Contemporary Perspectives on Early Modern Philosophy

Volume 29 of the series Studies in History and Philosophy of Science pp 159-177


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

  • Eric SchliesserAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, University of Ghent Email author 

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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.