[This is part of a larger draft-paper on the significance of counterfactual causal reasoning in the Sympathetic Process in Adam Smith's philosophy that is meant as a correction to one-sided focus on the significance of affect in Smith.--ES] Consider the following passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS; the references are the so-called Glasgow edition):
There are some passions of which the expressions excite no sort of sympathy, but before we are acquainted with what gave occasion to them, serve rather to disgust and provoke us against them…. The general idea of good or bad fortune, therefore, creates some concern for the person who has met with it, but the general idea of provocation excites no sympathy with the anger of the man who has received it. Nature, it seems, teaches us to be more averse to enter into this passion, and, till informed of its cause, to be disposed rather to take part against it. Even our sympathy with the grief or joy of another, before we are informed of the cause of either, is always extremely imperfect (TMS 126.96.36.199-9, 11)
In context Smith’s claim that what we might label ‘instinctual sympathy’ only goes so far. In some contexts without knowledge of the causal circumstances that produce the passions in the agent concerned, the sympathetic process will always lead to what Smith calls “extremely imperfect" sympathy. It seems to follow from Smith’s account and his adopted terminology that there exists some (non-instinctual) sequence that leads to perfect, or at least much less imperfect sympathy. It can be described as follows: following (T0) (i) an intensely/passionately felt moral situation which is experienced or observed empirically, is as follows: (ii) by way of the imagination spectators and moral agents place themselves in each other situations, including (ii*) knowledge of (moral) causes that gave rise to the moral situation , and this involves (iii) a sympathetic mutual modulation (informed, perhaps, by observations about how the other is reacting), which, in turn, produces (iv) a conceived reflected passion within each participant in the sympathetic process and this (v) alters the intensity of the feelings of the participants in the process; after several rounds of this, perhaps, this produces (vi) fellow feeling (sympathy) among spectator and persons principally concerned.
The addition of (ii*) to the account of instinctual sympathy is not ad hoc. It reflects significant currents in Smith’s thinking about moral evaluation and moral agency. Consider a standard summary that Smith provides about the natures of propriety and impropriety, on the one hand, and merit or demerit, on the other hand:
It has already been observed, that the sentiment or affection of the heart, from which any action proceeds, and upon which its whole virtue or vice depends, may be considered under two different aspects, or in two different relations: first, in relation to the cause or object which excites it; and, secondly, in relation to the end which it proposes, or to the effect which it tends to produce: that upon the suitableness or unsuitableness, upon the proportion or disproportion, which the affection seems to bear to the cause or object which excites it, depends the propriety or impropriety, the decency or ungracefulness of the consequent action; and that upon the beneficial or hurtful effects which the affection proposes or tends to produce, depends the merit or demerit, the good or ill desert of the action to which it gives occasion. (TMS 2.1.Intro.2, 67)
There is a lot going on this passage and I am not going to provide even the semblance of a full treatment of Smithian concept of propriety (or merit). All I claim here is that causal relations are constitutive of the nature of both Smithian propriety and merit. That is, the two central Smithian moral judgments can be characterized schematically in the following temporal sequence: (u) an exciting cause, which produces (v) a sentiment of heart, which leads to (w) an action and (x) its foreseeable effects, and, of course, (y) the actual effects produced by (w). Now, first, in judgments of propriety and impropriety, which are principally concerned with judgments of situations, are judgments of the proportion among (u)-(v)-(w)-(x). Meanwhile, second, merit and demerit, which are fundamentally judgments of character focus on the proportion among (v)-(w)-(y). These two sequences are fundamentally causal in nature (i.e., “excites,” the effect it produces, etc).
Of course, the previous paragraph is a gross simplification and ignores considerable complexity in Smith’s treatment of propriety (etc.). But it is crucial for my argument that in describing the content of our moral judgments, Smith introduces the language of causal relations. In particular, when we make a moral judgment we do so after mentally inspecting, as it were, the proportionality of the relata that enter a cause-effect relation.
As an aside, one might think that Smith’s terminology provides further evidence for his Humean debts. And indeed, Smith’s terminology echoes the manner in which Hume treats the natural relation of cause and effect at Treatise 1.1.4. (See also Smith’s treatment at The History of Astronomy 2.2-7, treated by me here.) There is no doubt that at first sight Smith is deploying a Humean framework about the nature of causation here—in which causes are regular successions of a certain sort. But, upon reflection, Smith also subtly diverges from Hume. For, Hume accepts the following position, “An effect always holds proportion with its cause” (“Of Interest,” EMPL, 297). Elsewhere, I have dubbed this “Hume’s ninth rule” (because it follows from the conjunction of Hume's fourth and seventh (out of eight) “rules by which to judge of causes and effects” (Treatise 1.3.15)). So, Smith’s position is that when Hume’s ninth rule obtains, we are inclined to make judgments of propriety and merit. But he is absolutely clear that in our moral life the ninth rule regularly does not hold—it is not as if judgments of impropriety need to be rare. Or to put the point of this aside somewhat differently: Smith thinks that moral causes and effects can be monstrously out of proportion and this is something that is much harder to incorporate into Hume’s framework.
I return to the main thrust of my argument that the addition of (ii*) is not ad hoc and that it reflects significant currents in Smith’s thinking about moral evaluation and moral agency--one that tends to be downplayed by the recent brilliant proto-Kantian readings of Adam Smith promoted by Sam Fleischacker, Leon Montes, Maria Carrasco (see notes 16-17), and Steve Darwall. There is a striking passage where Smith suggests we ought, in fact, to see ourselves, at least in part, as moral causes:
A man of humanity, who accidentally, and without the smallest degree of blamable negligence, has been the cause of the death of another man, feels himself piacular, though not guilty. During his whole life he considers this accident as one of the greatest misfortunes that could have befallen him. If the family of the slain is poor, and he himself in tolerable circumstances, he immediately takes them under his protection, and, without any other merit, thinks them entitled to every degree of favour and kindness. If they are in better circumstances, he endeavours by every submission, by every expression of sorrow, by rendering them every good office which he can devise or they accept of, to atone for what has happened, and to propitiate, as much as possible, their, perhaps natural, though no doubt most unjust resentment, for the great, though involuntary, offence which he has given them. (TMS 188.8.131.52; cf.184.108.40.206.)
If we are part of a voluntary cause-effect sequence then the categories of propriety/guilt and merit/demerit are appropriate. If, however, we are part of an involuntary cause-effect sequence then the category of the piacular is appropriate—it is, after all, predicated of the man of humanity (which I take to be the exemplary moral human being, even if s/he may lack wisdom and other excellencies). Now, the further details of Smith’s fascinating treatment of the piacular need not concern us here; what matter is that it is not an aberration in TMS. He repeats his analysis (with interesting complications) at TMS 7.4.30.