Dan Klein on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Episode 2--A Discussion of Part I
Apr 15 2009

This is the second podcast in the EconTalk Book Club discussion of The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith. In this episode, Dan Klein of George Mason University and EconTalk host Russ Roberts discuss Part I of the book.

Dan Klein on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Episode 1--An Overview
Dan Klein, of George Mason University, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about Adam Smith's lesser-known masterpiece, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, on the 250th anniversary of its initial publication. Klein highlights key passages and concepts of the book including...
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EconTalk host Russ Roberts is interviewed by long-time EconTalk guest Michael Munger about Russ's new book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. Topics discussed include how economists view human motivation and...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Daniel Klein
Apr 15 2009 at 9:24am

CORRECTION: RE the timing of the decline of liberalism, I said “end of the 18th century” but meant 19th.

Daniel Klein
Apr 15 2009 at 6:09pm

Two Smith scholars have noticed the bookclub:

Gavin Kennedy notices the bookclub at:

James Otteson notices the bookclub at:

Remy Debes, secretary of the International Adam Smith Society, informs me that he will forward the bookclub link to members, so we may hope that more Smith scholars get involved. I attended the last meeting in Oxford and it was extremely rewarding.

John Strong
Apr 15 2009 at 8:52pm

Adam, in light of what we discovered in this podcast and the reading of Part 1, I would say that Smith makes a distinction between manners and morals that is more than a simple distinction of degree, as you suggested in the comments of the previous podcast. Want to modify your previous assessment?

Take this passage that Russ Roberts read aloud (Section 1, Chap. 5, Para. 7): “There is, in this respect, a considerable difference between virtue and mere propriety; between those qualities and actions which deserve to be admired and celebrated, and those which simply deserve to be approved of.”

Surely, one of the most interesting distinctions in the TMS is the one Smith draws between the effort at “harmonization” with our spectators (i.e. flattening the sharpness of our emotions to suit them) VS. our deference to some higher utility or notion of the Good. This latter, is the 4th source of approbation, I take it.

Daniel Klein
Apr 15 2009 at 9:47pm

Dear John Strong,

Regarding your immediately preceding comment:

I don’t feel comfortable delving into the question raised about manners vs. morals, but your last graf prompts me to write.

I am uncertain, but it sounds like you are suggesting a tension in Smith between spectatorial-sympathy and deference to higher utility — which you associate with the 4th source of moral approval. (Again, the 4 sources are at graf 16 on pp. 326-27.)

If so, that is not the way I see it. Rather, as I see it, Smith quite insists on saying there is ALWAYS spectatorial-sympathy. The 4th source is no different in that respect. At the 4th source we again conjure a being who sees beauty in the larger utility of the great “machine”, and so the immediate or proximal sense of moral approval is a kind of sympathy with that spectating being. It seems to me that Smith always wants moral judgments to be mediated by some kind of spectatorial sympathy. It’s like at every turn there’s a spectator between you and moral judgment, or, alternatively, with you as you ponder moral judgment.

I think the 4th source does carry a sort of deference to larger utility, but it is not in a way that makes for a tension with the spectatorial-sympathy per se. Yes, the 4th source may make for tensions with spectating specific to any of the three other levels (or sources) of moral approval, but not with the notion of spectatorial-sympathy per se. The 4th source entails its own spectatorial-sympathy. It is sympathy with a spectator emergent from our understandings about what makes for larger utility; we then find beauty in what is conducive to utility, we infuse an imaginary being with such aesthestic, and then we experience sympathy with such being. That may seem like a pallid distinction, an unnecessary contrivance, nonetheless it seems to be true to Smith’s organon of seeing moral judgment as always enshrouded in sympathies.

For my part, I am undecided on Smith’s organon (assuming I am right that it is his organon). I don’t think it is so crazy to think that we do create implicit, tacit beings, constellations around focal judgments and insights, and that in the moment we have to judge we judge based on things “feeling right”, much like a kind of actual spectatorial-sympathy with someone whose judgment we respect. Rather than trying to think through all I’ve learned the last 20 years I ask myself: Would Milton Friedman ever say that?

“Milton Friedman” is after all a sort of fiction in your head. You’ve seen images on tvs and computers, you’ve read words written by him in books. But we still think it is meaningful to talk in terms of “Milton Friedman says this” or “Milton Friedman says that.” In a sense, that is an imaginary being. And we look for sympathies with that being. (We free-marketeers, that is.)

Does this makes sense?

Eric H
Apr 15 2009 at 10:02pm

I guess I brought up Alan Wolfe’s libel of Hayek because it is a sort of compliment to what I have believed for most of my life and what this book club has so fortunately disproved: that libertarians must learn to reconcile Smith’s obvious paleo-capitalist “faults” with the modern liberal conception of the world in which we all live, i.e. we libertarians need to make peace with our being money-grubbing capitalists.

TMS puts those stinging feelings to rest. After reading the first part of TMS, it seems quite clear to me that there is a correlation between the invisible hand of commerce and the interaction between a person experiencing an emotion and their spectator. I imagined a feedback loop being created through the expressions and attenuations of the two parties. When things are vibrating harmoniously, to borrow one of Smith’s musical metaphors, the feedback loop creates an emotional product that soothes the sufferer and bolsters the spectator’s esteem in a good way. Thinking about it this way, it makes a lot of sense to read TMS before Wealth; it seems like the invisible hand could simply be an accretion of moral sentiments generated at the micro level.

There is so much fruit in this scenario that allows libertarians to plead their case in language modern liberals seem to understand– the language of sharing and community and creativity that so often stimulates the statist impulse. I would even go as far as to say that Smith is a communitarian in his conception of how sentiment profits the human community by being generated, amplified and attenuated with propriety.

I find Smith’s passage on sympathy with the dead (p. 12) very poignant and poetic. He is quite descriptive when he talks about death, and I find compelling the idea that society is protected by man’s abilities to imagine his own death and to sympathize with the dead. Basically Smith is saying that society is protected by imagination. That’s a powerful idea. Imagination is not only a fundamental of progress, or a prerequisite of progress, but in Smith’s conception it’s also like a governor on the great engine of society. Our ability sympathize by placing ourselves in circumstances understood through past experience or created through imagination keeps us working and living together in relative peace.

Eric H
Apr 15 2009 at 10:36pm


Your spectatorial sympathy describes the concept I was grappling with, the resultant third party, or product, of the interaction between spectator and “the person principally concerned” with an emotion, the thing I tentatively feel to be part of the anatomy of the invisible hand.

If I may be so bold as to suggest there can never be conflict between spectatorial sympathy and utility to the larger machine because spectatorial sympathy can only be generated by parties who accept certain conventions (propriety) about emotions, sympathy and the means of expressing them. They accept those conventions because they are part of the larger machine. Indeed, learning to accept those conventions is a precondition of becoming part of the larger machine of society.

The sense of propriety required to produce effective emotional communication and effective sympathy with it keep us from going off the rails; there are common levels or senses of decency that keep us from screaming bloody murder when we stub our toe in public or sympathizing with sociopaths and serial killers.

Those who don’t or can’t share the conventions don’t have a place in the larger machine. Sociopaths and serial killers are abhorred because they don’t or can’t accept the conventions of propriety the rest of use to communicate emotions and sympathize with them, the conventions that help the larger machine to thrive. They are incapable of locating or communicating with the conjured being that helps determine what does or does not have utility to society.

Sorry about bringing morbidity into the scene; I was quite enjoying the thoughts of conjured beings and constellations!

John Strong
Apr 16 2009 at 8:01am

Professor Klein: Does this makes sense?

Perfect sense. I had never thought of this before, but requiring all moral and aesthetic judgments to be mediated by an internal audience follows logically from the attempt to root such judgments in sympathetic emotion. Thanks for this useful clarification!!

You will note, however, that I referred to a tension between the 4th source and “spectators” in the plural, and what I had in mind were external spectators. We do not assign the same weight to every opinion. We value the opinions of some spectators more than others. I don’t doubt that Milton Freedman has a prominent place in your internal audience, but I assume that if you ever let Paul Krugman into your head, he might get a seat in the balcony.

But see, my point was that if you were to meet Paul Krugman personally, say on some tiresome network news program, you would show him a lot more deference than you do when he is a member of your internal audience (your own private talk show).

Apr 16 2009 at 9:46am

This was an excellent discussion. Professor Klein’s interpretation of “impartial” is just stunningly brilliant. I too have always disliked the subjective vs. objective distinction.

The idea of partial as in, a part of the whole vs. impartial, meaning, looking at the whole rather than the part, makes so much more sense to me. Because in this sense “impartial” is still in the realm of what we consider “subjective”–it’s looking at the bigger picture, which is to say just taking a broader perspective. Perspective is still inherently subjective; the view from the Empire State Building is a very different one from the view on the streets of New York, but the difference has nothing to do with objective differences in the observed city; but differences in perspective.

I think that the word “indifferent” is used in the place of “impartial” sometimes to emphasize that taking the larger view requires you to look at a situation as if you were indifferent to the specific people involved; as if you didn’t have a stake in it or didn’t care about one person involved more than the other. It’s asking you to imagine you weren’t in the thick of whatever you’re observing, in other words, and attempt to feel what that indifferent observer would feel–to connect with this imagined person through your sympathy.

Great analysis guys, can’t wait for the next one!

Apr 16 2009 at 10:50am


I think the distinction goes more towards what Professor Klein said at one point in the podcast, that the “social utility” or the usefulness to society of our sentiments is something that these sentiments owe their origin to. As in, we have these feelings because they cause us to act in a way that preserves and makes possible community and civilization.

When we are actually making decisions, responding to what we feel, and so forth, we are not weighing the usefulness or harmfulness of what we approve or disapprove of in the moment. Propriety, in short, comes from being in harmony with the behavior that is accepted by the community for the particular circumstances.

Virtue, on the other hand, is whether or not approving such things is useful to the society, and this is what the impartial spectator has his eye to. It is not, however, the reason for why we do or do not approve of things; it’s in the background in the sense that communities that approve of destructive behavior will not last long and those that don’t will persist, but it is not the engine the drives behavior while it is occurring.

Does that make any sense? Professor Klein, is that close to what Smith said?

Daniel Klein
Apr 16 2009 at 11:49am

People! Good stuff. Busy today, hope to join again in a day or two.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini
Apr 17 2009 at 2:05am

First, I must confess that listening to the podcast I was amazed by the number of observations and ideas that had completely eluded me when reading this part.

Second, I’m reading TMS right after finishing Caldwell’s book on Hayek and the Austrian approach. As a result my understanding of the book is skewed by what I think is the “Austrian interpretation” of Smith. Everywhere I see “small orders” vs. “extended orders”: even the impartial spectator is often a very specific individual close to the events but at the same time tries to speak for a hypothetical member of the extended order.

I’m not surprised that “harmony” figures so prominently in TMS. It’s almost like Smith is trying to do economics without money and prices, but with status and “the supply and demand” of sympathy instead.

Daniel Klein
Apr 17 2009 at 11:11am

Pietro, yes, I see great parallel between Hayek and Smith, though Hayek never did any moral analysis like TMS, and scarcely refers to TMS (in fact, hardly any of the epic classical liberals of the renaissance period, say 1947-1990, seem to have much grasp of TMS). You suggest that in TMS Smith is trying to do a ‘supply and demand’ of sympathy. I’d caution against drawing too strong a parallel between the moral dynamics and market dynamics. Yes there are some important parallels, and exit and innovation play key roles in both, and arguably in both a presumption-of-liberty punchline stems from knowledge’s richness and particularism, but, as you note, the moral ecology is without money and prices — or at least goes much farther beyond money and prices. The “culture market” — from the arts to the most deep-seated, existential sources of meaning and identity — really is a lot different from the toothpaste market.

Adam, yes, I think propriety has to do with fit with community norms, customs, rules, while (becoming) virtue with going one better. These, however, are frames of analysis. When we go one better we identify or imagine a higher community, and it is propriety to that higher community that makes for (supposedly) praiseworthy becoming virtue in the frame of the lower community. See for example the “exalted propriety” on p. 192.

Adam, yes, I think Smith has a vision (a hope?) of a moral ecology wherein people are prompted to take an ever more impartial view of matters, and in this way continually approach a better sense of moral aesthetics, perhaps like an infinite sequence that converges toward a limit. Arguable, Smith’s impartial spectator is that limit, a being of universalist wisdom. I understand that Kant somewhere says that Smith was his favorite among the British moralists. Remember, “the man in the breast,” the conscience, is not the impartial spectator, but rather the supposed impartial spectator, the representative of the impartial spectator, etc.

But we never get close to the limit. Moreover, one might argue that as we go along the limit in fact changes. James Otteson’s book Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life (Cambridge 2002) interprets Smith’s moral ecology as an invisible hand process.

Eric H., I like your sentence, “Basically Smith is saying that society is protected by imagination.” I find that your comment is getting at the notion that the impartial spectator — in the sense of a being universally emanating universalist wisdom (though with mixed success) — corresponds somehow to the being whose hand is invisible.

I now better see, John Strong, your point. Yes, when we disagree significantly with someone over deeper beauties (4th source), we typically moderate in the situation, we temper, we show courtesy, maybe showing more respect for him than we would in other situations. We do this partly out of regard for proprieties at the 1, 2, and 3 sources.

Incidentally, I feel that Smith is somewhat partial toward such bargainers, as opposed to challengers. The challenger is respectful to the opponent, but not deferent. The challenger — think Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham, Frederic Bastiat (often), Lysander Spooner, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Thomas Szasz, Robert Higgs — challenges the opponent’s fundamental judgment — deeper root judgment (hence “radical”) — and doing so challenges the opponent’s claim to eminence, and hence challenges the cultural system that confers eminence on the opponent. I find that, at least from our contemporary viewpoint, Smith gives short shrift to challengers.

Adam, regarding the invisible hand of the moral ecology, you write: “communities that approve of destructive behavior will not last long and those that don’t will persist.” I’m not sure how widely you mean “communities.” Say we distinguish between communities within Britain and Britain as but one community within humanity. Within Britain, yes, by and large, to what you say, so long as we confine such communities to voluntary means; the king or civil magistrate, on the other had, might, by other means, do destructive things and prosper by it. At the level of Britain as a “community” among humanity: This very broad “survival of fittest” type mechanism is perhaps more relevant to WN where Smith writes of the stages of society and the emergence of “our present sense of the word Freedom” (WN p. 400). But in TMS, it seems to me that he focuses more on mechanisms internal to a single moral ecology, and ascribes melioristic tendencies to its internal workings. There is very little in TMS that speaks to a successful nation exporting its culture and norms, or morally colonizing its neighbors. And there is little about the global selection of national communities on the basis of the success of their moral ecology — in fact, at the moment, I can’t think of anything along such lines in TMS — please correct me if I am overlooking anything.

A very important question, in my mind, is the kind of setting TMS is assuming for the moral ecology. Perhaps in some settings the meliorism, the set of moral/cultural invisible-hand mechanisms, is overmatched by counter mechanisms?

Do the invisible-hand mechanisms have the upper hand in the moral ecology of America 2009?

Apr 17 2009 at 11:59am

Professor Klein,

On the question of the moral ecology: it’s fair enough. I confess that the “destructive norms will not persist as those communities won’t last” explanation is nowhere in Smith.

Smith’s take is more along the lines of delineating what is useful to society vs. what is proper by the standards of society. I think at one point you mentioned that there is a relationship between the two–that the standards of society were determined, whatever the mechanism might be, by what was useful. But that when people are approving or disapproving of one another in the moment, it isn’t because they think that someone’s actions are useful or destructive to society; rather, they do so because of a perceived gap or closeness with what is considered proper, without regard to why certain things are or are not considered proper.

Does that make sense?

As for your question regarding the mechanism, I have three points:

1. I agree that in TNS Smith is focused on a much smaller scale than the nation-state, and takes the ecology there as given for the time being, focusing on its internal workings.

2. I think that the mechanisms that determine human conventions are the same across all history and geography. I think there are feedback loops, and whether or not the direction our country is going in is taking us on a collision course with a negative feedback look, or if we’re going to remain fairly stable, or what. I don’t really know how the mechanisms work, I’ve got some theories but they’re hardly concrete. But this goes well beyond what Smith was looking at in TNS I think.

3. A big problem really is in determining the unit. I said “community” specifically because I wanted to be vague; I don’t really know how big you can make these things. TNS definitely looks at the smaller scale, I think. But how wide the mechanisms described at the small scale can be applied to larger scales…hard to say. I don’t really have an honest answer to that one 🙂

Can’t wait for Part 2!

James Cage
Apr 17 2009 at 1:10pm

I found that the Adobe PDF copy of the book at this address was easier to print than the one given here:


The book club is a great idea – hope it has a long life.

[Hi, James. Thanks for the alert and for your good wishes! The edition to which your link leads is actually published not at the typo-beset wikidot, but at the more creditable http://www.ibiblio.org/ml/libri/s/SmithA_MoralSentiments_p.pdf. Ibiblio says it is the 6th edition. That looks like a reasonable option. I think the Ibiblio edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments prints faster because it is a smaller file. There is a lot to be said for quick downloads! By contrast, the pdf file we’ve recommended at http://files.libertyfund.org/files/192/0141-01_Bk.pdf includes edition comparisons, all of Adam Smith’s original footnotes, and editiorial explanations in introductions and footnotes. It’s the authoritative Liberty Fund/Glasgow edition of TMS. Perhaps that includes more than an ordinary reader wants to know. Different readers may be comfortable with different editions. Thanks for this alternative!–Lauren Landsburg, Econlib Ed.]

Mark Michael Lewis
Apr 18 2009 at 3:27am

Amiable, Awful, and Admirable virtues.

Thank you Russ and Dan for this series of lectures.

Dan’s description of the “spiral” between the amiable and the awe-ful/awe-some virtues did not address the definition that Adam Smith offers for these terms – namely that the amiable virtues are about feeling what others feel, and awful virtues are modulating (toning down) our expression of our feelings so that the other person can experience them.

I created an 8 minute video to clarify these ideas, and why we admire them, as the rest of the book is built on them. For those who are interested, it can be found here.

Daniel Klein
Apr 18 2009 at 9:02am

“Does this make sense?,” Adam asks, and I think yes. Smith says that utility is “an after-thought” (p. 20). That said, it is not necessarily long after the feeling, the emotive reaction. Having absorbed norms of propriety we are immediately struck by feelings of, say, repugnance or indignation. But it might be just a slit second that we are ready to justify our reaction in terms of utility. Smith’s seems to hold that there is always some step between the feeling, the emotive reaction and the articulation of justification for that feeling.

Mark Michael, thanks for doing the video! I have to say I think it takes 8 minutes to do perhaps 3 minutes worth of material, but still it is definitely helpful; it expounds on material that is, indeed, central. Your video got me thinking a little harder about the verbs appropriate to the two sides, person A being the one suffering a loss, say, and B some kind of companion. I think that B, showing the amiable virtues, enters into the situation and feelings of A. As for A showing the respectable virtues, I notice that you use the verb modulate — as I did in the podcast. I’ve now checked, and Smith never used modulate, but did use moderate. I rather like modulate; not least because it fits with Smith’s pattern of musical metaphors. Maybe the term wasn’t common in his day — I wonder if the term became current only when electronic audio equipment developed. Anyway, thanks again for the cool contribution!

Daniel Klein
Apr 18 2009 at 3:46pm

In the recording, about 55% in, I was off when I suggested that the propriety/virtue distinction (p. 25 graf 7) lines up with the grammar/aesthetics distinction (175, 327).

Russ is correct, propriety is a recognized mediocrity — acceptability — within the community (see p. 27), whereas virtue is better than that.

The following drives it home: “In the practice of … virtues … [other than justice], our conduct should rather be directed by a certain idea of propriety, by a certain taste for a particular tenor of conduct, than by any regard to a precise maxim or rule” (175).

The propriety/virtue gradient exists only for virtues other than (commutative) justice, or the becoming virtues.

Justice, on the other hand, is a grammar, and an adherence to justice is so precise and indispensable that it would be inappropriate to flatter it as propriety, and a violation is so serious that it would be inappropriate to forbear it as mere impropriety.

Mark Michael Lewis
Apr 18 2009 at 5:26pm

Dan, thanks for the feedback. I did ramble a bit trying to get the ideas out in the video listed above. I decided to create a more compact informative version that clarifies how amiable/awful/admirable relates to sympathy in TMS.

Also: modulate is a good word, and communicates more than moderate or temper. I was glad to borrow it from you! Another word that helps bring Smith’s idea to light is “interpret.” Like an actor interpreting a script, the awful/respectable virtue involves translating and interpreting one’s experience into a form that the other person can sympathize with. It includes but goes beyond stoically reducing ones emotions, to communicate them in a way that the other is facilitated in experiencing them. Modulate. – to assist another in sympathizing, both in terms of reducing the intensity and tapping into the shared experience that allows the audience to share our experience and hence our emotions. That is part of what is admirable in the awful.

Daniel Klein
Apr 18 2009 at 6:33pm

Mark Michael, You’ve packed a lot more excellent material into less time. Well done! I like how you indicate a “loop.” RE title, how about: “The Amiable and Awful Virtues, and What Makes Them Admirable”

RE interpret — I’m with you.

Thanks again for the highly innovative and instructive contribution.

p.s., Aptly enough, I rated it “awesome”!

Daniel Klein
Apr 19 2009 at 2:37pm

Adam, we were mistaken about TMS nowhere suggesting evolutionary selection for societies that avoid destructive conduct. The following is from p. 211:

“There is an obvious reason why custom should never pervert our sentiments with regard to the general style and character of conduct and behaviour … There never can be any such custom. No society could subsist a moment, in which the usual strain of men’s conduct and behaviour was of a piece with the horrible practice I have just now mentioned [infanticide].” [par. V.I.26]

BTW, I find it significant that Smith calls this reason “obvious.”

Eric H
Apr 19 2009 at 3:59pm

Mark Michael–

Thank you for the informative video. It was helpful in thinking through what constitutes Smith’s sentimental feedback loop.

I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who imagines little stick figures while reading Smith’s hypotheticals.

Speaking of little human figures: the homuncular idea of consciousness applies here. The theory is rightly panned because of the obvious homunculus-within-a-homunculus problem (When will it stop? How tiny can they get?)but it helped me to understand that the emotions generated and the sentiments exchanged are the products of individuals tweaking, attenuating and modulating their feelings and responses within a social context. It’s as if there’s a little homunculus inside of each of us watching the gauges and dialing in the best response he can muster to each input.

I use this example not because I believe it fits Smith’s conception but because both parties must exercise control in order for the exchange to bear fruit. The other, rather primitive image I had going, being a former musician, was the feedback loop created by an electric guitar left in front of its amplifier, only in Smith’s case both the guitar and amplifier can control their outputs in order to make music.

Where does this control come from, and how do we know it’s good? Smith is leading us there, I know, but I’m a slow reader even when reading slick modern prose.

John Strong
Apr 19 2009 at 5:17pm

Mark Michael, thanks for taking the trouble to enrich this discussion with your video!! Every time I visit this website, something new delights me. 🙂 My wife and I were sitting here a few minutes ago (Sunday morning) laughing out loud, amused at how rich the internet is in information these days. Actually, if I were a more negative sort, I’d be grieving that I didn’t grow up in the information age. Such blessings are mostly for the current and coming generations, I suppose. Oh well.

Apr 19 2009 at 9:23pm

Professor Klein,

Good find! I knew that Hume had come out and said as much, but hadn’t remembered that Smith did. I thought it was more implicit than that.

I am so glad you and Professor Roberts decided to pursue this book club; it has already been such a rich source of discussion and learning!

Mark Selden
Apr 20 2009 at 12:53pm

Thanks so much for this book club. For me, and perhaps others, this whole genre of reading is new territory.

1) (raillery) Have you ever noticed, Dan, that restaurants sell onion rings, not onion spirals?

2) When reading Smith’s statement that it is the “great precept of nature” to love ourselves only as much we love our neighbor (or as much as our neighbor loves us), it struck me as backwards. It seemed to me that our natural inclination is to love our self much, much more than we love our neighbor.

Is he saying that, because it is in our nature to want to be loved, and because we recognize that others will love us less if we appear to love ourselves too much, that we will “naturally” modulate our self-love?

Daniel Klein
Apr 20 2009 at 4:05pm

Adam, please help me with where Hume gets evolutionist, I’m eager to know more on that.

Mark Selden, yes on both! (Pass the salt!)

Apr 20 2009 at 4:13pm

Professor Klein,

I’ll be sure to dig into Hume’s writings and get back to you with some passages sometime this week!

Apr 20 2009 at 6:59pm

I subscribe to econtalk via itunes but I can’t access this particular episode. Has anyone else reported this problem?

Lauren (Econlib Editor)
Apr 20 2009 at 7:47pm

Hi, Billy.

We haven’t heard any other problems like that.

Off the top of my head, what I might try if it happened to me would be unsubscribing and then subscribing again. That might delete any EconTalk podcasts you want to save, but you could retrieve them through the new subscription.

Or, you can download it directly using the Download button above and then open it with iTunes.

Let us know if you continue to have problems at mail@econtalk.org.

John Strong
Apr 21 2009 at 6:03pm

Samuel Fleischacker and Adam Smith’s 4th Type of Approbation

I am not a Kantian. I do not endorse Samuel Fleischacker’s alloy of markets and government activism. I have not even read Fleischacker’s book, A Third Concept of Liberty, except to skim it and make a few notes. But in A Third Concept, he makes the following interesting statement:

“Kant gives the Wealth of Nations much the same response he gave to Theory of Moral Sentiments – borrowing empirical elements of the theory while insisting that its fundamental normative [there’s that word you guys taught me] principles have an a priori rather than a merely empirical grounding. By means of a double response, Kant provides the theoretical basis for a liberalism that is more consistent and deeper than Smith’s, while retaining the latter’s rich respect for, and understanding of, the empirical world.” (pps. 184-185)

I want to challenge both Professor Klein and Adam about something. Seems to me you guys are sending mixed signals. Well, at least you, professor Klein. On the one hand, professor Klein has made comments that seem to confirm Kant’s (and Fleischacker’s) assessment that the TMS is not so much a moral system as a catalog of empirical observations about moral sentiment. On the other hand, you attempt to ground the 4th type of approbation empirically. Hold on. Out of bounds, guys! Foul ball!

Professor Klein states that liberal notions of social utility (free trade helps society, for instance) do not motivate us directly; they are an “after thought”. Those are your words, Dr. Klein. Adam says much the same thing. For example, “communities that approve of destructive behavior [for example, trade protectionism] will not last long and those that don’t will persist, but it is not the engine the drives behavior while it is occurring.

What you refer to is the fact, eloquently articulated by professor Klein, that the proximate cause of moral behavior is the desire to obtain the sympathy of one of our spectators. This is a good empirical observation, but it in no way explains why Adam Smith would be motivated to write a large book (Wealth of Nations) that uses an argument of social utility to shift the center of gravity of public opinion towards a more liberal economic system. If Smith were just a simple heteronymous creature in search of sympathy, there would easier ways to obtain it than converting the public to liberalism. If I want to experience a mountain, I go to the mountain; I don’t try to pull it into my backyard.

So why did Smith write the WN? No doubt, he wrote it to win the sympathy of a rather liberal internal spectator whom he had concocted. But this spectator was the product of a process that was discursive as well as empirical. He resembles what Kant refers to as “the audience of all rational men.” And the empirical enterprise in question was certainly not one of testing climates of opinion and cultural norms. The appeal to culture is just a lazy tautology and is especially inadequate in a modern pluralistic society, even the 18th century one Smith lived in.

Daniel Klein
Apr 21 2009 at 7:10pm

John, I unsure of much of what you mean in the previous. Might be best to hash out by email: dklein@gmu.edu.

John Strong
Apr 23 2009 at 11:37am

Beneficence in Hutcheson and Smith: Grammar VS. Aesthetics

O.k., I packed way too much in that last post, as professor Klein made clear in a private e-mail (though he was too courteous to say so explicitly). Let me follow up with a more narrowly focused question.

Smith’s teacher, Hutcheson, identified virtue with beneficence, and social utility was his measure of beneficence. I get the impression from what I have read so far that Hutcheson believed you can define the criteria of beneficence and social utility in a rigorous way that resembles the “rules of grammar,” to use Smith’s analogy. So, for instance, I take it that he would view support of free trade as virtuous simply because of the social utility of free trade. Hutcheson also assumes that we can know with scientific certitude that free trade is socially useful.

So far so good? If you are familiar with Hutcheson’s work, please speak up!

On the other hand, Smith, though he had sympathy for Hutcheson’s notions of utility (the 4th source of approbation), probably thought that judgments about social utility were subject to epistemic problems. Who can accurately define social utility? It reminds me of the monetarist debate. We know that expanding the money supply causes inflation; we just don’t know what money is! How do you define it?

Since our knowledge of social utility is “loose, vague and indeterminate,” Smith argues for an aesthetic standard, rather than a scientific standard. The virtuous person will pursue conduct that is conducive to utility without making presumptuous claims about what utility really is, and that conduct is beautiful and therefore appeals directly to our sense of propriety. Am I getting warm?

Apr 23 2009 at 12:07pm


It’s the old consequentialist vs. deontologist debate.

The consequentialists argued that you could only judge the virtue of an action by its consequences, while the deontologists argued that you had to judge an action for its virtue in and of itself.

I think that what Smith argues isn’t that we should be deontologists, but rather, that by their nature that is how human beings actually judge things in practice mostly falls along deontologist lines. He doesn’t argue that this is absolutely the case; as shown in section II with the discussion of how we judge two people taking the same actions very differently if they succeed or fail, even if it due to factors beyond their control (luck).

But for the most part (I think) Smith argues that people feel that something is either praiseworthy or blameworth, in itself, based upon our emotional response of the moment and the norms and customs that are accepted. Whether or not there is a larger utility in what we encourage or discourage is not something that enters into it, though it is something that people will have to face the consequences of eventually.

Full disclosure: I’m not familiar with Hutcheson, my exposure to moral sense theories are entirely through Hume and Smith.

John Strong
Apr 23 2009 at 2:57pm

Interesting that you frame the argument that way. I have heard the term “deontological” used in a different dichotomy: deontological VS. eudaemonological. A deontological morality would be one that sees virtue as governed by a sense of duty, whereas a eudaemonological morality is one that sees virtue as governed by the pursuit of happiness.

Apr 23 2009 at 3:04pm

The latter sounds like a version of consequentialism–where “the outcome happiest outcome” is the yardstick for the most virtuous actions.

John Strong
Apr 24 2009 at 7:50am

Adam: But for the most part (I think) Smith argues that people feel that something is either praiseworthy or blameworthy, in itself, based upon our emotional response of the moment and the norms and customs that are accepted. Whether or not there is a larger utility in what we encourage or discourage is not something that enters into it, though it is something that people will have to face the consequences of eventually.

O.k., where does that leave us as advocates of a liberal viewpoint? The public does not share our views on trade and economics. Does that make us blameworthy? Do we just go with the flow, because the only coherent moral standard for us as properly socialized individuals is one based on “norms and standards”? Do we simply wait for our society to sink into economic paralysis, because we have no moral argument to make? I hope you don’t assume that people will learn from their mistakes. I see little evidence of that.

Apr 24 2009 at 10:08am


I don’t have any problem making a moral case for freedom. Certainly I speak of the practical benefits and so forth, but that’s not really the source of my belief.

I believe in respecting what isn’t mine, and in the limitations of my own judgment.

To quote Burke:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.

I believe that the alternatives to freedom are either conceited, espoused by rationalists who think they can make themselves technicians of human society, or dangerous men with ambition for power.

And I disapprove of both, and think there is a long tradition of distrusting men who overestimate their abilities or seek to impose their will on others.

Realizing that our values owe their origin to feelings and tradition rather than rational formulas doesn’t mean that we “go with the flow”; it means we understand that actually, our own beliefs aren’t based on unquestionable empirical reality, and any defense of our values should not pretend otherwise.

John Strong
Apr 24 2009 at 10:07pm

Adam, you are not saying that your moral convictions are the passive inheritance of a tradition, are you?

Let’s go to the Master. I will refer to several passages in Part III, even though the podcast for that section is not due until next week. Please comment on the following:

Part III, Chap. II Of the love of Praise and Praise-worthiness

Paragraph 8: “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.”

QUESTION: Interesting this appeal to nature. What makes something a “natural” object of love?

Paragraph 9: “The love of praise-worthiness is by no means derived altogether from the love of praise.”

Paragraph 14: “But this desire of the approbation … would not alone have rendered [man] fit for that society for which he was made. Nature, accordingly, has endowed him, not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves of in other men. The first desire could only have made him wish to appear to be fit for society. The second was necessary in order to render him anxious to be really fit. The first could only have prompted him to the affectation of virtue, and to the concealment of vice. The second was necessary in order to inspire him with the real love of virtue and with the real abhorrence of vice. In every well-formed mind this second desire seems to be the strongest of the two. It is only the weakest and most superficial of mankind who can be much delighted with that praise which they themselves know to be altogether unmerited.”

What ought to be approved of is what we approve of in other men.

QUESTION:Isn’t our reason engaged when we determine whom we admire and when we make judgments about truth? Smith says over and over again that praise for something untrue does not satisfy.

Paragraph 15: “To desire, or even to accept of praise, where no praise is due, can be the effect only of the most contemptible vanity. To desire it where it is really due, is to desire no more than that a most essential act of justice should be done to us. The love of just fame, of true glory, even for its own sake, and independent of any advantage which he can derive from it, is not unworthy even of a wise man. He sometimes, however, neglects, and even despises, it; and he is never more apt to do so than when he has the most perfect assurance of the perfect propriety of every part of his own conduct. His self-approbation, in this case, stands in need of no confirmation from the approbation of other men. It is alone sufficient, and he is contented with it. This self-approbation, if not the only, is at least the principal object, about which he can or ought to be anxious. The love of it, is the love of virtue.

Apr 26 2009 at 10:18am

Adam, you are not saying that your moral convictions are the passive inheritance of a tradition, are you?

Everything you said is true except for “passive”. I think Smith’s moral sentiments, as well as individual disposition, determine how we enter into those traditions and what we take from them. After all a lot of people who come from a common tradition can end up with very different beliefs.

What makes something a “natural” object of love?

It is natural in the literal sense of being part of our nature. That’s all.

Isn’t our reason engaged when we determine whom we admire and when we make judgments about truth? Smith says over and over again that praise for something untrue does not satisfy.

Reason has little to nothing to do with it. He does not literally mean “praising something untrue” so much as “praising something he doesn’t really deserve to be praised for”; where “what someone deserves to be praised for” is something reason is powerless to determine.

John Strong
Apr 26 2009 at 3:30pm

John: What makes something a “natural” object of love?

Adam: It is natural in the literal sense of being part of our nature. That’s all.

O.k., so you acknowledge that there are aspects of moral judgment that derive from human nature and are not socially constructed? Do you feel sympathy for the notion of Natural Law?

I do not deny the social element of moral judgment. Like Smith says, we could no more determine what is moral outside of the society of men than we could form an opinion about our own faces without a mirror. Alasdair MacIntyre (on the communitarian right) argues (cogently, I think) that moral propositions are vacuous outside of a tradition. And professor William Miller (on the Goffmanite left) does a good job showing how much more we care about honor than we think we do and how much more our values resemble the values of bloodfeuding honor societies than we think. But neither account fully satisfies me. Both accounts of moral judgment leave out something important. Both make us too dependent on public opinion.

Apr 27 2009 at 6:23am

Do you feel sympathy for the notion of Natural Law?

No. I think there are some things that, circumstantially, people tend to connect with emotionally. Tradition is what gives these feelings some context and structure to work with.

Both make us too dependent on public opinion.

There is no such beast as “public opinion”. We are neither passive machines of conformity, nor are we Socratic individuals in a vacuum, discovering morality with our reason.

Moral traditions are to human beings what ant hills are to ants; their part of our nature, something that is created unintentionally through the actions of countless numbers of individual actions taken by individual people.

John Strong
Apr 27 2009 at 10:28am

Adam: We are neither passive machines of conformity, nor are we Socratic individuals in a vacuum, discovering morality with our reason.

Fair enough. But it is still not clear to me why you think “tradition” is a meaningful word and “public opinion” is not. You have some ontological and linguistic commitments that are completely unfamiliar to me, which is too bad, because I would like to understand your posts better. What philosophers do you like?

I can understand the skittishness about the word “reason” to some degree. To some minds, it evokes (and invokes) the shade of Robespierre. Professor Klein says he prefers “enlightened” or “wise” to “rational”.

In addition to the hubris of grand schemes to remake mankind which you referred to earlier, people associate “reason” with a consequentialist or utilitarian disregard of certain moral sentiments.

Consider this passage from TMS:

Part III, Chap. 3 Of the Influences and Authority of the Conscience

Paragraph 48: The poor man must neither defraud nor steal from the rich, though the acquisition might be much more beneficial to the one than the loss could be hurtful to the other.

I had never thought of it before reading this passage, but from a strictly utilitarian or consequentialist point of view, I suppose you could you justify theft in the case Smith mentions on the grounds that the stolen object was of greater utility to the thief than to his victim.

Do passages like the one above indicate that Smith falls in the deontological camp? I assume you will say this is an oversimplification, but then please explain.

Apr 27 2009 at 11:18am

I’ll answer your last question first.

There is a consequentialist interpretation of what Smith says in the passage you quoted: that if everyone who was poor felt entitled to steal from the rich, it would be very destructive to society and therefore as a general rule it should not be encouraged.

Not being a professional Smith scholar, I can’t swear to you that that is not the argument he’s marking. And I certainly think that is a part of the argument he is making. But I think his larger point is that we approach these problems from a deontological perspective–that it is simply morally wrong to steal, regardless of whether or not the theft benefits the thief more than it hurts the victim. But that behind these general principles there is the check that if they are too destructive or do not in some way benefit the group that participates in them, the rule will not last in the long run. That’s my intuition.

But it is still not clear to me why you think “tradition” is a meaningful word and “public opinion” is not. You have some ontological and linguistic commitments that are completely unfamiliar to me, which is too bad, because I would like to understand your posts better. What philosophers do you like?

It’s amazing how wedded we are to certain feelings about certain words 🙂 I apologize for being somewhat knee-jerk about that sort of thing.

The philosophers I most closely align with are Hayek, William James, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and especially David Hume and what little we know of the philosophy of the Greek sophist Protagoras.

You can find a brief summary of where I’m coming from here and if you want to pursue this discussion further you can also e-mail me Adam-dot-Gurri-at-gmail (I feel bad hogging the Econtalk comment section beyond a certain point).

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. Discussion systematic and in order of book. Adjust notion of propriety.
1:43Smith posits yearning urge in sympathy. Different from Hobbes, Mandeville, Rousseau. Mutually coordinated sentiment.
8:46Smith as an economist, Gary Becker, emotion in economics thinking. Happiness depends on how we are viewed by others and ourselves. Labyrinth. Moral aspect of our existence matters. "Compared with the contempt of mankind...". Wealth maximization out of step. Modulation. Harmony: if you are overly grief stricken or overly exuberant you will reduce the sympathy you will receive from others. Propriety, impartial spectator. P. 17, sentiment and opinion. Lack of any reference to political views. Day-to-day death, coping. Rank and distinction in p. 60s. Celebrity phenomenon.
20:00Distinction: p. 18, sentiment proceeds from the motive. Merit and demerit include consequences. Sympathy and moral notions of propriety as guide, has to be wise. Utility as an afterthought, evolutionary mechanism. Harmony by itself is ambiguous. Incentive effects. Coordinate our sensibilities, improve and refine.
28:43Digression: Dickens or Jane Austen novels: how people feel about rich people and nobility. Sensibilities about the big picture. After Smith's time, political economy as an enterprise. Classical liberalism's eventual decline.
31:42Pp. 20s, partial and impartial. Sense of whole. P. 22: "These two sentiments, however, may, it is evident, have such a correspondence with one another, as is sufficient for the harmony of society. Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required." Harmony is not bliss. Music, harmony. P. 24, "impartial spectator" groundwork. Three different languages to describe observer: indifferent. Elegant variation in writing, Deirdre McCloskey. Smith sly writer. Pp. 23-25, start of Chapter V: two sets of virtues: amiable and respectable. Smith dialectical thinker, whole onion, whole spiral. Lop off parts of self. P. 25, Christian precept of loving neighbors as ourselves. House burned down example, Jim and his neighbor. Love ourselves only as much as we would love our neighbor. Jewish tradition as well. Modulate one's own grief, modulation on both ends.
45:23Two sets of virtues, p. 25. Self-command. Male/female distinctions. Virtue, aspirational things of beauty. Propriety is what becomes the norm of society, do what is expected. Decency, indecency, bodily pleasures, sex: might be real important to you but don't expect others to enter into them. Temperance and prudence, temperance being more of a social virtue. P. 31, imagination, "imaginations of mankind...", in some measure ridiculous. Can't expect people to rally around something that is only in your imagination. Thomas Paine, Age of Reason: "One step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again." Monty Python.
53:30Unsocial passions, resentment, indignation. Uncomfortable for us, divided sympathy. Resentment's a bummer, a downer. Dealing with life's challenges, not into whining. Place for hatred, violence, revenge. Footnote, pp. 76-78, in Part II, criticized after 1st edition: teetotaler approach to hatred and resentment, not drinking because afraid of consequences. Important to express. Problem in academia, economist as scientist, don't be normative, don't be outspoken. Aristotelian emphasis on moderation: want to be in between the extremes in how you feel and how you act. Maimonides in Jewish tradition. George Stigler.
1:02:29Social passions, sympathy undivided. Grief and joy, skip those, very personal sentiments, if too joyous about your financial success people will hate your guts. Never had an iPod. Prosperity outside the upper classes was a narrow range. Win lottery, not much happier tomorrow. Happiness literature. Losses loom larger than games, Thaler, diminishing marginal utility, behavioral economics. Article in Journal of Economic Perspectives about Adam Smith as a behavioral economist. Ambition, rank. It's the vanity that drives people toward rank and distinction, not ease or pleasure. Go into rock music not to be rich but to be loved. Pursuit of glamor. A little of both. Being humble. Tom Hanks, perception of just a normal guy; sports, Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals. Political eminence. People being star-struck not out of expectation of favor or gain but wanting to rub shoulders with the big shots. Two roads: wisdom and virtue, wealth and greatness; how these play out for people in different stations in life. Commerce rewards virtue, punctuality and probity in Smith's Jurisprudence. Middle class vs. upper class.
1:13:16Two paths: celebrity, honest toil and wisdom; Smith chose latter, but ended up with latter also; a little bit of defensiveness. Cultural royalty in his day, statesmen and politicians did come to him in his day. Scottish moral philosophers, mountain peak, in his day. Have to hedge, cloak what you say. Libertarianism, liberty principle. Seeming sacrifice. Culture, arts, philosophy are not the only mountain peak. Not enough to say these people are charlatans: no tension between the two views. If you are in the group getting power for richness and power and you fall from grace, you will never be happy again. Evita, "High Flying Adored." Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio example. Egalitarianism, sees all humans as aspiring, rich, wonderful; potentiality. World of equals.
1:22:10Middling and inferior stations of life, virtue works, commerce--as in French, sweet dealings, Montesquieu--honesty is the best policy holds almost perfectly true. "In the superior stations of life...". Flattery and falsehood. Book mainly about equals but a political book: as much of society as we can should be not governmentalized. For the bulk of people, rules of the game induce good behavior. Public choice view of disfunctionality of political incentives. Government attracts the weak in virtue, and then they are also the ones who set fashion. Could read it as an indictment against the culture of celebrity. "The Apprentice," Donald Trump. Harmless compared to other bad things people could be doing. Wealth of Nations: show buffoons.

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