Adam Smith and Loveliness
The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).
In his discussion of how people judge themselves in Part 3, chapter 2 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith writes:
Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame. (TMS III.ii.1)
This passage explores the origins of our self-motivated desire to be good. Smith doesn’t buy the cynical claim that people only want to be loved and praised. Shame keeps us from simply lying to gain love and praise. Even when we do, it’s unsatisfying.
Because people relate to others by imagining themselves in the other’s place, we also imagine the others are doing likewise. To judge ourselves, we imagine what others think of us, and we imagine what they would think if they knew everything that we know. Smith believes we should want to judge ourselves accurately and so we should cultivate the ability to judge ourselves as impartially as we can, developing an internal “impartial spectator”.
This leads Smith to make an interesting observation: praise and blame are really valuable (or horrible) because they reveal others’ thoughts about us. For anyone but the most self-assured person, it’s hard to be blamed for something we don’t deserve. It shows that others think us capable of bad behaviour, and makes us wonder whether we deserve it.
Deserved praise confirms to us that we deserve the praise we think we do, and we will correct undeserved praise rather than be reminded that we’ve fallen short. (TMS III.ii.4)
Our desire for praise and our fear of blame are not enough to render us “fit for society”. It is our desire to deserve praise, and not to deserve blame, that render us really fit. (TMS III.ii.7)