Adam Smith and the Moral Emotions

Recently I had the opportunity to give a guest lecture to Medical Ethics students at Norwich University on “Adam Smith and the Moral Emotions.” The lecture is based around Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. I was able to film much of the discussion on a stationary cell phone. Although the picture is a bit too “close in,” the audio is of good quality. In this selection from the lecture, I talk to the students about To Kill a Mockingbird (volunteered as an example of a favorite novel by a student) and what literature can teach us about how important happiness is to the good life and about the moral emotions.

As I told the students, Adam Smith’s moral theory is very “hot” right now among moral philosophers, because he recognized the role that moral emotions play in moral judgments. (And psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, if they read more moral philosophy, should be citing Smith a lot more!) Moral judgment is based on intuition, and intuition correlates systematically with our emotional reactions to the acts and motivations of others that we perceive or imagine. So studying moral emotion is a “scientific” way to systematize our intuitions and make our moral judgments more reliable. Science alone cannot give us moral truth, because intuitions sometimes conflict, in which case we have to decide which intuition is stronger or better supported, but our moral intuitions are more reliable than many people recognize.