Kirstine la Cour (UCL) - 2018-19 Students

The Moral Sentimentalism of Adam Smith

The project concerns so-called moral sentimentalist theories of moral evaluation and motivation, and in particular the version of moral sentimentalism presented by Adam Smith, primarily in his 1759 work The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The project will have three interconnected strands. The first is historical, and will concern the ancestry and legacy of Smith’s sentimentalist view. I will be investigating which thinkers influenced Smith’s view and how, as well as tracing the impact of Smith’s work on subsequent developments in moral theory. A major task of this part of the project will be to examine Smith’s influence on Kant and contemporary (broadly) Kantian views of morality.

The second strand of the project will belong within the philosophy of mind. I here consider how we should understand the awareness of other minds and ability to imaginatively occupy another’s position posited by Smith’s theory. Finally, in the third strand of the project I take up an analogy Smith at various points suggests between morality and language. Both are essentially and inevitably interpersonal endeavours, both fundamentally involve communication via expressions and their interpretation, and both involve interestingly structured normative constraints on possible and permitted behaviours. But how deeply do these similarities run, and what can they tell us about morality as a phenomenon in human life? By pursuing these three strands, I aim to make contributions to scholarship on Smith’s moral philosophy, but also to throw new light on underappreciated interpersonal aspects of the nature of moral judgement and behaviour. Finally, I hope to explore the possibility of vindicating a sentimentalist view, and of integrating inquiries from the philosophy of mind with moral theorising.

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