Sympathy, Beauty, and Sentiment: Adam Smith's Aesthetic Morality

Journal of Scottish Philosophy 7 (2):133-146 (2009)
Abstract
One of the more striking aspects of Adam Smith's moral theory is the degree to which it depends on and appeals to aesthetic norms. By considering what Smith says about judgments of propriety – the foundational type of judgment in his system – and by tying what he says in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to certain of his other writings, I argue that Smith ultimately defends an aesthetic morality. Among the challenges that any aesthetic morality faces is that it seems to entail moral relativism. This problem is magnified by Smith's reliance on the judgments of the impartial spectator, which also seems to make his theory more vulnerable to a Euthyphro-type objection. I suggest that Smith can potentially get around these problems, given his presumption of aesthetic naturalism. While there is certainly some variation in our aesthetic judgments, Smith claims that we naturally find certain actions and sentiments odious, while others we find agreeable. The reason, he argues, is that any society that judged otherwise would not survive
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