Expanding our “We”–Adam Smith Style

I was surprised, once again, by Jonah Lehrer who posted this interesting interpretation of Adam Smith’s philosophy.   It reminded me of Rorty’s argument about expanding our “we.”

Adam Smith, the 18th century philosopher, was there first. Although Smith is best known for his economic treatise The Wealth of Nations, he was most proud of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his sprawling investigation into the psychology of morality. Like his friend David Hume, Smith was convinced that our moral decisions were shaped by our emotional instincts. We were good for essentially irrational reasons.

According to Smith, the source of these moral emotions was the imagination, which we used to automatically mirror the minds of others. (The reflective mirror, which had recently become a popular household item, is an important metaphor in Smith‘s writing on morality.) “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” Smith wrote, “we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” This mirroring process leads to an instinctive sympathy for our fellow man⎯Smith called it “fellow-feeling”⎯which formed the basis for our moral, legal and ethical decisions.”

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