This week I return to Adam Smith's treatment of the piacular in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereafter TMS). Recall the following:
“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 126.96.36.199)
For the sake of brevity, I stipulate that in Smith if we are part of a voluntary cause-effect sequence then the categories of propriety/guilt and merit/demerit are appropriate (see here). If, however, we are part of an involuntary cause-effect sequence then the category of the piacular (derived from the Latin “piāculum” or propitiatory sacrifice, from “piāre” or to appease) is appropriate—it is predicated of the man of humanity, after all. (In other contexts “the man of humanity” is treated as the right kind of impartial spectator, see especially here, which contains well known criticism of Hume’s notorious treatment of the proper response to a Chinese earthquake; this is not to deny that in Smith the very humane can fall short of proper standard when they lack self-command (etc.).) Even so, as others have emphasized (see, especially Chad Flanders) the response of the man of humanity in the case of being an involuntary cause is in no way faulted by Smith in any fashion. This is connected to a subtle point about Smith’s example above the resentful response of the victim’s family is treated as “most unjust,” even though their feeling is quite “natural.” If the man of humanity had been a voluntary cause of the victim’s death their feeling of resentment would have been just (for an exlanation of this, see here). We are, perhaps, led to think that the feelings of the man of humanity are not so natural—in the sense that most of us (who are probably not regularly men or women of humanity) will mistakenly try to use our lack of culpability or blameworthiness as a way to avoid the feeling of the piacular (I return to this below). Echoing Bernard Williams on this point, if we lacked any feeling about even the involuntary harm caused to others by us, something would be remiss in us. That is to say, we are causes and it is part of our humanity that we ought to understand ourselves as such. (I learned from Keith Hankins that there is a further debate on to what degree this "ought" is a moral ought.) As an aside, this is a most un-Stoic move in Smith’s thought (because the circumstances that give rise to the piacular are completely outside our control; a bit more about this below).
When Smith first introduces the piacular, he does so with a dramatic case—one is the involuntary cause of the death of another. But as becomes clear in the very next paragraph, the piacular feeling can be induced by involuntary causing other harms, too. As Smith writes,
“The distress which an innocent person feels, who, by some accident, has been led to do something which, if it had been done with knowledge and design, would have justly exposed him to the deepest reproach, has given occasion to some of the finest and most interesting scenes both of the ancient and of the modern drama. It is this fallacious sense of guilt, if I may call it so, which constitutes the whole distress of Oedipus and Jocasta upon the Greek, of Monimia and Isabella upon the English, theatre. They are all of them in the highest degree piacular, though not one of them is in the smallest degree guilty.” (TMS 188.8.131.52; Smith is alluding to
Here Smith alludes to three different piacular plays, in addition to Oedipus Rex, Otway's The Orphan (1680) and Thomas Southerne The Fatal Marriage, or the Innocent Adultery (1694). (Interestingly enough all four named protagonists violate pre-established marriage rules and all repay their debt by suicidal death or – Oedipus – blindness and giving up political power.) But the involuntary harm caused is not always death. For example, Jocasta’s crime is unknowing incest, while Isabella’s is unknowing adultery. Even so, all four are “in the highest degree piacular.” This suggests, first, that the piacular comes in degrees. But, second, that above, perhaps, a certain threshold of harm – the violation of a major social institution --- the piacular becomes maximal. (I return to this below.)
Now, TMS 184.108.40.206 makes clear that it is not just the harm caused that matters but also the relative social status between the cause of harm and the victim of harm. This suggests that the discharge or the atonement of the piacular feeling is sensitive to social context. Even so, in the dramatic cases described in the piacular plays the discharge involves death or (sacrificial) suicide by the female characters. I infer that when the harm caused is primarily (or solely) to others, the ‘price’ of atonement is governed by relative social status, but when the harm caused is a violation against a fundamental institution of social society (marriage and family laws, etc.) then the ‘price’ requires the ultimate sacrifice (at least on the stage).
Smith returns to the topic near the end of TMS, and his treatment sheds a bit further light on the piacular:
“It is not always so with the man, who, from false information, from inadvertency, from precipitancy and rashness, has involuntarily deceived. Though it should be in a matter of little consequence, in telling a piece of common news, for example, if he is a real lover of truth, he is ashamed of his own carelessness, and never fails to embrace the first opportunity of making the fullest acknowledgments. If it is in a matter of some consequence, his contribution is still greater; and if any unlucky or fatal consequence has followed from his misinformation, he can scarce ever forgive himself. Though not guilty, he feels himself to be in the highest degree, what the ancients called, piacular, and is anxious and eager to make every sort of atonement in his power. Such a person might frequently be disposed to lay his case before the casuists, who have in general been very favourable to him, and though they have sometimes justly condemned him for rashness, they have universally acquitted him of the ignominy of falsehood.” (TMS)
I offer six observations: first, this paragraph confirms that the piacular comes on a continuum that is governed by the harm caused. Smith suggests that we can make relatively clear judgments about the differences in the harm caused. If the harm is fatal to others one is in the highest degree piacular. Second, Smith does not treat the feeling of the piacular as a mistake in some way; here the “real lover of truth” embraces the feeling—it is hard to imagine that Smith would use that term for picking out somebody fundamentally wrong in his or her reactive attitudes. So, the virtuous (“man of humanity”) and the wise (“lover of truth”) can have this feeling. In fact, as I remarked above, I suspect that Smith thinks it is in some sense unnatural to feel piacular. When we are not virtuous and wise, we are probably more likely to try to go to the experts drawn from the clergy (the casuists), who – against payment – will find reasons for us not to feel what we ought to feel. (While Smith acknowledges that casuistry and jurisprudence are related and also admits that some philosophers he admires (Hutcheson and Cicero) were also casuists, fundamentally his judgment of casuistry is on the whole very negative: “Books of casuistry, therefore, are generally as useless as they are commonly tiresome.” (Perhaps there are a few genuinely useful books of casuistry, but I have been unable to find Smith mention any.))
Third, while here Smith does not further elaborate the significance of relative social status in governing the norms of atonement, Smith does re-emphasize that in the worst cases atonement will never fully succeed in discharging the piacular feeling. In such cases one “can scarce ever forgive” oneself and (recall) during one’s “whole life” one considers “the accident as one of the greatest misfortunes that could have befallen” oneself.
Fourth, we learn from this passage why Smith is anxious to distinguish the piacular feeling from guilt, and why earlier he had called it a “fallacious sense of guilt.” The piacular is a species of a shame. This also sets Smith most clearly apart from the Williams-inspired readings in terms of agent-regret. Now, whole Smith never defines shame, it’s clear that for him it is primarily the consequence of the inward judgment of the imagined impartial spectator even in an otherwise innocent person (see, for example, his treatment of the case of the unfortunate Calas). In particular, in Smith shame is connected to ideas of being permanently stained or polluted (see, especially, this paragraph).
Fifth, the third and fourth reasons help us better understand some of Smith’s tacit reflections on the piacular. If it is constitutive in being human to be, in part, a cause and (as we learn from Hume) all causes are governed by at least the feeling of necessity, then some lucky causes simply glide through life, while other causes, which may be indistinguishable from their fellow causes in all essential respects [i.e., their humanity and moral standing], are marked just in virtue of the harms that follow from their existence. While much of TMS is quite compatible with and, at first blush, even seems explicitly designed to elicit approval of providential arguments (in context of the first treatment of the piacular, Smith frequently talks of Nature’s intentions, the Author’s of nature’s plan, the “wisdom and goodness of God,” etc.), here Smith is also explicit that it is “Fortune, which governs the world.” (In his most explicit moral repudiation of the slave-trade, he speaks of Fortune's cruel empire.) That is to say, the piacular points toward an acknowledgment of the Epicurean system, which was then commonly associated with the rule of chance, or Spinozist necessitarianism--both of which are compatible with the rule of Fortune. (See Clarke, for example; for the Spinozist elements in Smith, see here and here.)
So, sixth, all of this tells us that here atonement really serves three, related purposes: (i) appeasement of the resentment of the victim (and/or her family); (ii) (potentially futile) attempts at discharging the unpleasant inward feeling of shame; (iii) acknowledging that one is, in some sense, marked or polluted.
I have not explained yet why Smith introduces the superstituous language of sacrifice and why he claims an Ancient pedigree for the piacular. But about those topics some other time more.