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Hume and Smith on Utility, Agreeableness, Propriety, and Moral Approval

54 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2016 Last revised: 21 Jan 2017

Erik W. Matson

George Mason University, Department of Economics

Colin Doran

George Mason University - Department of Economics

Daniel B. Klein

George Mason University - Department of Economics

Date Written: December 11, 2016

Abstract

In this paper we offer a fresh examination of Smith’s moral theory in relation to Hume’s. In Part IV of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith presents a foil against which he develops his own theory, a foil attributed to Hume. According to the foil, moral approval derives from “utility.” But, as a characterization of Hume’s theory, that foil is misleading. One problem is that Smith used the words utility and useful differently than Hume did – Smith quietly stretched them to include agreeableness, thereby obscuring the importance of agreeableness in Hume’s theory. The other, more significant problem concerns Smith’s advance on Hume. Smith’s great advance is to elaborate that between moral approval and “utility” (or beneficialness) there is propriety. But Smith gives a somewhat misleading impression about the extent to which that advance is at variance with Hume’s account of moral approval. Whereas Smith allows the impression that in Hume moral approval derives quite determinately from “utility,” in fact Hume conveys the interpretive and sentimental spaciousness of the operations that generate moral approval; here, Hume even speaks repeatedly of “proper sentiments,” thus almost using the term propriety himself. We suggest that Smith’s development on Hume is that he emphasizes a locus of sympathy not emphasized in Hume – namely, the relation between the moral judge and her own man within the breast –, but that locus enters the theory in addition to the sympathies emphasized in Hume, not in lieu of them. We distinguish lateral sympathy, which is important in Hume’s thought, and vertical sympathy, which is especially characteristic of Smith’s more inner-directed and allegorical thought. Smith embraces Hume’s lateral sympathy and enhances moral theory by adding formulations (“the man within the breast,” “the impartial spectator”) that elaborate vertical sympathy. Smith comes off as somewhat critical of Hume, as a departure from Hume, but we argue that he is, rather, a development on Hume. Indeed, we interpret propriety as a species of agreeableness, and Smith’s propriety phase represents another dimension within which such agreeableness lives. We speculate that Smith was more or less aware of all this, and we address the question: Why, in that case, would Smith have proceeded as he did?

Keywords: Adam Smith, David Hume, Theory of Moral Sentiments, utility, propriety

JEL Classification: B12, B30

Suggested Citation

Matson, Erik W. and Doran, Colin and Klein, Daniel B., Hume and Smith on Utility, Agreeableness, Propriety, and Moral Approval (December 11, 2016). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 17-01. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2883695 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2883695

Erik Matson

George Mason University, Department of Economics ( email )

Fairfax, VA
United States

Colin Doran

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

Daniel Klein (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

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