Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 3, Chapter 4: The Nature of Self-deceit and the Origin and Use of General Rule
Chapter 4: The Nature of Self-deceit and the Origin and Use of General Rule
88 The impartial spectator does not always need to be far to pervert our judgments on our own conduct.
When he is near, the violence and injustice of our own selfish feelings are sometimes enough to induce the man within the breast to make a report very different from what our real circumstances can authorise.
89 There are two occasions when we examine our own conduct and try to view it as how the impartial spectator sees it:
When we are about to act
After we have acted.
Our views tend to be very partial in both cases.
But they tend to be most partial when they must be impartial.
90 Before we perform an act, our feeling's eagerness will seldom allow us to think about what we are doing.
Our violent emotions discolour our views even when we are trying to:
place ourselves in another person's situation, and
regard the objects that interest us as how they will naturally appear to another person.
The fury of our own feelings constantly calls us back to our own place, where everything appears magnified and misrepresented by self-love.
We can obtain only instantaneous glimpses of how those objects would appear to others.
vanish in a moment, and
are not altogether just, even while they last.
We cannot even for that moment:
divest ourselves entirely of the heat inspired by our situation, and
consider what we are about to do with complete impartiality.
As father Malebranche says, the passions all:
justify themselves, and
seem reasonable and proportional to their objects, as long as we continue to feel them.
We protect our ego through self-deceit, a weakness of humans which creates half of the disorders of human life
91 We can enter more coolly into the indifferent spectator's feeling whens:
the action is over and
the feelings which prompted it have subsided.
What interested us before is almost now as indifferent to us as it always was to the impartial spectator.
We can now examine our own conduct with his candour and impartiality.
The man of today is no longer agitated by the feelings which distracted him yesterday.
When the burst of emotion is fairly over, we can identify ourselves with the ideal man within the breast.
We can view our own situation through our own eyes.
We can view our own conduct with the severe eyes of the impartial spectator.
But our judgments now:
are often of little importance compared to what they were before, and
can frequently produce only vain regret and unavailing repentance.
It does not always secure us from similar errors in the future.
However, they are seldomly quite candid even in this case.
Our opinion on our own character depends entirely on our judgments on our past conduct.
It is so disagreeable to think bad of ourselves.
We often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavourable.
They say that a bold surgeon has hands which do not tremble when he performs an operation on himself.
A man is often equally bold if he pulls off the veil of self-delusion which covers the deformities of his own conduct from his own view.
Rather than see our own behaviour so disagreeably, we often foolishly try to exasperate those unjust feelings which misled us.
By artifice, we try to:
awaken our old hatreds, and
irritate afresh our almost forgotten resentments.
We even exert ourselves for this miserable purpose.
We thus persevere in injustice, merely because:
we were once unjust, and
we are ashamed to see that we were so.
92 Mankind's views on the propriety of their own conduct are so partial, both during the time of action and afterwards.
It is so difficult for them to view it as how any indifferent spectator would consider it.
Man's moral sense is a power of perception which distinguishes the beauty or deformity of passions and affections.
If men judged their own conduct more immediately by this moral sense, then it would more accurately judge on them, than on those of other men.
The moral sense of other men have a more distant prospect.
93Half the disorders of human life is caused by this self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind.
If we saw ourselves as how others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reform would generally be unavoidable.
We could not otherwise endure the sight.
Nature's remedy for self-deceit are general rules
94 However, Nature has not left this important weakness without a remedy.
She has not abandoned us entirely to the delusions of self-love.
Our continual observations on the conduct of others, insensibly lead us to form to ourselves general rules on what is fit and proper to be done or avoided.
Some of their actions shock all our natural sentiments.
We hear everybody detest against them.
This further confirms and even exasperates our natural sense of their deformity.
It satisfies us that we view them in the proper light, when we see other people view them in the same light.
We resolve never to be guilty of the like, nor ever to render ourselves the objects of universal disapprobation in this way.
We thus naturally lay down a general rule to ourselves that we should avoid all actions which render us the objects of all those dreaded feelings.
These make us odious, contemptible, or punishable.
On the contrary, other actions call forth our approbation.
We hear everybody express the same favourable opinion on them.
Everybody is eager to honour them.
They excite all of mankind's love, gratitude, and admiration.
By nature, we have the strongest desire for those feelings.
We become ambitious of performing the like.
We naturally lay down another rule to ourselves, that we should carefully seek every opportunity of acting in this way.
95 Thus, the general rules of morality are formed.
They are ultimately founded on the experience of what our moral faculties approve or disapprove of in particular instances.
We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions.
Because upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule.
On the contrary, the general rule is formed when we find that certain kinds of actions are approved or disapproved of.
A person is murdered, because of avarice, envy, or unjust resentment, by someone whom he loved and trusts.
The dying man complains more of his false friend's perfidy and ingratitude, than of the murder.
One of the most sacred rules of conduct prohibited the taking away of an innocent life.
A man who sees this murder could have no occasion to reflect that this was a plain violation of that rule, and consequently a very blamable action.
His detestation of this crime would arise instantaneously and before he has formed to himself any such general rule.
On the contrary, the general rule which he might form afterwards would be founded on the detestation he felt in his own breast at the thought of this and other actions of the same kind.
96 When we read in history or romance, we admire the account of actions of generosity or condemn the actions of baseness.
Neither of them arise from reflecting that there are certain general rules which declare:
all generous actions admirable, and
all base actions contemptible.
On the contrary, those general rules are all formed from our experience on the effects naturally produced on us by different kinds of actions.
97 An amiable action, a respectable action, an horrid action, are actions which naturally excite the observer's love, respect, or horror for its doer.
General rules determine what actions are or are not the objects of each of those sentiments.
These rules can only be formed by observing what actions actually excite them.
98 These general rules are formed and universally established by the concurring feelings of mankind.
We frequently appeal to them as to the standards of judgment, in debating on the morality of complicated and dubious actions.
They are commonly cited as the ultimate foundations of what is just and unjust.
This circumstance have misled several very eminent authors, to draw up their systems thinking that mankind's original moral judgments were formed like the decisions of a court of justice.
The general rule
Then, whether the action under consideration fell properly within its comprehension.
99 When those general rules of conduct have been fixed in our mind by habitual reflection, they are very useful in correcting the misrepresentations of self-love on what is moral.
If a very resentful man listened to the dictates of self-love, he might regard his enemy's death as a small compensation for the wrong he has received, even if it were just a very slight provocation.
But his observations on the conduct of others, have taught him how horrible all such sanguinary revenges appear.
Unless his education has been very singular, he lays as an inviolable rule, to always abstain from revenge.
This rule renders him incapable of such a violence
The original fury of his own temper might have made him determine the revenge to be:
quite just and proper, and
what every impartial spectator would approve of.
But his reverence for the rule which past experience has impressed on him:
checks the impetuosity of his feelings, and
corrects the partial views suggested by his self-love.
If he lets himself be controlled by resentment as to violate this rule, he will not be able to throw away his respect for this rule.
At the peak of his passion, this respect makes him hesitate and tremble at the thought of what he is about to do.
He is secretly conscious to himself that he is breaking those rules:
which he had resolved never to infringe during his cool hours,
which he had never seen infringed by others without the highest disapprobation, and
of which the infringement must soon render him similarly disagreeable.
Before he can take the last fatal decision, he is tormented with doubt.
He is terrified of violating so sacred a rule.
At the same time, he is urged on by the fury of his desires to violate it.
He changes his purpose every moment.
Sometimes he resolves:
to adhere to his principle, and
not to indulge a passion which may bring him shame and repentance.
He is calmed momentarily from the prospect of that peace which he will enjoy if stops himself.
But immediately, the passion rouses anew.
With fresh fury, it drives him on to commit what he had resolved to abstain from.
Wearied and distracted with those continual irresolutions, from a sort of despair, he makes the final fatal and irrecoverable step.
He throws himself over a precipice, with that terror and amazement as one who is fleeing from an enemy.
He meets a more certain destruction than from anything that pursues him from behind.
Such are his feelings even at the time of acting.
Though he is then less sensible of the impropriety of his own conduct than afterwards, when his feelings are gratified and palled.
He begins to view what he has done as how others would see it.
He actually feels, what he had only foreseen very imperfectly before, the stings of remorse and repentance begin to agitate and torment him.