The Piacular, or on Seeing Oneself as a Moral Cause in Adam Smith

  • Eric SchliesserEmail author
Part of the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science book series (AUST, volume 29)


In this paper, I explore the significance of that peculiar concept, the so-called piacular, in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereafter TMS). Smith describes the concept first in the context of his treatment of what we would call “moral luck” and then returns to it in what became part VII of TMS. In brief, the piacular is the feeling that arises when we have been an involuntary cause of another’s harm. It is a feeling of shame that is akin – but not identical – to what is commonly called “agent-regret.” I argue, first, that according to Smith it is part of our humanity that we ought to see ourselves in part as causes in the (great) causal chain of life. This is a plausible interpretation of Smith’s view in light of (i) his treatment of the way in which the sympathetic process that underwrites moral judgment is, in part, a judgment of the proportionality of causes and effects and (ii) his claim that our habitual causal environment is constitutive of our sanity and rationality. Second, I explain the highly regulated norms that according to Smith govern the atonement of the piacular. Somewhat surprisingly, these norms are irrevocably tainted by superstition. In Smith’s account this superstitious element should not be eradicated, but embraced as part of our shared humanity.


Moral Judgment Reactive Attitude Moral Sentiment Moral Luck Sound Judgment 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I thank James Harris for his encouragement. I am grateful to Martin Lenz and Anik Waldow for their invitation and generous feedback. Audiences in Berlin and at Notre Dame, where Ryan Nichols, Sam Newlands, Aaron Garrett, and especially Terence Cuneo offered me lots of critical and helpful feedback, were extremely generous with suggestions. I am grateful to Chad Flanders, Ryan Hanley, and Andrew Corsa for important criticism on the final draft.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordecht. 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Moral SciencesUniversity of GhentGhentBelgium

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