The Four Sources of Moral Approbation

A lot of people like to couch their morality in deduction based on initial axioms.  Others prefer to rely on their intuition and sensibilities and use their feelings as a guiding compass.  It would seem that people in this latter category are unapproachable.  They can not be reasoned with.  Logic holds no sway in the arena of sentiments.

Any person who’s ever been in a relationship has had the following experience.  One partner expresses an emotion, probably dissatisfaction, with one thing or another and the other partner proceeds to argue.  The couple is talking across purposes.  The first partner is dissatisfied and communicating as much.  It’s a disclosure of fact.  The second partner is provoked and attempts to convince the other what should be felt and even exposé a logically sound and persuasive argument.  I don’t have to tell you that the first person is probably a ‘she’ and the second person is probably a ‘he’.  He may not like the sentiment expressed by her.  He would prefer that it be otherwise.   But preference for a thing does not make it so.  Is her disposition unassailable?  Is it a black box of wonder and unknown? Although it might seem that way, to either party, we are able to analyze the sources of these disapproving feelings and evaluate the particular causes.

For this we can draw upon Adam Smith:

“When we approve of any character or action, the sentiments which we feel, are, according to the foregoing system, derived from four sources, which are in some respects different from one another. First, we sympathize with the motives of the agent; secondly, we enter into the gratitude of those who receive the benefit of his actions; thirdly, we observe that his conduct has been agreeable to the general rules by which those two sympathies generally act; and, last of all, when we consider such actions as making a part of a system of behaviour which tends to promote the happiness either of the individual or of the society, they appear to derive a beauty from this utility, not unlike that which we ascribe to any well-contrived machine.”Theory of Moral Sentiments; VII.III.32

A person who does not want to understand emotions in regard to the actions or disposition of another, or themselves, will not accept such an analysis.  They’d rather that their own determinants of approbation remain enigmatic and mysterious.  Such an ephemeral approach admits of analytical laziness or mysticism.  It’s much easier to say that something ‘just plain ain’t right’ than to get into the nitty-gritty of why we feel that way.  Take note that this is an examination not of what we should feel or that which is objectively right or blameworthy.  Smith was not advocating a system of right and wrong. This is merely an examination of the subjective emotional response which judges the propriety of any and all actions.

When first reading Smith’s account of the sources of approbation you probably have the first impulse of thinking that “surely that can’t be it”.  There must surely be other sources.  But of you ponder and propose sources or situations, then you will recognize, if you are honest, that the sources listed are exhaustive.
We can try some examples.

(1)  Imagine a world where only two people instantaneously exist; John and Fred.  John is mad and attempts to punch Fred in the face.  Mid-swing, John slips, misses Fred completely, and the world ends.  If you have the ability to award a util to one agent or the other in one brief period of afterlife, to whom do you award it?  Three of the sources have no relevance.  Fred didn’t receive the benefit of John’s attempted strike, there were no expectations to violate because no world existed before the instant, and a system of no greater or lesser happiness was reinforced because the game isn’t repeated.  On what basis would you award the util?  If you are indifferent, then that is fine.  If you feel anything at all, without violating the premises of the example, you surely think that John’s intent was improper and you would award the util to Fred for the brief afterlife – a relative punishment to John.  If in fact you are indifferent, Smith is still not proven wrong because his list of sources is for moral preference.  Indifference is just a sign that the relevant points for moral judgment are not decisive.  It would still be up to the challenger to provide a fifth source of moral preference.

(2)  Let’s try an example that’s more realistic.  Scrooge is a miser.  He cares only about himself and his financing business.  His intent is purely prudent.  Further the only opportunity in town for charity includes throwing money down a hole for no effect.  The rest of the community expects that everyone gives to charity and Scrooge refuses.  He only wants to make money.  In the course of his business dealings Scrooge finances schools, shops, research, roads, and hospitals.  Is Scrooge’s behavior blameworthy?  What if his compliance with expectations would have resulted in fewer of these valuable opportunities being exploited?  It’s arguable whether acts which are solely prudent promote a system of greater happiness when exercised by any person.  But the effects of Scrooge’s actions certainly have benefits which are enjoyed by others.  The effects of an action matter for its propriety.  I would argue again that no new source of approval exists which would judge Scrooge’s actions.

(3)  What about Scrooge’s community who has the expectation of charity.  Since they are throwing money down a hole, is their disposition toward charity right?  The effect is that wealth and tools for satisfaction are being foregone in lieu of social congruity.  More importantly, is it right, given that the community has the expectations, for the community to allow Scrooge to pursue his own prudence?  I would argue that despite the suspected benefits of charity, despite Scrooge’s social obstinacy, and despite the community’s good intent, they would be right in allowing Scrooge to pursue his own goals and abstain from forcing him into compliance.  Allowing people like Scrooge to deal honestly and consequentially serve their fellow man as a result of their own separate pursuits is a system which promotes greater happiness.  It aligns the natural impetus of self service by one person with the same prudent pursuit of happiness by others.  The community reinforces this alignment when it leaves Scrooge alone – regardless of their reasoning.

Back to our first couple.  The man who understands the cause of his partner’s distress is not the one who knows how she should feel in accordance to his opinion or a professed ideal.  The man who understands is he who gleans the particularities of the four sources insofar as they are relevant to his partner.  They are person and context specific.  It happens, that in expressions of dissatisfaction, women are more often looking for empathy and understanding than for a ‘solution’ to the problem (In this case, the solution lies in how the man addresses her expression of distress – Not in how he addresses object of distress).  The four sources are vital in achieving understanding and the coincidence of sympathies.

We don’t just feel things.  At the very least, we are party of the chemical and physical world.  There are causes for our feelings.  And because we are social beings, what we perceive of others is a relevant stimulus.  Adam Smith wasn’t saying that he had derived the source of all preferences in the four sources of approbation.  He was talking specifically about what causes us to feel whether actions and attitudes are right.  He’s not advocating that people should use their emotions as a moral compass in ignorance of social systems and institutions.  Circumstances help contextualize and give shape to the relevance and magnitude to each of the four sources.  He’s not an evangelist saying what you should or should not feel about an action.  He is explaining the way things are. Judgment is up to us.

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3 thoughts on “The Four Sources of Moral Approbation

  1. Austin says:

    There => Their, first and last paragraphs.

    Do you suggest that everyone has the obligation to open up their intuitive black box of “just ain’t right” to examine their sentiments in detail? Certainly rigorous moralists and philosophers should; does it follow that everyone should, always? Black-box sentiments are cost minimizers, and though they no doubt have inefficiencies, “you should spend more on this” is a dubious panacea.

    More importantly though, you’ve neglected one aspect of the relationship between Scrooge and the community: are they equals, or is someone the superior? Smith very clearly licenses the superior to enforce social norms by coercion, tempered only by judgment and circumspection. Your argument that Scrooge should be left alone is perhaps your recommendation to the superior’s judgment, but it’s hardly authoritative.

    If Scrooge is the superior, his finances grown by virtue of his position, does he not have an obligation towards those of inferior status as a father owes his children? I’d say so, though your heroic assumption that charity provides zero benefit makes the math fairly easy. (Perhaps not: given that physical money represents potential goods exchanged and no goods are thrown down the hole, when Scrooge throws 10% of the town’s money supply down the hole, does he not deflate the currency, implicitly transferring wealth to all other holders of that currency?)

    No, a discussion of the relationship between money supply and price level was not the point you were trying to make. And yes, Actor-Recipient-Context-System is fairly well exhaustive. But TMS must be read with the Equal-Equal relationship in mind, with WN covering the government qua superior relationship. In a superior-inferior relationship, the implications of Actor-Recipient-Context-System analysis can be very different.

    • pacvae says:

      To your question “Do you suggest that everyone has the obligation to open up their intuitive black box of “just ain’t right” to examine their sentiments in detail?”

      Not at all. But the people who are best able to empathize are those who know the contents of the “black box”. They surely don’t think of it that way though.

      On your following paragraphs: My assumptions were just chosen to show that the four sources are exhaustive – not for there broad application to real circumstances. I didn’t want to address the superior-inferior relationship AND the 4 sources here (and money and purchasing power). Brevity matters. 1000 words is a good rule for what people, on average, are willing to read. I used to go to about 1600. But I don’t have an audience full of Austins. 🙂

      I don’t disagree with anything that you’ve said. Nor is it particularly contradictory to anything I’ve said. You’ve made relevant points which are not addressed here.

  2. […] But why do we feel guilty? Adam Smith theorized that each of us acts as if we are constantly observed by an impartial spectator who sees and judges all that we do. This impartial spectator judges us and obliges us to guilt by using the four sources of moral approbation. […]

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