Food for Thought

“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.

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