We either approve or disapprove of the conduct of another man according as we feel that, when we bring his case home to ourselves, we either can or cannot entirely sympathize with the sentiments and motives which directed it. And, in the same manner, we either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, according as we feel that, when we place ourselves in the situation of another man, and view it, as it were, with his eyes and from his station, we either can or cannot entirely enter into and sympathize with the sentiments and motives which influenced it.
Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
When Smith makes statements like this, what exactly are we, as readers, supposed to think? Smith is assuming this is common knowledge, that this is simply the way things are. I suppose we can either agree or disagree. It’s not as if there were empirical evidence Smith gives to back it up. Is there any kind of value in reading a paragraph such as this? I ask because I’m certain there is — so much of Smith is intellectually fascinating — but in the end I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything true. I walk away feeling that I understand the human condition a little better. But does this feeling of understanding and agreement with Smith reflect a truth about the world? Smith is presenting us with his “feeling” or sentiment about how a moral society works. And so one’s reading of Smith depends on how one’s own sentiment harmonizes with Smith’s. Perhaps Smith is merely reinforcing my own view about the world — likely to be biased and false.
Perhaps he’s taking an implicit stance: this is the right way to think about the world, though in a positive sense it isn’t the only way. It is somehow virtuous to read and understand his moral theory. In a way I agree with this. I feel that my own notions about propriety, justice and sympathy are actually strengthened reading Smith; my moral compass, so to speak, is precisely calibrated.
At the same time I can’t help but think about my moral compass. Smith is not only calibrating but revealing my own sentiments to me, allowing for a deep reflection about my “inner judge.” Judging the judge — this is both what Smith theorizes happens and what the reader of Smith should do.
It may be helpful to think of Smith’s writing as a kind of fiction. He is presenting to us an imaginary world, full of actors, sympathy, impartial spectators and judges, that we may “enter into” and think about as its own self-contained universe. His narrative is a theory of morals but in some ways so is fiction: what would so-and-so do in such-and-such situation. The extent to which we find fiction compelling is, in some ways, the extent to which it harmonizes with our own views about the world and human action. And so we may bring Smith into our own through the harmony between the world as we see it and the world as Smith writes it.