How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?
Week 6: Human Nature in Smith, Rousseau and Kant
Links: Imagining Other Index page
Adam Smith 1723 – 1790,
Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712 – 1778,
Immanuel Kant 1724 – 1804
1. Adam Smith - Summary:
1.1 Introduction: the British Enlightenment
1.2 Smith's ethical ideas
1.3 How are ethical standards formed?
1.4 Democratisation of morality?
1.5 On politics, economics and ethics.
1.1 The ‘British Enlightenment:
Gertrude Himmelfarb (2004)
argues that the British Enlightenment was different to the French – and,
paradoxically, it was the French who most revered
Sabine comments that the philosophy of Adam Smith’s time, as with Locke 100 yrs before, was an odd mixture of empiricism (the basis of scientific method: we find out about the world by observing its behaviour) and a belief in natural law/natural rights, which must be God-given): for Smith, "natural law (God's law)" could be seen in the empirical regularities at work in society.
A key idea of writers such as Adam Smith, and before him Shaftesbury and others, was that we all have an innate moral sense – a ‘sympathy’ as Smith put it, which allows us to imagine what others are feeling, and which then brings us to feel with - to sympathise with - them, and hence to condemn whatever is making them suffer and praise what is making them happy etc.
[This was a step on from Locke and
NB. Note particularly that Smith is talking of feelings, not of rationality. Gertrude Himmelfarb stresses this point (p 137 - 8), linking Smith and his fellow members of the Scottish Enlightenment to the later romantic movement. She also quotes Smith’s words: ‘it is by the imagination (my emphasis) only that we can form any conception of what are his [the unfortunate’s] sensations.’ Moreover, there is an aesthetic side to this, since those for whom ‘the beauty of order, of art and contrivance’ is important are those who will support those institutions that promoted the ‘public welfare’.
For recent evidence that we are
not the rational creatures that we might like to think, see the book by Daniel Kahneman’: Thinking, Fast and Slow
That this discussion of the inter-relationship between thinking and feeling is an ongoing one, see the obituary (Guardian Weds 9th Nov 2011) of the philosopher Peter Goldie, who wrote: The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration (2000). He was ‘impatient with the rational/irrational perspective on emotions, and believed that emotions should be assessed less in terms of their rationality than of how appropriate and proportionate they are in specific situations (a terminology that is remarkably similar to Adam Smith’s – see the Extracts 2b).
The Earl of Shaftesbury on the other hand wrote in 1699 An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit: virtue comes form a ‘moral sense’ the ‘sense of right and wrong’ – not from religion, self-interest, sensation or reason. We also had a ‘natural affection’ which he saw as ‘social affection’ virtuous man is motivated by ‘a natural affection for his kind’. Locke was wrong, he argued, to believe that moral sense was learned: this would make it determined by ‘fashion and culture’… (and relative!).
On the other hand, Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees 1705 tried to refute Shaftesbury by arguing that: self-love is the primary motivation of all men, and it can be reduced to pleasure and pain. Fellow feeling and condolence for others was a spurious passion (and one which afflicted the weakest minds the most…) - ‘what we call evil in this world, moral as well as natural, is the grand principle that makes us sociable creatures.’
Smith dismissed these views as ‘licentious’ and ‘wholly pernicious’ – Mandeville was also attacked by Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson, Edward Gibbon…
Hutcheson in 1726 wrote: An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our ideas of Virtue or Moral Good – he defended Shaftesbury’s ideas (especially the ‘moral sense’) against Mandeville. He was in fact the first to use the expression: “The greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’ NB it was not Helvetius or Bentham! And it was not the same ideas as theirs, because for utilitarians it derives from rational calculations of utility.
Hutcheson argued that fellow-feeling cannot come from self-love, because it involves feeling others’ pain. It was ‘antecedent to reason or instruction’ (Himmelfarb p 32). Reason alone cannot guide us – we needs our senses in situations where the problem is self-preservation, and we need our moral sense when we need to ‘direct our actions for the good of the whole’.
Even Hume believed in a ‘sentiment’ a ‘moral sense’ a ‘moral taste’ common to all men. A ‘disinterested benevolence’ was an essential quality of human nature (disinterested = divorced from personal relations and affections).
1.2 Smith's ethical ideas:
In his ethics (“The Theory of Moral Sentiments” 1759…) he tackled questions of: the individual & society, conflict and co-operation, self-interest and altruism.
The opening words (Extract TMS 1) contain a statement of his view on the ability of humans to feel pity, compassion, benevolence, sympathy.
Extract TMS 1. “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary unto him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others when we either see it or are made to conceive it in a lively manner… By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation… we enter, as it were, into his body and become in some measure the same person with him.” (Opening words of TMS)
Note the role of the imagination here:
‘it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.’
Note also that we do not imagine ourselves feeling the suffering etc of the other, but we ‘become in some measure the same person with him’ – so sympathy is not a selfish principle (a man might also sympathise with a woman’s pain in childbirth…). Also, he says that we have an ‘immediate sense and feeling’ – we do not come to it as a result of reasoning.
He argued that there must be an element of perceived common interest for any society to function, and that we acquire our moral sense from being in society
TMS 2. Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to
manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species,
he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his
own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of
the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot
easily see... and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can
present them to his view. Bring him into
society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted
before. [from Raphael, D.D.: Adam Smith,
TMS 3. We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct. [TMS I iii (iii) (?)]
1.3 How are ethical standards formed? [see: Cole and Strauss, Cropsey]
There are four steps in the formation of ethics and social standards:
2. imagining effects of our actions on others
3. imagining others' perceptions/assessments of our actions
4. social code and sanctions
To pass to stages 2 and 3 we make use of the idea of an ‘impartial observer’ -so it is not just a question of thinking ‘how would we feel?’ – since that might lead to ‘distortions’ in our judgment of others’ feelings (evidence not here for this).
In other words, the basis of morality is sympathy not abstract reason (but S & C: only rationality can promote freedom...) Here there is a strong contrast with Kant.
1.4 Democratisation of morality?
Smith is therefore attempting to ground ethics in a ‘scientific’, humanist approach: ethics must be derived from "man as man."
This, it can be argued (S & C), represents a ‘democratisation of morality’ - as against earlier formulations e.g. Plato: philosophers discover the ethical ‘truth’; and the Christian view: God reveals the truth.
In a similar vein, Himmelfarb makes much of the ‘implicitly democratic character’ of Smith’s political economy (p 67)… after all, she points out, the labourer is the source of value. Smith’s view of human nature was somewhat egalitarian: ‘The difference in natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of… By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel’ (p 69) - in this Himmelfarb believes Smith to be very different to the French philosophes, who were, as I have suggested, explicitly elitist.
1.5 On politics, economics and ethics:
Finally, it is worth saying that in Smith’s view, since feelings of sympathy are natural, there is no need for the state to try to enforce them (he was opposed to the ‘civic humanist’ tradition (e.g. Rousseau) where the kind of society you live in is crucial to determine whether you are moral or not.
Moreover, whilst the market mechanism works on the basis of self-interest, he acknowledged that too much self-interest leads to selfishness, which in society
is prevented by family ties, neighbours etc; these factors don't work in the economy. He even says that the self-interest that drives the market (the desire
to own more, out of fear of being poor and envy of the rich) is a "corruption of our natural sentiments"
2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712 – 1778
2.1 Rousseau and the philosophes.
2.2 Human nature, the ‘state of nature’.
2.1 Rousseau and the philosophes.
Rousseau was untypical among the Enlightenment philosophes – he had arguments with Voltaire, who called him a ‘Judas’; Diderot called him an ‘anti-philosophe’ (Gertrude Himmelfarb: The Roads to Modernity, 2008, p 151); and he had a very personal falling-out with Hume when he stayed with him in Scotland for a while – he accused Hume (by all accounts a very genial man) of plotting against him, and in fact Rousseau may have had a persecution complex.
This account illustrates his belief that passions were more important than reason, whilst of course ‘reason’ was the central concern of most of the philosophes. His way of thinking was an early example of ‘romanticism’
He also argued that the arts and sciences, far from improving people had led to a corruption of our natural innocence, and that they serve to make us accept the existing "civilised" order, i.e. to accept our slavery.
In his political theories Rousseau also differed from the other philosophes (especially Voltaire, who was an enthusiastic supporter of John Locke), emphasising (i) the collective rather than the individual citizen, and (ii) direct democracy rather than representative or elective democracy (I look at the political views of Rousseau in Political Philosophy part 2 - Rousseau).
However, he shared with the other Enlightenment philosophes their opposition to absolute monarchy (he and Voltaire both had to take temporary refuge abroad because of their views), and he was highly critical of social inequalities.
2.2 On human nature, the ‘state of nature’ etc:
In his Discourse on Arts and Sciences (1749/50) he argued the arts and sciences have corrupted us – not what other Enlightenment thinkers would have said!
In the 1753/4: Discourse on Inequality he sets out his views on the fundamental nature of man, and on the origin of society, private property and conflict.
To develop his critique of existing society he asked what humans would have been like before the institution of society. Rousseau saw society as unnatural, and a social sense is therefore also not natural but artificial. In other words to define ‘human nature’ we have to think about what humans would have been like before society.
Note that many political philosophers (not just in the Enlightenment) used the device of conjecturing a ‘state of nature’ as a starting point for their theories.
For some it seems to have been an actual historical condition – for others merely a useful hypothesis. Either way, it was a popular device - after all, once something has been labeled ‘natural’ it is very hard to oppose or reject it… It has often been said that the word ‘natural’ was a central concept in Enlightenment thinking.
Using evidence from the writings of travellers and naturalists such as Buffon, he explores the nature of man: natural man would be roving individuals; there would be no permanent relationships, but a "loose companionship"; there would be no love, no family, no morality, and no property; people would be free, but without knowledge, language, morality, or industry – they would be neither moral nor vicious: in a word – “innocent”. (Berki)
For Rousseau, then, the ‘savage’ in the state of nature was not selfish (as in Hobbes) nor even rational (as in Locke) – for these abilities, he argued, arose as a result of our interaction with others, and especially in ‘civilisation’.
[For Hobbes, in the 17th century, the state of nature was one in which life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ – and in the state of nature (since there were no laws to restrain people) men would be constantly competing with each other (a ‘war of all against all’). For Locke, (also in the 17th century, but more influential on the Enlightenment thinkers) on the other hand, since men were rational, the state of nature was simply lacking in ways of enforcing what the majority of people regarded as right (especially the right to ‘life, liberty and property’). ]
Hence the idea (not exactly what Rousseau was saying) of the noble savage. In this, Rousseau was a precursor of the ‘romantics’ (Wordsworth and others) of the early 19th century: he also loved “nature” and wrote a book about his walks, and his dreaming as he walked through the countryside. He admired the newly “discovered” native peoples, whose lives were described by travellers, as he believed they led more natural lives than the civilised French. In retort, Voltaire sarcastically said that Rousseau's praise of the "noble savage" was so convincing that it made him want to get down on all fours.
Rousseau’s view of human nature (before society changes it) is that we all have two natural (pre-social) sentiments or feelings (sensibilité). Again, and most importantly, unlike the other Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau does not attribute reasoning powers to us as ‘natural’ or pre-social… We have feelings first, and he identifies two such sentiments/feelings: amour de soi, and pitié:
- amour de soi – [love of oneself] is not the same as amour-propre, [self-love]: self-love develops in society, especially after the institution of property… and it is the basis of false values such as "honour", pride and vanity... Rather amour de soi could be self-respect or self-preservation. Simply: the desire to satisfy our own short-term needs – and presumably not to be hurt.
- pitié – [pity] but probably best translated as sympathy or compassion. Pitié is not the same as altruism, but rather the desire not to hurt others.
For Himmelfarb, Rousseau’s account, in Emile, of how the central character develops ‘social feelings’ is that these feelings are based on self-love (because self-love comes first in human development): “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself (l’amour de moi).” And this is also the ‘source of [a sense of?] justice’: “Love of men derived from love of self is the principle of human justice.”
I have several comments on Himmelfarb’s implied position here (she is contrasting Rousseau with other writers – Smith, Hutcheson - who posit an inherent social feeling): first that Rousseau is describing a process of evolution or development, and in this he surely is right: a child is self-centred before becoming other-oriented. Second: how can I know what another is feeling when they are suffering unless I can identify those feelings in myself first? Third: Rousseau’s formulation seems to me very close to the ‘golden rule’: Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you (or: love others as you love yourself…). Finally, this passage could be read quite differently, (especially the strange expression ‘I feel that I am, so to speak, in him’) along the lines of Satish Kumar’s formulation (the title of one of his books – Green Books 2002): “You are, therefore I am.”
Note also that there is common ground between Rousseau and Adam Smith on ‘pity’ or compassion – Smith may have got the idea from Rousseau’s 1755 Discourse on Inequality, which he reviewed three years before his Theory of moral Sentiments was published. The latter may in turn have influenced Rousseau when he wrote Emile (1758).
The implications of these views for Rousseau’s political ideas are explored at: Political Philosophy Part 2 - Rousseau.
Rousseau had a controversial view of the role of women – in fact he saw them as a threat to public order, because they do not have men’s rationality!! Men would be active in public affairs, i.e. politics, whilst women brought up the children.
Yet he gave women an important role in the home, bringing up children with a sense of responsibility, morality, duty etc, which underpins the civic virtues... This idea was seen by many women of the time as progressive. Perhaps part of its appeal was the importance Rousseau put on "natural" feelings. But it did mean that woman would have a separate role, and not be allowed to take part in public life… Contemporary feminist writers such as Carol Pateman have little time for Rousseau.
3. Kant 1724 – 1804: A rational grounding for ethics.
3.1 Kant’s life and influences
3.2 Kant’s ethics and philosophy are linked
3.3 The categorical imperatives
3.1 Kant’s life and influences:
Russell says he ‘is generally considered the greatest of modern philosophers.’ But he adds ‘I myself cannot agree with this estimate, but it would be foolish not to recognize his great importance.’ (p 677)
He was born at Königsberg, at a time when two religious movements were influential (David Appelbaum p 4):
(i) deism – the belief that reason can demonstrate the existence of God (etc), and reason should replace faith (see week 3);
(ii) (since the end of the 17th century) pietism – the belief that religion had to be experienced rather than learned from texts.
Philosophically, he was influenced by Rousseau (e.g. The Confessions, and Rousseau’s emphasis on sensibilité) as he put confidence in ‘the lawfulness of inner experience.’
He was also influenced by current scientific thinking, and especially affected by encountering Hume’s arguments. Hume’s scepticism about what we can know for sure about the world (our sense are unreliable, and causality is not possible to prove) led Kant to study the process of cognition.
3.2 Kant’s ethics and his philosophy are linked together:
This is what makes Kant a great philosopher (for those who admire him).
He overturned the common-sense view that our understanding corresponds to how the world is (see the notes on science): i.e. Locke’s view that the mind reflects the world as it is...
For Kant our conscious reasoning imposes sense and meaning on the world (e.g. the concepts of space and time, quantity etc, which are innate ideas) – so the world corresponds to how we understand it.
However, we can only have objective knowledge of ‘phenomena’ – things as they appear to us. We cannot completely ‘know’ the objective world ‘from the inside’ or ‘in itself’ (= ‘noumena’) – we are separate from it, because we have ‘subjectivity’ (see below).
When we do look inside ourselves, we experience our ‘autonomy’ – that is, the freedom to make moral choices, which enables us to perfect our human potential. This capacity for moral understanding is ‘practical knowledge’ – i.e. arises through activity and participation (and is different from ‘objective knowledge’). As distinct from the world of objects, which is ‘conditional’ (i.e. objects obey physical laws), the ‘inner world’ is ‘unconditional’ that is, characterised by freedom – that is, ‘autonomy’. (See note at end for a recent critique of this idea). However, autonomy for Kant does not mean being free to do what we want – rather we need to remember the word’s etymology: auto = self, nomos = law, thus: setting laws for ourselves – and it is tied in with the idea of developing and perfecting ourselves. Following our ego alone would not lead to our being better people.
Reason’s “true function must be to produce a will that is good, not as a means to some further end, but in itself.” (From The Moral Law)
Good acts arise from a sense of duty (to the moral law), not from self-interest or even good intentions.
Simon Blackburn (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy) quotes Kant’s saying: ‘two things move the mind with ever increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.’ (Conclusion to the second Critique, of Practical Reason.) Blackburn points out that the words derive from St John Chrysostome, and the 19th Psalm! He also says that it is difficult to disentangle the Lutheran elements of Kant’s thinking (see below on the Categorical Imperatives).
In order to develop and perfect ourselves, (to ‘preserve our community with a wider realm of being’ as Appelbaum puts it) we need to ‘let drop the ego and its mode of consciousness.’ The development of moral consciousness is for Kant (as it was for Rousseau) the way to liberation.
This is similar to Rousseau’s statement that we are free when we obey a law we have ourselves formulated, but enslaved when we merely follow our appetites. Obedience to the moral law grants us freedom from nature (from the objective world – including our egos).
Nature binds us to appetite, reactivity and craving – our inner self searches for its own destiny. Nature ties us into laws that bind us – and is heteronomous (laws set by forces outside ourselves); our inner self gives us laws that bring freedom – that is, we are then autonomous (etymologically: auto = self, nomos = law) – setting laws for ourselves.
The moment we ask ourselves ‘what should I do?’ we are open to trying to define moral laws to follow.
See also Kant’s essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ where he writes of mankind reaching ‘maturity’, emerging from ‘tutelage’ etc.
3.3 Kant then formulated two ‘categorical imperatives’ - categorical meaning (Appelbaum:) with no exceptions or provisos, and the opposite of ‘hypothetical. Russell p 682: hypothetical is ‘you must if you wish to… (bring something about etc).’ Categorical is objectively necessary without regard to any end (it is synthetic and a priori - draws on experience but not derived from experience, but known by reason - in my words…).
Imperative meaning that we are ordained by our being to obey (in Appelbaum’s words p 29).
The first categorical imperative: obedience to an inner moral law, that we would be happy for everyone to obey. In Kant’s words: ‘Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law (universal)’. (Critique of Practical Reason)
The second: treating others (and yourself) as ends and not (purely) as means. “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
Blackburn identifies examples of what Kant would be forbidden by the first: lying, suicide, revolution, solitary sex, and even selling one’s hair for wig-making! (Hence the comment about Lutheranism above).
Russell says that this principle does not seem to be entailed by the first, and that it is an abstract form of the doctrine of human rights, and open to the same objections – what to do when interests conflict (as they so often do in politics)? To solve this, some people’s interests might have to be sacrificed for others, e.g. for the majority.
The principle could be made stronger, says Russell, by understanding it to mean not that each is an absolute end, but that everyone counts equally when considering policies which affect them – i.e. an argument for democracy.
On the other hand, Appelbaum stresses that if we are to develop fully as human beings, then respect for others – and the recognition of their rights to full development – is unavoidable.
1. Joanna Bourke, in What It Means to be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present (Virago 2011) argues that ‘The autonomous, self-willed ‘human’ at the heart of humanist thinking is a fallacy, a chimera.’
She also says that human rights is a ‘volatile principle on which to base ethics’ – a point with which John Gray agrees in his review of the book (Guardian 29.10.11).
2. On the other hand, Emanuel Derman, in New Scientist 22.10.11, pp 32-33: Unruly humans vs the lust for order, argues that (i) the models and methods of the physical sciences cannot be applied to human affairs – for example, he tried to use mathematical formulae to work out how humans interact in markets (ii) there is a paradox (which Kant would have liked!): ‘On the one hand, scientists have the ability to discover nature’s mechanistic laws: on the other, to discover them we have to assume that scientists have autonomy (my emphasis), they can tell right from wrong, they are not mechanical beings. In short, to find the laws, we must assume we are not subject to them.’
3. Another recent book: Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, by Marina Warner (Chatto and Windus 2011) argues that the Enlightenment sealed magic off from science, imagination from reason, and also east from west (in the words of Robin Yassin-Kassab, in a review Guardian 12.11.11) – and then this ‘stranger magic’ was seen as foreign, ‘black etc. Yet the book demonstrates (i) that enchantment and magic (especially through the exchange between different countries of books on enchantment, such as the Arabian Nights) can ‘open new possibilities of thought and sympathy’ (RY-K) and (ii) she argues - by demonstrating the ‘magical’ elements in talismans, designer goods, the psychiatrist’s consulting-room etc - for (as RY-K puts it) ‘the necessity of magic, especially in a self-consciously ‘rational’, secular world.’ (See notes on literature, and conclusion to the course).
(i) On Adam Smith and
Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments” 1759
Raphael, D.D.: Adam Smith, Fontana 1985
The Earl of Shaftesbury 1699 An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit
Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees 1705
Hutcheson in 1726 An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our ideas of Virtue or Moral Good
(ii)Works by Rousseau referred to:
Discourse on Arts and Sciences (1749/50)
Discourse on Inequality (1753/4)
David Appelbaum: The Vision of Kant, Element Books, 1995.
1781 Critique of Pure Reason
1783: Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics that may be Presented as a Science,
1784: What is Enlightenment?
1785: Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.
1788: Critique of Practical Reason.
1790: Critique of Judgment.
1793: Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.
1795: Eternal Peace.
1797: Metaphysics of Morals.
Simon Blackburn: Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1994.
Bertrand Russell: A History of Western Philosophy, Unwin 1946.
Gertrude Himmelfarb: The Roads to Modernity, Vintage, 2004
Other histories of political thought by: R.N. Berki, Strauss and Cropsey, Sabine and Thorsen.
(v) Recent books mentioned:
Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane, 2011)
Peter Goldie: The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration (2000)
Joanna Bourke: What It Means to be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present (Virago 2011)
Emanuel Derman, in New Scientist 22.10.11, pp 32-33: Unruly humans vs the lust for order
Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, by Marina Warner (Chatto and Windus 2011)