Much eighteenth-century writing depicts feelings and emotions as almost impersonal forces, that is, depicts “feelings” as not emanating from individual human minds and bodies, but instead as transmitted between subjects as though by contagion. A situation, a case, and a scenario all refer to the particular conditions in which these emotions transfer from body to body, or person to person. The similarity of situations may enable the transfer of emotions through the process of shared sympathy.
The “case” plays a large part in the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, who describes morality as a human being’s self-regulating sense of moral agreement with others. As an opening example, Smith imagines the case of a man enduring judicial torture “on the rack.” Those who observe this man’s suffering, he posits, will sympathize with him because they are able to imagine themselves (and hence sympathize) with his situation, which in this “case” is that of being “on the rack.” The fleshing out of the situation serves as the means by which emotions are shared between bodies, and by extension, the means by which human beings are influenced to act morally via shared sympathy.
Because the process of transfer through a shared situation is often automated and precognitive, the observer remains unaware they are sympathizing with others even as they are doing it. As such, the resonance between the other’s situation and the spectator may occur outside of direct consciousness. Smith’s moral philosophy is predicated not on reason as his Enlightenment counterparts would insist, but on a sense of moral intuition transmitted through shared situations and cases. Moreover, because moral sentiments can be traced to the human being’s natural ability to sympathize with others’ situations and cases, the setting of a scene may serve as the representational means through which humans can particularize and provoke a moral sentiment.
The “case” in Smith’s methodology, however, is potentially problematic because of its inherent cultural assumptions. Smith cites specific situations and then extrapolates from them how a universal human subject would feel about them, often assuming that the responses of this abstracted person express the unchangeable rules of human morality. Implicit in this methodology, then, is the assumption that Smith’s own historical moment is both outside of time and universal, because Smith treats his affective reactions as exemplary cases of universal human behavior. A situation-based moral methodology is therefore problematic because whether and how humans affectively resonate with others’ cases is determined by cultural norms rather than by an instinctual species sentiment. Affect habits should therefore not be viewed as rehearsing a universal moral sentiment, but rather as a generalized response determined by customs, culture, and history.
Ian M. Thomas
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1759. Ed. Raphael, D.D., and Macfie, A.L. London: Oxford UP, 1976.