By James R. Otteson, John Meadowcroft
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Additional info for Adam Smith
Let us begin with this question: How does Smith propose that individuals develop moral codes? We are born, Smith thinks, with no morality whatsoever. A baby knows only its own wants, with no notion of a proper (or improper) thing to ask for, of a proper (or improper) way to ask for it, or, for that matter, of shame or remorse for having asked for something it should not have asked for. Hence the baby attempts to have its wants satisfied simply by alarming its caregiver with howls and cries. 4 According to Smith it is not until the baby has grown to a child and begins playing with its mates that the child has the jolting experience of realizing that he is not the center of everyone’s life, only of his own.
First, nearly all human beings transition during their lifetimes from having no moral code as infants and small children to having complex, sophisticated moral codes as adults. Second, all known human communities have prevailing moral codes. Third, the moral codes of these communities overlap but are not identical. And fourth, some aspects of moral codes change over time yet other aspects seem to endure. What Smith wanted to know is what could account for these facts, and he wanted to address them as a moral philosopher or scientist, following lead of Newton: Study the phenomena, look for regularities, propose mechanisms that can explain the regularities, test the putative mechanisms against future or larger data.
It would not, however, entail the extreme view that we can know nothing at all about the external world, an objection sometimes pressed. What rescues Smith from this highly dubious consequence of his position is that he does not deny that our observations of the world can be genuine and accurate. Smith believes there really is an external world and our observations can lead us to true beliefs about it. His claim is only that our potentially true beliefs about the external world are dependent on, and thus limited by, our actual observations.