To Lockdown, or Not to Lockdown

Liberate Minnesota protest at the Governor’s Residence in St Paul, Minnesota by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

Protests which have recently arisen in parts of the United States and Brazil claim that economic disruption caused by lockdowns imposed to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2 are more dangerous than Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Protestors in the United States, in public spaces and online, also argue that the lockdowns consist of unconstitutional violations on personal rights to move freely, to assemble, and to work, and that Covid-19 is not very deadly anyway. These protests are often joined by those who trumpet conspiracy theories. One is that the billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates helped create SARS-CoV-2 so that he could sell vaccines and/or implant subcutaneous dyes or capsules to track and spy on the world’s population. Another that all lockdowns are really seized opportunities by those who wish to turn their governments into massive, all-powerful police states.

The latter claim embraces and expands an element of fear shared by many on the left, right, and center. China’s stringent lockdown of Hubei province, which includes Wuhan – the city where the virus originated – appeared to many to be overly invasive, exemplary of authoritarian forms of government and, therefore, not to be replicated in free societies. Viktor Orbán and his government, through the Hungarian Parliament which they control, took advantage of the emergency to seize the power to ‘cancel all elections, suspend its own ability to legislate, and give the prime minister the right to rule by decree—indefinitely,’ as Anne Applebaum writes.

Fears that the lockdowns might lead to the erosion of civil liberties are not entirely misguided, even if overblown. Many democratic societies, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have instituted robust virus control policies which included contract tracing, targeted shutdowns, and quarantines without eroding overall civil rights or arbitrarily expanding government power. Not only have such policies been highly effective, they made total lockdowns unnecessary; because of them, relatively few have thus far had their rights to move freely, assemble, and work curtailed. The United States has long – since shortly after its founding, in fact – imposed restrictions on movement, assembly, and speech, and compelled citizens to take certain actions, during wars and public health crises without becoming an Orbánian- or Chinese Communist Party-style authoritarian regime, whatever extremists on the left or right would argue.

World leaders and heads of state and local governments acknowledge, as common sense indicates, that lockdowns cannot continue indefinitely: as members of a social species, most people need regular contact with others to maintain their mental health; most people need to get back to work to support themselves and their families; governments need tax revenue to maintain social welfare and defense systems, essential infrastructure needs workers and funds to maintain it; dental care, elective surgeries, and other deferred healthcare must be resumed before overall health deteriorates; and so on. The debate is not over whether lockdowns will be eased and lifted, but when and how, while minimizing suffering and death as much as possible along the way.

The debate is complicated by the fact that so little is still known about actual infection rates; how many people carry the virus without falling ill of Covid-19; actual death rates; and how these rates might change without nonmedical interventions such as lockdowns, quarantines, and voluntary and enforced social distancing. Early results seem to indicate what many have long suspected: the rates of all of these are significantly higher than official tallies indicate. A recent study at Stanford University, based on results from a new antibody test, indicate that far more people have been exposed to the virus, which, if so, may indicate that the death rate is far lower than initial estimates indicated. However, initial takeaways from the as-yet-not peer-reviewed study may be deeply flawed since it was not randomized, relied on a test whose accuracy is questionable, and cannot yet take into account actual rather than reported death rates since actual rates are still unknown. Some countries and municipalities which publish mortality figures without long lag times show large spikes in general mortality rates unaccounted for by confirmed Covid-19 deaths. This helps explain why so many places throughout the world are experiencing such dire situations as hospitals, morgues, crematories, and cemeteries are unable to keep pace with its ravages.

It is telling that countries and localities that have experienced the worst of the virus thus far are not reporting the kinds of anti-lockdown protests that are occurring elsewhere. Hard-hit western Europe and New York State, for example, know what it is to suffer mass casualties, and those who live in those places who would prefer to see the virus run its course in hopes to attain herd immunity – a still theoretical goal since we still know so little about how the virus affects those exposed to it, and those who have not yet – appear to be few and far between.

For those who insist that the lockdown cure is worse than the disease, they need to be honest about the risks and our still profound ignorance about how the virus affects people and how it might do if left to run through the population unchecked, or mitigated only by voluntary or limited measures. They need to acknowledge that the evidence regarding the mortality rate is still mixed; that even if the percentage of people who suffer and die from the virus is relatively small, the total number of casualties may still be unacceptably high if the majority of the population catches the virus; and that many who survive infection still suffer greatly from it, including damage to kidney, heart, vascular system, digestive system, and brain.

They need to understand that such arguments as ‘just because people die with Covid-19 doesn’t mean they die of Covid-19′ – another one I have frequently encountered on social media – are disingenuous and dangerous. They are disingenuous because people are routinely killed by disease or accident which is listed as the primary cause of death though they had another ongoing health issue. A person might have a suppressed immune system because of a condition or medication following a transplant or cancer, but their primary cause of death might still be Covid-19. Even if such a person caught the virus more easily or suffered worse effects from it than they might have otherwise, if they hadn’t caught it, they’d still be alive. The same goes for people who routinely live for years or decades with high blood pressure, obesity, heart or lung ailments, clotting disorders, old age, or other risk factors or disease. To argue that people with comorbidities did not really die of Covid-19, or that the virus merely hastened their inevitable deaths, is dangerous because it implies that the preservation of life in the face of disease or injury is itself pointless and unnecessary. Those who died of Covid-19 who had other risk factors – well, their deaths don’t count. Brush them under the rug.

In sum: when making an argument to extend or to lift lockdowns, be honest about what you’re arguing. If you’re arguing to extend the lockdown, acknowledge the side effects to physical and mental health, and to overall material and financial well-being. If you’re arguing to end the lockdown, don’t pretend that we know more than we do about the potential consequences, or pretend Covid-19 is not really such a big deal. No time is the time for lies, obfuscation, conspiracy theories, or hyperbole, but this is especially not it.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Camp Funston, at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

Better Times A’Comin?

US Capitol Building under repair, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

In her new opinion piece in The New York Times, Anne Marie Slaughter identifies and describes a heartening array of individuals, organizations, and businesses in the United States and around the world that have done things right, and new and better attitudes and practices that may arise out of the COVID-19 crisis.

Slaughter doesn’t address the issue directly in this piece, but it’s been my hope that this crisis will finally force government and business sectors to develop efficient, targeted work training and redeployment of workers who have found themselves unemployed as industries that once employed them shrink or disappear. This must be done, quickly and on a mass scale, to prevent the kind of economic and social disasters which many communities have been experiencing in recent decades as the economic rug was pulled out from under them, as factories, mines, and other industries that drove their local economies were closed, relocated, or automated.

So far, such training and reemployment efforts have been piecemeal and have left vast swaths of unemployed or underemployed people in the lurch. Meanwhile, political figures, parties, and pundits have largely responded with non-solutions, such as point-scoring with symbolic but futile gestures of bringing a few jobs back in dying or robotizing industries (coal mining, manufacturing, etc), or by pitting Americans against each other by adopting and amplifying identity politics and other socially corrosive ideological battlegrounds. Meanwhile, the wealthy and connected few vacuum up most of the economic gains, aided and abetted by a national government that has become their increasingly corrupt and self-serving handmaiden.

The United States can do better, as it has done in many other crises. Now, in this period of mass mobilization unlike anything seen since the Second World War, is the time to do it.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

American Contempt

US Capitol Building under repair, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Like so many others, I’m deeply disturbed, and yes, frightened, by the recent diatribe by the President of the United States against the legitimacy and patriotism of four United States Congresswomen, and by those who support his remarks. My native country has long been a beacon of hope and a refuge for those around the world who rejoice that there’s a country, founded and built by immigration, which is dedicated to universal principles of human rights. That beacon is currently being dimmed by the mud of hatred, bigotry, and distrust being flung around with wild abandon in this dark and dangerous time. These recent remarks of the President are the most egregious example of this, no less because of the enormous responsibility entrusted in him to represent all United States citizens and all who its laws protect.

In response, I make these points:

  1. Every United States citizen, with the exception of Native Americans and a few others, is either themselves, or a descendant of, people who did not ‘go back’ to their countries of origin to ‘fix’ them. (This is true of the President of the United States as well, whose own grandfather was a recent immigrant.) They elected, instead, to settle in the United States to build a better life for themselves, their families, and their posterity. A relative few have also made efforts to make things better in the countries of their ancestry or origin in some way, such as through charitable organizations or sending money to help their extended families, but most have dedicated themselves entirely to the fortunes and future of their adopted country. The ‘go back’ sentiment, therefore, is an expression of contempt for every citizen, as well as every legal resident and aspiring citizen-to-be of the United States.
  2. With the exception of those made through corruption and the outsize influence of monied special interests, every United States law and policy adopted or reformed is the result of the belief of citizens that the United States government is not doing right by its citizens in some way, and is not yet fully fulfilling its mission laid out in its Declaration of Independence or its Constitution. Whether those beliefs are correct or not is a matter of debate, not a question of ‘hating’ the United States. If it is, then the current President hates the United States, since he ran on a platform that its government was doing all manner of things wrong, and that it was a ‘swamp’ in need of reform. To advocate change and reform is what United States citizens do as a matter of course, from the American Revolution onwards. The idea that elected members of the United States government are ‘vicious’ for trying to change current laws or policies, as their constituents voted them in to do, is an expression of contempt for the United States’ democratic-republican system of government set up in the Constitution and reformed by its citizens through amendments over its history.
  3. Nearly every wave of immigration to the United States was met with hostility by many descendants of immigrants, though by no means all. These hostiles had grown complacent and entitled in their belief that the United States was their exclusive domain, though they descended from people who had been there for a very short time compared to the citizens of nearly every nation on earth. They attempted to justify their hostility on religious grounds, promoting hatred for Catholics, Jews, and others; on grounds of ethnicity or nationality, promoting hatred for Italians, Irish, and others; on racial grounds, promoting hatred for African, Asiatic, and other peoples; and on charges that immigrants were taking their jobs, promoting hatred for anyone new who competed with them in the job market. This sort of self-righteous, entitled, lazy-minded, hard-hearted bigotry, sadly, continues today, though many of these previously hated groups of people are now appreciated for their unique contributions and hard work in making the United States among the most dynamic nations on earth. The sentiment expressed in the idea that a foreign-born Congresswomen should be ‘sent back’ though she’s now a citizen through hers and her family’s efforts, and that three of these Congresswomen are ‘originally’ from elsewhere because their ancestors were, expresses the same contempt for immigrants and descendants of immigrants as the Know-Nothings, the Ku-Klux-Klan, the National Alliance, and all other groups and individuals who have characterized their fellow Americans as permanent outsiders because of their religion, ethnicity, original or ancestral nationality, or race, rather than their status as citizens or their desire and their efforts to make the United States their chosen home.

I may add to this as I have more time to reflect and write on these matters. I thank you, friends, for your patience in reading this, as I attempt to relieve my mind and soothe my heart a bit by putting these thoughts in writing.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass in 2016, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and the fiery young newspaperwoman had published her controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells (born in Mississippi on July 16th, 1862) would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer promoting black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape or other violent crimes; it served as vengeance for or a public warning against alleged insubordination or impertinence, petty crimes, idleness, drunkenness, and so on. It was also put to such uses as eliminating business competition (as was the case for Wells’ friends), getting rid of inconvenient owners of coveted land, or scapegoating black people for the crimes of others. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they constituted a form of social control that replaced the terrorism (the system of coercion which included whippings, deprivations, rape, and threats of being sold ‘down the river’) of slavery.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and his letter in praise of Southern Horrors served as the pamphlet’s introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I also visited a second site that happened to be associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

If I ever manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success!

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about the brilliant and irrepressible Ida B. Wells:

Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931) ~ by Tyina Steptoe for BlackPast.org

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. ~ by Ida B. Wells, Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast episode 51

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice ~ by Jennifer McBride for Webster University’s website.

New York Age ~ by Heather Martin for the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ~ by Ida B. Wells (1892) via Project Gutenberg

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

Aimé Fernand David Césaire, photo credit manomerci.comAimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (he was born on June 26, 1913, and died April 17, 2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as the disparate talents required for each rarely coincide in one person.

In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’. The term was chosen so as to be provocative, a way of re-claiming the word nègre which had become a racial slur, while simultaneously shocking those who heard or read it into paying attention. Through his philosophy, political writing, and especially his poetry and plays, the world pays attention still.

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire:

Aime Cesaire: Martinician Author and Politician ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Aimé Fernand Césaire, 1913–2008 ~ by Meredith Goldsmith for The Poetry Foundation

Aimé Fernand David Césaire (1913-2008) ~ by Sylvia Lovina Chidi, as chapter 1 of The Greatest Black Achievers in History 

Négritude ~ by Souleymane Bachir Diagne for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my undergraduate education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations, which presented an epistemological quandary, often comes up in introductory philosophy classes: given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine (born on June 25th, 1908), there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 ~ by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science ~ by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician ~ Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume some years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days. I also encountered his ideas regularly in my undergraduate studies in moral philosophy.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much everyone who’s interested at least in the basics of economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy, and had read excerpts as well as a lot of commentary on it. The Wealth of Nations is considered a foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

adam smith_s grave in canongate kirkyard, edinburgh, scotland, 2017 amy cools

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who not an expert on Smith’s life and thought. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are, and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) ~ Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy ~ by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth ~ Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like ~ Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and his book The Infidel and the Professor ~ with Russ Roberts for EconTalk

Enlightenment ~ William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism ~ Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith ~ Dennis C. Rasmussen for The Atlantic

The Real Adam Smith ~ by Paul Sagar for Aeon

The Theory of Moral Sentiments ~ Adam Smith, first published in 1759

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!