A certain mediocrity: Adam Smith’s moral behaviorism


Book Section

© Cambridge University Press 2014. A distinguishing feature of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments is its striking reversal of emphasis, away from the Humean drama of volatile and non-cognitive passions and toward reaffirming the continuity of a more settled kind of affect. In an attempt at retreating from the dead-end of Hume's epistemological skepticism, Smith's proposes to re-describe the passions by correlating them with a firmly empirical, at times actuarial understanding of reason manifested in established customs, prevailing manners, average forms of behavior, and a mimetic conception of virtue. Viewing his arguments as post-metaphysical, yet also wishing to move beyond the rationalist, emotivist, and skeptical critiques of metaphysics that had dominated since the Restoration, Adam Smith seeks to overcome the antagonism of will and intellect – a dilemma that, unbeknownst to him, modernity had not so much discovered as created. To David Marshall, Smith “seems less concerned about the constitution of the self ” and indeed “presupposes a certain instability of the self; it depends upon an eclipsing of identity, a transfer of persons.” Marshall's compact formula risks obscuring, however, that to construe sociality as a product of continued imaginative substitution constitutes something of a logical paradox. For “how can one become another person without suffering the dramatic change that is self-liquidation?” Furthermore, “if my identity is caught up with yours, and yours with another's, and so in a perpetually spawning web of affiliations, how can I ever know that your approving glance is your glance, rather than the effect of an unreadable palimpsest of selves?” After all, any such knowledge hinges on “entering into another experience while retaining enough rational capacity of one's own to assess what one finds there. The cognitive distance which such judgments require cuts against the grain of an imaginary ethics.”.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Pfau, T

Published Date

  • January 1, 2012

Book Title

  • Romanticism and the Emotions

Start / End Page

  • 48 - 75

International Standard Book Number 13 (ISBN-13)

  • 9781107052390

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1017/CBO9781107280564.003

Citation Source

  • Scopus