Sentiments and Spectators: Adam Smith’s Moral Psychology

11 August 2009

Professor Geoffrey Sayre-McCord

Morehead Alumni Distinguished Professor and Department Chair, Department of Philosophy, University of North Carolina

Adam Smith offers a wonderfully lucid argument for thinking that people can legitimately be praised or blamed only on the basis of the agent's "intention or affection of the heart" and not on the actual effects of the action, over which fortune, rather than the agent, has control.  He then notes that our judgments of people do not respect the force of this argument.  Our judgments of merit and demerit are regularly, and systematically, influenced by circumstances over which the agent has no control.  He argues this is a good thing.  Strikingly, Smith never goes back to the original argument to explain where it has gone wrong.  He simply moves on.  Similarly, when Smith acknowledges that the considerations that recommend regulating our own sentiments of morality by those of the impartial spectator seem to demand appeal to an ideal observer, who is fully informed and equi-sympathetically involved with all concerned, while he argues that the impartial spectator we rely on is predictably less than ideal.  Again, Smith never goes back to reconcile the tension.

In both cases, principled argument recommends a conclusion belied by practice.  And practice is vindicated, Smith argues, by appeal to its contribution to "the happiness and perfection of the species."  In both cases too it is plausible to see his defence of actual (unprincipled) practice as grounding out in a familiar version of utilitarianism.   On this view, morality, no less than the market, works as if an invisible hand is guiding us towards the very outcomes utilitarianism vindicates.  Yet, Sayre-McCord argued, reading Smith in this way fails to capture the subtlety and complexity of his view and saddles him with an overarching theory of value he has no reason to accept.

This was the 2009 John Passmore Lecture presented by the ANU Philosophy Program.

Broad Topics: Arts and Social Sciences

Sub-topics: Philosophy & Religion

Areas: ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences



Lecture recording (MP3, 58.8MB) HH:MM:SS=01:42:52

Professor Geoffrey Sayre-McCord

Professor Geoffrey Sayre-McCord works in moral theory, meta-ethics, the history of ethics and epistemology and has written extensively in these areas. Sayre-McCord received his BA from Oberlin College and his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. The recipient of several university-wide teaching awards, he is the Morehead Alumni Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of North Carolina, where he has taught since 1985.