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“Wad Some Power The Giftie Gie Us”

Tim Madigan takes up a very gentlemanly system of morals.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) both claimed that the basis of ethics is sympathy or compassion, rather than divine command or rational deliberation. This involves the ability to see another person’s point-of-view, or vicariously experience the world as that person experiences it. For Smith, this is a natural phenomenon, connected to the fact that we are social beings. As he writes at the very beginning of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759): “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 to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Schopenhauer, while agreeing that compassion is indeed the starting point of ethics, held that one must postulate a metaphysical theory in order to explain this phenomenon, and he took Smith – and his friend and fellow sympathizer David Hume – to task for attempting to evade metaphysics.

How exactly can one see the world through another’s eyes? How can one somehow participate in the feelings of another? Since both Smith and Schopenhauer felt that novelists often have the ability to capture this phenomenon, and that reading works of literature is a good way to cultivate an understanding of other people’s life situations, perhaps an example might help to get across how this can be done. So consider an excerpt from John Fante’s 1939 novel Ask the Dust. The narrator, Arturo Bandini, living in Depression-era Los Angeles, has been asked by the woman he loves, Camilla, to critique a short story written by a rival for her love, Sammy – a bartender at the place where she works, who is dying from tuberculosis. Torn by jealousy, Arturo thinks to himself, “I’ll get you, Sammy. I’ll cut you to pieces, I’ll make you wish you were dead and buried a long time ago. The pen is mightier than the sword, Sammy boy, but the pen of Arturo Bandini is mightier still.” (p.118) He writes a bitter and stinging review of Sammy’s story and is just about to mail it when something stops him in his tracks – a sudden recognition of Sammy’s life situation, and how adversely he would be affected by receiving the letter. Arturo muses:

“There came over me a terrifying sense of understanding about the meaning and the pathetic destiny of men… I looked southward in the direction of the big stars, and I knew that in that direction lay the Santa Ana desert, that under the big stars in a shack lay a man like myself, who would probably be swallowed by the desert sooner than I, and in my hand I held an effort of his, an expression of his struggle against the implacable silence toward which he was being hurled. Murderer or bartender or writer, it didn’t matter: his fate was the common fate of all, his finish my finish; and here tonight in this city of darkened windows were other millions like him and like me: as indistinguishable as dying blades of grass. Living was hard enough. Dying was a supreme task. And Sammy was soon to die. I stood at the mailbox, my head against it, and grieved for Sammy, and for myself, and for all the living and the dead. Forgive me, Sammy! Forgive a fool! I walked back to my room and spent three hours writing the best criticism of his work I could possibly write.” (pp.119-120)

What happened to Arturo Bandini to make him change his initial plan? More precisely, how would Adam Smith and Arthur Schopenhauer evaluate Bandini’s ethical behavior?

David Hume had influenced Smith by arguing in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739) that sympathy was the capacity to participate in the sentiments of others, which allowed one to transcend one’s own perspective and somehow make objective moral judgements. Furthermore, in his Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Hume claimed that such ‘fellow feeling’ is natural to us, and that its causes cannot be discovered: “It is needless to push our researches so far as to ask, why we have humanity or fellow feeling with others. It is sufficient that this is experienced to be a principle of human nature. We must stop somewhere in our examination of causes.” (pp.219-220.) Smith, in exploring this trait, seemed content to follow his friend’s advice. Rather than look for ultimate causes, he explored the nature of this trait, and how it can be developed in greater detail and refinement. While holding that one cannot literally experience another’s bodily or mental states, Smith argues that moral agents can learn to use their imagination in such a way that they can recognize in themselves experiences which others have undergone or might be undergoing. This involves understanding that other people are beings like us.

Smith uses many examples from drama and literature to exemplify this ability. In the words of Charles L. Griswold: “Precisely because sympathy is essential to the formation of ethical judgment, drama and literature become necessary to the formation of the moral imagination and thus to ethics.” (Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, p.86,1999.) The key point here, as Griswold further states, is that “Sympathy does not dissolve the sense of separateness of either party, as Smith tells us explicitly. And he thinks this appropriate, not only because it also permits the spectator ‘emotional space’ in which to comfort and assist the actor. Given the actor’s desire for the fellow feeling of the spectator, it leads the actor to try to adjust his responses to a level that the spectator can sympathize with.” (p.86) This marks a point of departure from Schopenhauer’s later view of sympathy, in which he holds that one must dissolve the sense of separateness in order to be truly moral, and that this can only be understood by taking a metaphysical stance – something both Hume and Smith eschewed.

Sympathy For Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was well-steeped in British empiricism, being particularly fond of Hume, whose writings on religion he once hoped to translate into German. In his book Arthur Schopenhauer’s English Schooling, Patrick Bridgewater ably shows the roots of Schopenhauer’s lifelong love for England and British writers. When he was fourteen, in 1803, the German philosopher spent three months as a student at a prototypical English boarding school. He was left there by his parents in the midst of their world tour, primarily because his mother grew weary of his incessant complaining. Although he came to strongly dislike the heavy religious atmosphere at the school, Schopenhauer, who had a gift for languages, mastered English, and read publications in that language for the rest of his life. Indeed, his later writings are sprinkled with examples he had culled from his daily reading of The Times. Through his teachers and his own voracious reading, he came into contact with the British empirical tradition, which strongly influenced him. He appreciated the clarity of such writers as Hume, Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestly, and their grounding their arguments in empirical facts rather than speculation, and he tried to emulate them in his own philosophical writings. It was during this time that he first came into contact with the works of Adam Smith, to whom he would refer when he came to write his own major treatise, On the Basis of Morality (1837). Bridgewater notes: “In his personal edition of Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments Schopenhauer wrote, in English, that the root of Smith’s system of morality is ‘the sentiment of honour, i.e. anxiety for the approbation of others: & this is, properly speaking, what he grounds all morals upon.’ He added, ‘His is therefore a very gentlemanly system of morals, placing us on the footing of good company, as is obvious in all his developments. But that’s not the thing, my good Sir.’” (p.33.) Apparently Schopenhauer felt that Smith’s treatise on ethics was too concerned with teaching young men how to become gentlemen, and thereby learn their proper place in the social system. But ‘honour’ – a desire to appear worthy in the eyes of members of one’s class – was not a sufficient basis for a moral code. There had to be something beyond class status. Indeed, Smith’s own notion of the ‘impartial spectator’ would seem to imply this.

Let us return to the example from Ask the Dust. In Schopenhauer’s view, Smith would hold that Bandini chose not to send the blistering letter to the dying Sammy out of anxiety about being perceived as a callous and cruel person in the eyes of others. And, indeed, throughout the novel, Bandini does try to come across as a gentleman. But is this really what motivates him to act so kindly? When he refrains from sending the letter, Bandini does not refer to anyone else other than Sammy. No one knows about his decision not to send the letter, not even his one true love, Camilla. Why, then, does Bandini make this decision?

I will return to Smith’s more likely response later. But first, I will examine Schopenhauer’s own argument for the basis of morality found in his essay On the Basis of Morality. In this book Schopenhauer takes another jab at what he perceives to be Smith’s inadequate understanding of the nature of sympathy. He postulates two young men, Caius and Titus, who had each planned to kill their respective rivals in love, but decide against doing so at the last minute. Smith, Schopenhauer states, would say that they did so because they foresaw that their actions would not excite sympathy in those who witnessed it. But this, Schopenhauer states, would not at all capture the real reason for their decisions. Caius’s reasons can be left to the reader to decide, Schopenhauer writes; but Titus, he argued, would say, “When it came to making the arrangements, and so for the moment I had to concern myself not with my passion but with that rival, I clearly saw for the first time what would really happen to him. But I was then seized with compassion and pity; I felt sorry for him: I had not the heart to do it, and could not.” (p.168.) In this fellow-feeling, Schopenhauer argues, lies the very foundation of morality. It is a pure motive, uninfluenced by a desire to appear virtuous in the eyes of others. Rather, Titus has seen a fundamental connection between himself and another suffering being. For Schopenhauer, then, Arturo Bandini has broken through the web of illusion, and has seen the underlying connection between himself and the dying Sammy as a fellow human. Schopenhauer chides Smith and Hume for not seeing this, and would attribute such blindness to their disinclination to explore metaphysics. As Julian Young states in his 2005 book, Schopenhauer: “The reason, I think, for this disinclination to probe any further is that the benign Hume does not see human nature as tilted particularly strongly toward egoism – so he just itemizes the impulses he finds to be there. But for Schopenhauer, with egoism as it were mandated by the human epistemological situation, altruism presents itself as an übermenschlich transcendence of the human situation as astonishing as that of an artistic genius. It is, therefore, something that demands an explanation.” (p.179.)

Here Schopenhauer, for all his love of the British empirical tradition, breaks ranks with his fellow travelers. Both Hume and Smith would no doubt look with suspicion upon such metaphysical speculations, particularly the claim of Schopenhauer that altruism is a kind of “practical mysticism” which springs from “the same knowledge that constitutes the essence of all mysticism.” (p.212.) Compassion, he states, is “The great mystery of ethics.” Adam Smith, it would seem, instead remains content with exploring the social bonds that develop through cultivating the imagination and through observing what he calls “the spectacle of human life.” As Glenn Morrow points out: “If now we bear in mind that sympathy is for Smith, as for Hume, the principle which fits man for society, it become evident that the conception of the impartial spectator as the personification of the norms of sympathy is closely bound up with the welfare of the social order. Natural, or rational sympathy is that sympathy which best furthers the existence of men together in society; and as the embodiment of such sympathy, the impartial spectator is the guardian of the social welfare.” (The Ethical and Economic Theories of Adam Smith, p.37, 1969.) Thus for Smith, the moral sentiments arise from living in human societies, interacting with people from differing backgrounds and inclinations, and trying to make sense of how they experience the world. In turn, we wonder how these people experience us, and how they judge our actions. Bandini’s act of compassion to the dying Sammy was an acknowledgement that both were players on a larger stage, connected through the human society of which each was a member. No doubt, as Schopenhauer so mordantly expressed it, this is a very gentlemanly system of ethics. But it was more than simple status-conscious gentlemanliness. Bandini truly grasped “the pathetic destiny of men” for a brief shining moment, and acted upon his better nature.

Both Smith and Schopenhauer appreciated the special ability of artists to place themselves into the lives of others, but perhaps the best expression of this ethical stance was given by Smith’s fellow Scot, the poet Robbie Burns. As Ian Simpson Ross writes in his recent biography, The Life of Adam Smith (1995), Burns was aware of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. “Robert Burns, who seems about 1783 to have been reading a copy of the first edition of Smith’s book, possibly owned by his father… ruminates in the kirk on seeing a louse creep on a fine lady’s balloon bonnet”:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an gait wad lea’es us,
An ev’n devotion!
(‘To a Louse’)

Perhaps Arturo Bandini, just before mailing his vicious letter to Sammy, did suddenly see himself as others saw him, and thereby avoided the blunder. The question still remains, though – just what giftie was it that granted such a power?

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2013

Tim Madigan is one of Philosophy Now’s gifted U.S. editors, and a perfect gentleman.


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