How to be a Good Sentimentalist
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How can one be a good person? That, in essence, is the question I ask in this dissertation. More specifically, I ask how we, in general, can best go about the complex and never-ending task of trying to figure out what we should do and then do it. I answer that question in four articles, each dealing with an aspect of the model of morality presented by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS, 2002). The title of the dissertation, ‘How to be a good sentimentalist’, thus refers to that particular philosophical framework. However, the answers I give should be relevant to any person concerned with how to be a good person.
The first article, Moral Tuning, deals with the first part of the question, namely how we can best go about figuring out what it is that we should and should not do. Specifically, it deals with the question of whether, and if so how, individuals like you and I can critically reflect upon the norms of our own society, sorting the chaff of merely conventional norms from the wheat of genuinely moral ones. In brief, it is the question of whether we as individuals are autonomous in our relation to the norms of our own society. In answering this question, my co-authors and I argue that Smith’s use of musical metaphors in TMS, words like tone, pitch, and concord, can be understood as elements of an analogical model of morality. In contrast to earlier interpretations of Smith’s musical metaphors, which have seen music as an aesthetic object, we draw on recent developments in musicology to argue that music may also be construed as a practice. Construing the source domain of this analogical model as musical practice allows us to construe the target domain also as a practice—as moral tuning. This in turn allows us to argue that moral autonomy consists in realising the freedom inherent in the constant need to translate norms into action, and in so doing, to interpret and reinterpret, not only the actions, but the norms themselves. In other words, following the norms of our own society already implies that we are autonomous in relation to them. Being good sentimentalists thus begins with realising that we are free to question and reshape the moral standard of our own society.
The second article, Love Redirected, deals with the second part of the question, namely how we can best go about doing what we already think we should do. This, then, is a question of moral motivation, more specifically a question about the difference between genuinely moral motivation and other kinds of motivation, like a selfish desire for praise. Smith himself argues that we not only desire the actual praise of other people, but to be worthy of their praise, to be ‘praiseworthy’. The desire to be praiseworthy, the ‘love of praiseworthiness’ is then the genuinely moral motivation, for it aims at nothing but the satisfaction of having done the right thing. The trouble with Smith’s answer is that he does not adequately connect his claim about praiseworthiness to the rest of his model. This has lead to some confusion in the secondary literature, and in the first part of Love Redirected, I seek to end this confusion by combining what Smith says in the various editions of TMS into a coherent argument for how the desire to be praiseworthy comes from redirecting our desire for praise from other people towards the ideal(l) of the ‘impartial spectator’. I then go on to show how this reading also fits with modern psychological research on the moral development of children. Finally, I conclude that this redirection of our desire for praise requires not just negative, but positive emotional reinforcement. Therefore, becoming good sentimentalists involves taking pleasure in our moral successes, no less than we are pained at our failures.
The third article, The Practical Impossibility of Being both Impartial and Well-informed, makes a first pass at dealing with the idea of the impartial spectator itself, an idea that is central to the answers given in the two first articles. The problem with the impartial spectator is that she is also supposed to be well-informed about those she judges. However, the demands of impartiality and of understanding pull in opposite directions: To be well-informed—to properly understand the situation and character of the person we judge—we must, typically, be sufficiently physically close to that person to see with our own eyes what they are going through. At the same time, this kind of physical closeness tends to entangle us in the kinds of emotional bonds that hinder an impartial evaluation. One might think that this tension could be eased or eliminated by relying less on physical closeness and more on the powers of our imagination to, as Smith frequently puts it, ‘bring home to us’ the situation of the person we are judging. However, using Construal Level Theory, I argue that merely imagining someone’s situation in detail and/or taking their perspective produces a similar effect to physical closeness, and hence that the tension between understanding and impartiality is practically inescapable. To be good sentimentalists, we must therefore recognise our limitations, and give up on the illusion of ever being fully understanding and perfectly impartial at the same time.
The fourth article, The Partially Impartial Spectator as an Ethical Ideal, makes a second pass at dealing with the idea, or rather ideal, of the impartial spectator. It begins with the recognition that we frequently fail to be impartial spectators, both of others, and of ourselves. This is especially true in those cases where our views conflict with those of someone else. Building on research detailing the various ways in which cognitive and affective biases impact our perception of the world, our reasoning about our own views, and our (in)ability to resolve disputes with others, I argue that merely trying harder to be impartial spectators is liable to backfire, rendering us just as biased as ever, to which is added an unshakeable confidence that we were right all along. Therefore, I go on to argue, we must try smarter. Trying smarter, I conclude, involves aiming for something less ideal, more achievable, and, most importantly, humbler, namely to be partially impartial spectators.
Being a good sentimentalist thus beings with realising our freedom to interpret, continues in our taking pleasure in our moral successes, pauses at the realisation that we will never be truly impartial spectators, and ends with a commitment to continued improvement under the lodestar of the ideal of the partially impartial spectator.