Archive for the ‘Sentimental Sundays’ Category

Apologies for missing a week or two of posts in the “Sentimental Sundays” series.  I was busy with conference travel, and all sorts of other professional responsibilities trumped blogging.  But I am back with more blogging about Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”.

Today’s post concerns TMS 1.1.3, “Of the manner in which we judge of the propriety or impropriety of the Affections of other Men, by their concord or dissonance with our own.” (all page citations are to the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Ryan Patrick Hanley).

As indicated by the chapter title, Smith wants to fundamentally ground our judgments of the propriety of other people’s emotions in our sympathetic emotional reactions.  His opening statement actually appears to commit him to something stronger, however:

When the original passions of the person principally concerned are in perfect concord with the sympathetic emotions of the spectator, they necessarily appear to this last just and proper, and suitable to their objects; and on the contrary, when, upon bringing the case home to himself, he finds that they do not coincide with what he feels, they necessarily appear to him unjust and improper, and unsuitable to the causes which excite them. To approve of the passions of another, therefore, 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.  The man who resents the injuries that have been done to me, and observes that I resent them precisely as he does, necessarily approves of my resentment. (p. 22)

Smith goes on to provide several further examples.  Note here, though, that the judgment is identified with an observation about the concord (or lack of concord) between our sympathetic emotions and their emotions.  In a paragraph or so, Smith is going to retreat from this claim slightly, but first, I think it is important to note that Smith draws a comparison to our assessments of the propriety of judgments that others make:

To approve of another man’s opinions is to adopt those opinions, and to adopt them is to approve of them. If the same arguments which convince you, convince me likewise, I necessarily approve of your conviction; and if they do not, I necessarily disapprove of it: neither can I possibly conceive that I should do the one without the other.  To approve or disapprove, therefore, of the opinions of others is acknowledged, by every body, to mean no more than to observe their agreement or disagreement with our own. But this is equally the case with regard to our approbation or disapprobation of the sentiments or passions of others. (p. 22)

There are a couple of things to note about this portion of Smith’s discussion.  The parallel being drawn about agreement/disagreement in emotion and cognition is made by Alan Gibbard (I believe I came across that in “Thinking How to Live”).  Specifically, Smith and Gibbard put forward the idea that there is a common category of agreement that can be applied both to the case of agreement in belief as well as agreement in the conative realm.  However, there is, here, a key disanalogy between the two realms.  In the case of emotion, we have a comparison between the sympathizer’s sympathetic emotion and the subject’s original emotion.  In the case of judgment, we simply compare our original judgment to that of another person.  I don’t know that this will raise any problems, but it is worth flagging.

The second thing that I want to note is that there is an obvious concern for the view, as stated, in both the case of emotions and in the case of judgments:  there seem to be cases of disagreement that don’t prompt judgments of impropriety.  A friend believes it will rain tomorrow, I do not have the belief that it will rain (perhaps because I do not have a belief one way or the other).  But it does not follow that I automatically regard their judgment as improper.  A friend is happy because they are about to go on a camping trip, but I don’t find the prospect of camping that exciting. I do not regard their emotion as improper.  A natural solution to the concern for emotions is to observe that I could be attempting to sympathize with happiness about an upcoming camping trip, but I might also attempt to sympathize with happiness about getting to spend time doing what one loves.  The latter of these would produce concord, the former, not so much (another solution is that I imagine loving camping and getting to spend time camping).  There are concerns about this strategy though:  what is the general rule for determining which circumstance am I supposed to be imagining?  Do I approve of my friend’s excitement about doing something they find enjoyable while also disapproving of their excitement about camping?  I want to raise this worry here, but I am not going to try and address it just yet.

Smith is sensitive to a concerns about his account that differs slightly from the one I just raised:

There are, indeed, some cases in which we seem to approve without any sympathy or correspondence of sentiments, and in which, consequently, the sentiment of approbation would seem to be different from the perception of this coincidence. A little attention, however, will convince us that even in these cases our approbation is ultimately founded upon a sympathy or correspondence of this kind. I shall give an instance in things of a very frivolous nature, because in them the judgments of mankind are less apt to be perverted by wrong systems.  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. (p. 23)

Smith goes on to explain that this happens when we’ve experienced enough humor to have some general rules of what sorts of jokes we find funny.  Here, I think it becomes clear that Smith is giving an account on which sympathetic concord is evidential for us.  It can prompt us to form the judgment of propriety, but it cannot be constitutive of the judgment, since we can form such judgments without actually possessing the sympathetic concord.  Thus, when we can conclude that, if we weren’t ourselves in odd circumstances, we would have such concord, we take this, similarly, as evidence in favor of the proposition that the target’s emotional reaction is a proper one.

The other major element of Smith’s view that he draws out in this section is the distinction between an action’s (un)suitability and its (de)merit:

The sentiment or affection of the heart from which any action proceeds, and upon which its whole virtue or vice must ultimately depend, may be considered under two different aspects, or ion two different relations; first in relation to the cause which excites it, or the motive which gives occasion to it; and secondly, in relation to the end which it proposes, or the effect which it tends to produce.

In the suitableness or unsuitableness, in the proportion or disproportion which the affection seems to bear to the cause or object which excites it, consists the propriety or impropriety, the decency or ungracefulness, of the consequent action.

In the beneficial or hurtful nature of the effects which the affection aims at, or tends to produce, consists the merit or demerit of the action, the qualities by which it is entitled to reward, or is deserving of punishment.

I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned that the topic of 1.1 overall is “Of the Propriety of Action”, so it makes sense that Smith is concerned to connect this investigation into judgments of propriety of affections to a system for evaluating actions.  Smith—correctly, I think—observes that we are sensitive to more than intended outcomes of actions, but also to the emotions motivating those actions, when we judge the behavior of others.  Smith gives us his account of the two dimensions of assessing actions:  An action can be termed “suitable” when the emotion prompting it is proper, and the action can be termed “meritorious” when the emotion prompting it aims at/tends towards beneficial ends.

The subsequent chapter (1.1.4) is titled “The same subject continued.”, so we are not done yet with Smith’s discussion of the issue of our judgments of which emotions are proper.  But I will end this post by quoting Smith’s closing remarks from 1.1.3 (and returning to several of these interesting issues in next Sunday’s post):

Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges the like faculty in another. I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them.

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This post is the first instance of a new regular feature here at the Mod Squad, “Sentimental Sundays”.  For the time being, the focus will be largely, but not exclusively, on Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”.

I’ve previously blogged about Part one, Section one, Chapter one of Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (here, here, and here), in which Smith presents the core of his account of Sympathy (and provides a fascinating account of our fear of death rooted in our sympathy for the deceased).  Today’s post concerns 1.1.2, “Of the Pleasure of Mutual Sympathy” (all page citations are to the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Ryan Patrick Hanley).

This chapter seems concerned to account for the mechanism by which the pleasure of mutual sympathy arises, though it is not ultimately clear that Smith actually offers an account of this.

Smith opens the chapter by presenting (and rejecting) an account of the pleasure of mutual sympathy (and pain of antipathy) that purports to derive it from our self-love.

Those who are fond of deducing al our sentiments from certain refinements of self-love, think themselves at no loss to account, according to their own principles, both for this pleasure and this pain.  Man, say they, conscious of his own weakness, and of the need which he has for the assistance of others, rejoices whenever he observes that they adopt his own passions, because he is then assured of that assistance; and grieves whenever he observes the contrary, because he is then assured of their opposition. But 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 nobody 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.  (p. 18-19)

Smith moves on to consider what we could call the “simple enlivening view”.  On this view, sympathetic emotions have a general enlivening tendency.  So, the mirth of the audience enlivens our mirth (whereas their silence disappoints us).  Smith does not think that this story can be (wholly) correct, though:

The sympathy, which my friends express with my joy, might indeed, give me pleasure by enlivening that joy: but that which they express with my grief could give me none, if it served only to enliven that grief.  Sympathy, however, enlivens joy and alleviates grief. It enlivens joy by presenting another source of satisfaction; and it alleviates grief by insinuating into the heart almost the only agreeable sensation which it is at that time capable of receiving. (p. 19)

Smith’s objection to the simple enlivening view is that, if the principal mechanism of the pleasure of mutual sympathy were a general enlivening effect, then sympathetic sadness would then compound, rather than alleviate one’s sadness.  Smith then notes that this explains why we would feel a stronger urge to “communicate to our friends” our negative emotions over our positive emotions.  While it is nice to transition from a pleasing emotional state to a very pleasing emotional state, it is less urgent than the transition from a very unpleasant emotional state to a less unpleasant one.

This leads Smith to reframe the question: How is it that sharing the details/communicating the causes of one’s miseries with another can relieve one’s suffering?  Smith notes that there is something additional puzzling about this, since the act of recounting one’s misfortunes re-awakens and enlivens the remembrance of the circumstances that distressed them in the first place.  Smith notes that the mourner gets some pleasure and relief from recounting their misfortunes to a friend, “because the sweetness of his sympathy more than compensates the bitterness of that sorrow, which in order to excite this sympathy, they had thus enlivened and renewed.”

It is worth observing that, for Smith, there is nothing emotionally beneficial to the mere act of verbally or mentally recounting our misfortunes (at least, nothing that has been said indicates any positive outcomes from this).  Insofar as there is benefit to doing so, it is only because it enables us to excite sympathy in another, and this sympathetic sharing of emotion is beneficial.

Smith notes another corollary to the observation that there is greater urgency to gain sympathy for our negative feelings over our positive ones:  We are more concerned that our friends dislike the same people we dislike, than that they like the same people we like.

We can forgive them though they seem to be little effected with the favours which we may have received, but lose all patience if they seem indifferent about the injuries which may have been done to us: nor are we half so angry with them for not entering into our gratitude, as for not sympathizing with our resentment.  They can easily avoid being friends to our friends, but can hardly avoid being enemies to those with whom we are at variance. (p. 20)

This is all well and good as far as it goes, but I noted at the outset of this post that Smith seems to raise a question without really answering it.  Smith asks, “how is it that sharing our sadness with someone else can relieve it?”  Smith considers and rejects a few views of how this happens, but doesn’t seem to offer his own.

Perhaps I’ve been looking at the question the wrong way, however.  If the question is, “How is it that recounting one’s misfortunes can relieve one’s sorrow?” the answer might simply be that sympathy is more pleasing than the recounting is painful.  On net, the sharing of one’s sorrow pushes one away from the extremes of sorrow, and closer to a happy state.  And this might genuinely qualify as an account:  The simple enlivening account doesn’t explain the mechanism it proposes; it simply posits a general intensification due to sympathy.  Similarly, Smith’s account is that attaining a state of sympathy is pleasing.  This is his account of how the sorrow is lessened, and it is not clear he would need to provide a further explanation of why it is that sympathy is pleasing (i.e. what makes it so).  On this way of understanding the chapter, the title itself provides the answer to Smith’s central question: attaining a state of mutual sympathy is pleasing.  This explains why our joy is enriched when we see others share in it, as well as why our sorrow is lessened when others share in it.

The end of the chapter transitions nicely into a discussion of what happens when there is a mismatch in intensity (e.g. you find the joke side-splittingly funny, and I find it slightly amusing), which sets up the subsequent chapter, “Of the manner in which we judge of the propriety or impropriety of the Affections of other Men, by their concord or dissonance with our own” (the chapter I’ll be posting about next week).

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