Ethics and the rise of sentiments

thumbnail

In 1759, Adam Smith published his book “Theory of Moral Sentiments”. In this book, the Scottish thinker considered that moral actions were guided by sympathy, that is, in the inate human capacity of putting oneself in the place of other people, in choosing to act morally not having in mind what the action can bring to themselves, but in terms of its effects to others, and, closely related to it, the question if we consider moral other people’s act. In Smith’s world, moral actions involve sentiments for other people, but today they seem to involve sentiments from others. What has changed?

Smith is better known as an economist than a moral philosopher, and even if some scholars find a tension between his ethical and economic thinking, that tension disappears when one has in mind that, in a market-based Society, capitalists prosper when they put the interests of the public they serve above their own, and offers the product that public desires instead of the one they’d like to offer. As Smith wrote, “it is not from the benevolence of the brewer, the butcher, and the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (SMITH, 1979, pp. 26 – 27).  Along the 19th. century, economic theory followed different paths, and while Smith is still revered as a pioneer, it didn’t stop refuting what was taken as wrong in his thought, but moral philosophy has forgotten him.

Now we advance in time, and found ourselves in 1903, when British philosopher G. E. Moore, who was a Cambridge professor, published his book “Principia Ethica”, where he advocated a moral theory that could be summarized in a central principle: what one feels as right, what one senses as right, is what should be regarded as moral. Now the moral agent doesn’t have to consider the action’s subject, doesn’t even have to sympathize with her: an act is regarded as moral as long as there is a feeling, an intuition of doing right, and that’s enough. At the present Moore is little discussed in the field of moral thought, but at least one of his most ardent supporters, John Maynard Keynes, is still highly debated in Economics.  About Moore’s philosophy, Keynes wrote about how he felt after reading the book: “[…] it was exciting, exhilarating, the beggining of a renaissance”(quoted in MacIntyre, 2007, p. 14). People stopped thinking about what others’ sentiments and started to consider only their own.

Nowadays Spanish thinker Carlos Elías, in his book “Science on the Ropes”, mentions German politician Angela Merkel, who says that people aren’t interested in facts, but in emotions and feelings. Truth doesn’t matter anymore: what matters the most is what other people like. In Facebook, a “like” matters more than saying the truth. Elías criticized the results of this tendency towards the thinking and attitude of Westerners to science, which is not the focus of this little article, but the same tendency has serious effects in what we understand as morals.

In my opinion, the main effect is the fact that what we feel as right becomes the right thing. There’s nothing rational in this feeling, since it is merely the result of popularity, it is devoid of meaning for the moral agent. This person wants to be appreciated, to be identified as “likable” in social media,  to be popular, but moral acts have never been synonymous with popularity. Do moral actions involve feelings? Yes, of course, but before everything else they involve reason, because believing that something is right derives from moral effort, from thinking, and not from trying to find out what others would like. It is a sentiment for others, not from others. When moral agents think and act there’s a mixture of sentiment and reason, they don’t act according to what people expect.

Could it be any different? Sometimes social networks disclose morally correct decisions and gain respect, appreciation and admiration of many people. However, not always those decisions derive from rational efforts, but rather from the desire to do what others think is correct and admirable.

There’s no doubt that such attitude is better than nothing, after all, acting right because it’s what other people admire is better than deciding to act wrongly. But if it is true that sentiments and reason not always depend on each other, it is also true that they form a formidable team when they act together in the field of morality. This doesn’t seem to be happening nowadays: when the right is what others like, when true is what others think it is, to feel morally right doesn’t come from thinking and concluding that the right thing is being done. Today people speak of “post-truth” without ever discovering what is true; my fear that one day people will speak in post-morality without ever discovering what is moral.

References:

MACINTYRE, Alasdair. After virtue. 3rd. ed. Notre Dame: University of Indiana Press, 2007.

SMITH, Adam. An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1979.

Back To Top