: 67, 69, 79)  It is not simply improper conduct but improper conduct to which the proper response is a second-personal reactive feeling to challenge or hold the agent accountable in some way.  So on Smith’s view, injustice can be judged only by projecting ourselves impartially into the agent’s and, crucially, the affected parties’ points of view and then considering whether to feel resentment from that perspective. 

II.  Justice as respecting individuals.

This individual-patient-regarding character of justice leads Smith to oppose utilitarian tradeoffs and to hold that resistance to injustice is warranted not by considerations of overall utility but by concern for the “very individual” who would be injured. (TMS: 90, 138)   Moreover, what we consider from the standpoint of affected parties is whether to respond with a distinctive feeling that itself presupposes mutual accountability between persons.  Sympathy with victims’ sense of injury involves, according to Smith, not simply a sharing of their sense of having been wronged.  It also involves recognition of their authority to challenge the wrong by resisting it, or, failing that, to demand some form of compensation or punishment.  It recognizes their authority to address demands of justice.  We can only judge whether something is properly resented or resisted, therefore, by imagining being in the shoes of the affected parties and considering whether any of us, if reasonable, would feel a reactive, accountability-seeking sentiment that implicitly lodges some second-personal challenge or complaint and addresses a second-personal reason to respect this challenge.


III.  Morality and accountability

Although it is rarely appreciated, Adam Smith also makes accountability central to his picture of morality.  “A moral being,” Smith says, “is an accountable being,” who “must give an account of its actions to some other, and that consequently must regulate them according to the good-liking of this other.” (Smith 1982: 111)  Although Smith says that man is “principally accountable to God,” he quickly adds that each “must necessarily conceive himself as accountable to his fellow-creatures, before he can form any idea of the Deity . . . .” (Smith 1982: 111n)

When someone uses your foot as his footrest, this is an injury not just to your foot, but also to your person.  It is a failure to respect your standing or dignity as someone who may not be so treated and who has the standing as one among others to hold others to this.  Smith observes that we are apt to resent disrespect for our person as much or more than any physical or psychic injury.  What most “enrages us against the man who injures or insults us,” Smith writes, “is the little account which he seems to make of us”—“that absurd self-love, by which he seems to imagine, that other people may be sacrificed at any time, to his conveniency.” (Smith 1982: 96)

IV  Respect, not Retaliation

It is consistent with the object of reactive attitudes’ invariably being disrespect, of course, that what they seek is still retaliation of some form, to hurt back, to give as good as we have gotten.  On reflection, however, that cannot be right, as Smith himself saw.  If reactive attitudes were retaliatory, then they would seek to return disrespect for disrespect.  But as Strawson pointed out, moral reactive attitudes are themselves a form of respect.  They view their targets as, like those who feel them, “member(s) of the moral community,” and thus address them on terms of mutual respect. (Strawson 1968: 93)  They seek reciprocal recognition of the (equal) dignity that they both claim (of the addresser) and presuppose (of the addressee).  Smith writes insightfully that when we resent injuries, what our resentment is “chiefly intent upon, is not so much to make our enemy feel pain in his turn, as . . . to make him sensible that the person whom he injured did not deserve to be treated in that manner.” (TMS: 95-96)  The implicit aim of reactive attitudes is to make others feel our dignity (and, less obviously, their own).

V Mutual Respect in The Wealth of Nations

The Wealth of Nations virtually begins with a discussion of the human capacity for the distinctive form of second-personal interaction that Smith calls “exchange,” and its relation to mutual respect.  When other animals need help, Smith says, they have no other “means of persuasion but to gain the favour of those whose service [they] require[e].”  “A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master.” (WN: 25)  Currying sympathy and favor requires no capacity for second-personal address or for empathy.  These are non-second-personal responses that can be gauged and elicited third-personally.  Of course, we humans frequently do rely on one another’s sympathy.  Often, this is just fine, even desirable.  “But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.” (WN: 25)  Given the vagaries of human life, we often cannot expect others to care for us in this way.  Moreover, attempting to gain others’ favor can expose us to risks of subservience.  By “servile and fawning attention,” we may put ourselves at others’ mercy and be vulnerable to their condescension if not domination.  Happily, Smith believes, nature has given human beings a more dignified alternative: “the general disposition to truck, barter, and exchange.” (WN: 25)  Free exchange, in Smith’s view, involves a second-personal address that presupposes a form of mutual respect.

We are familiar with the Smithian idea that in a society with a well-functioning economy, rich and poor alike meet their needs and wants through formal and informal markets that are sites for mutually advantageous exchanges.  “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 interest.” (WN: 25) But although its operative motive is self-interest, exchange is impossible without a presupposed second-personal normative infrastructure.  Why are other animals incapable of exchange?  “Nobody,” he says,

ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.  Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that. (Smith 1976: 25)

Smith evidently thinks of exchange as an interaction in which both parties are committed to various normative presuppositions, for example, that the exchange is made by free mutual consent, that neither will simply take what the other has, and so on.  Both parties must presume that the other is dealing fairly, not in the sense that what is offered is of fair value (caveat emptor—self-interest and bargaining regulate that), but that each is dealing honestly, that the offered goods will actually be delivered, that each is free to refuse the deal and walk away without coercion, that neither will attempt to reacquire through coercion what he freely trades away, and so on. 

Exchange thus involves a reciprocal acknowledgment of norms that govern both parties and presupposes that both parties are mutually accountable, having an equal authority to complain, to resist coercion, and so on.  To engage in exchange at all, therefore, one must be capable of the requisite reciprocal recognition, and this requires empathy.  To gauge whether the other is bargaining in good faith, each must attempt to determine: whether the other is attempting to determine whether one is bargaining honestly, whether the other is attempting to determine whether one is attempting to determine whether the other is bargaining honestly, and so on.  All this requires that both be able to put themselves imaginatively into the other’s standpoint and compare the responses that one thinks reasonable from that perspective with the other’s actual responses, as one perceives them third-personally.  So what is required is not merely empathy, but also, as we shall see, regulation of both parties by claims, demands, and norms that make sense from a second-person standpoint.