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

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Contemporary Perspectives on Early Modern Philosophy

Part of the book series: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science ((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.

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  1. 1.

    I quote from the Glasgow Edition of all of Smith’s works by paragraph and page-numbers.

  2. 2.

    For the ongoing debate over Smith’s views on moral luck, see Russell (1999), Garrett (2004), Flanders (2006), and Hankins (ms). Of these Flanders and Hankins discuss the piacular.

  3. 3.

    Williams (1976).

  4. 4.

    See, e.g., Gibbard (1990, chapters 9 and 15).

  5. 5.

    I quote from Hume (2004) by paragraph number.

  6. 6.

    For an introduction see Berry (2006); see also Schliesser (2005).

  7. 7.

    In the Glasgow Edition it can be found in Smith Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. For discussion, see Berry (1974), Otteson (2002), Levy (1997), and Schliesser (2011).

  8. 8.

    In particular, here I am agnostic about to what degree “constant conjunction of such habitual resemblance” always tracks or detects metaphysical causation in nature according to Smith. To settle this question, however, one must decide to what degree Smith is a so-called skeptical realist (as Hanley 2010 thinks) or a (culturally sensitive) modest realist (as Montes 2004 and Schliesser 2005 think). It is possible, as Hanley suggests, that Smith is a skeptical realist only in the moral sciences and not in physical sciences. I thank Andrew Corsa for this discussion.

  9. 9.

    Andy Clark’s (2012, in press) Bayesian updating of the model shares surprising features with Smith’s approach.

  10. 10.

    As an aside, from the context it is unclear what, according to Smith, will count as refined superstition.

  11. 11.

    “It may not be amiss to observe on this occasion, that the influence of general rules and maxims on the passions very much contributes to facilitate the effects of all the principles, which we shall explain in the progress of this treatise. For it is evident, that if a person full-grown, and of the same nature with ourselves, were on a sudden-transported into our world, he would be very much embarrassed with every object, and would not readily find what degree of love or hatred, pride or humility, or any other passion he ought to attribute to it. The passions are often varyed by very inconsiderable principles; and these do not always play with a perfect regularity, especially on the first trial. But as custom and practice have brought to light all these principles, and have settled the just value of every thing.” (Hume Treatise,

  12. 12.

    Hume’s “A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence,” (EHU 10.1.4) seems to have to do more work to get it right.

  13. 13.

    Obviously, here I am gesturing at a much larger argument concerning moral education in Smith.

  14. 14.

    Given that when one is an involuntary cause one’s motive does not matter, there is only one category here. Of course, one may be responsible for activity further back in the causal chain, but that is beside the point here.

  15. 15.

    See Fleischacker (1999: 42). For the significance of humanity as a moral category in Smith (and Hume), see Taylor (2006), Debes (2007), and Hanley (2011).

  16. 16.

    Their possible lack of self-command suggests that not all men of humanity have perfect virtue. See also TMS 3.3.35, 151, and, 23; I thank Ryan Hanley and Andrew Corsa for these references and discussion.

  17. 17.

    See Flanders (2006: 208–9).

  18. 18.

    See Pack and Schliesser (2006).

  19. 19.

    As Hankins (ms) notes there is a further debate in the literature regarding whether this feeling is appropriately moral.

  20. 20.

    I believe that for Smith this is a post-Enlightenment thought. See Schliesser (2006) and the last section of this paper for further clarification.

  21. 21.

    It is the case, however, that if the lover of truth unintentionally misleads on a more regular basis, his fitness to lead can be called into question (TMS 7.4.27, 337). Not all philosophers are suited to be rulers.

  22. 22.

    While in many contexts Smith acknowledges that casuistry and jurisprudence are related and also admits that some philosophers he admires (Hutcheson and Cicero) were also casuists, fundamentally his judgment of casuistry is on the whole very negative: “Books of casuistry, therefore, are generally as useless as they are commonly tiresome.” (TMS 7.4.33, 339) Perhaps there are a few useful books of casuistry, but I have been unable to find a single mention in Smith.

  23. 23.

    To be clear, Smith’s text seems indeterminate between two possible positions: (a) we ordinarily feel some unpleasant inward feeling of shame and seek out casuists to discharge this feeling in order to avoid feeling polluted and (b) we ordinarily know that we ought to feel some unpleasant inward feeling of shame and seek out casuists to prevent feeling even this. I thank Anik Waldow for discussion on this issue.

  24. 24.

    Flanders and Hankins both explore this issue. My explanation is different from theirs. For an important treatment of Smithian guilt, see Brissenden (1969). I thank Ryan Hanley for calling my attention to Brissenden.

  25. 25.

    See, for example, this paragraph which is highly relevant to Smith’s treatment of the piacular above: “Our imagination therefore attaches the idea of shame to all violations of faith, in every circumstance and in every situation. They resemble, in this respect, the violations of chastity in the fair sex, a virtue of which, for the like reasons, we are excessively jealous; and our sentiments are not more delicate with regard to the one, than with regard to the other. Breach of chastity dishonours irretrievably. No circumstances, no solicitation can excuse it; no sorrow, no repentance atone for it. We are so nice in this respect that even a rape dishonours, and the innocence of the mind cannot, in our imagination, wash out the pollution of the body. It is the same case with the violation of faith, when it has been solemnly pledged, even to the most worthless of mankind. Fidelity is so necessary a virtue, that we apprehend it in general to be due even to those to whom nothing else is due, and whom we think it lawful to kill and destroy. It is to no purpose that the person who has been guilty of the breach of it, urges that he promised in order to save his life, and that he broke his promise because it was inconsistent with some other respectable duty to keep it. These circumstances may alleviate, but cannot entirely wipe out his dishonour. He appears to have been guilty of an action with which, in the imaginations of men, some degree of shame is inseparably connected. He has broke a promise which he had solemnly averred he would maintain; and his character, if not irretrievably stained and polluted, has at least a ridicule affixed to it, which it will be very difficult entirely to efface; and no man, I imagine, who had gone through an adventure of this kind would be fond of telling the story.” (TMS 7.4.13, 332–3)

  26. 26.

    While throughout TMS Smith mentions fortune in passing, the most significant other mention is in his famous criticism of the slave-trade: “Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished.” (TMS 5.2.9, 206–7)

  27. 27.

    See, for example, Clarke (1705).

  28. 28.

    See also Fleischacker (2005: 71).

  29. 29.

    Smith’s treatment of the way scientific inquiry responds to the painful feeling of wonder is another instance of this general psychological mechanism (see Schliesser 2005). In the “Astronomy” Smith alludes to the idea that science just is a very refined species of superstition, but that topic must be explored elsewhere. I thank Leandro Stieben for conversation on this point.

  30. 30.

    For further on this theme more generally, see Berns (1994), Montes (2004), Hanley (2006). Cf. Vivenza (2002).

  31. 31.

    The piacular is also compatible with Judeo-Christian ideas (see below). However, the word “piacular” and its variants are extremely rarely used in extant Latin works (and entirely absent in Roman, Christian sources), but a Perseus search reveals the term occurs quite often in Livy, which also seems to be Smith’s source here (and which as we know from Smith’s Rhetoric, he knew well), and also in Lucan’s Pharsalia, a text he would have (re-)read in light of the epigraph Book 3 of the Treatise.

  32. 32.

    Smith treats the slaves’ inability to engage in sacrificial bribing of the Gods as one of the main causes of the growth of Christianity in Lectures on Jurisprudence: “I observed before that superstitious fears and terrors increase always with the precariousness and uncertainty of the manner of life people are engaged in, and that without any regard to their religion…. Slaves were of all others the most dependent and uncertain of their subsistence. Their lives, their liberty, and property were intirely at the mercy of the caprice and whim of another—It was therefore very hard that they who stood most in need of some consolation in this way should be intirely debarred from all religious societies, {which might at least sooth their superstitious dreads}. The gods then were alltogether locall or tutelary; they did not conceive any god that was equally favourable to the prayers of all…. Besides, the deities then could never be addressed empty handed; who ever had any request to ask of them must introduce it with a present. This also intirely debarred the slaves from religious offices as they had nothing of their own to offer; all they possessed was their masters…. This it was which made all religions which taught the being of one supreme and universall god, who presided over all, be so greedily receivd by this order of men.” (LJ, Tuesday. February 15th. 1763.)

  33. 33.

    According to Smith, we can feel reference for parents and even more for our children, for God, the laws, duty, political leaders, etc. Smith returns to the significance of our fellow-feeling with our brethren throughout TMS.

  34. 34.

    As an aside, here Smith is at his least Spinozistic because he seems to reject pan-psychism.

  35. 35.

    This second point may be so, as Ryan Hanley suggested, because Christ’s remission of sin need not alleviate guilty feelings.

  36. 36.

    See Hanley (2009).

  37. 37.

    This is not the place to explore Smith’s complex treatment of magnanimity. See Corsa (ms).

  38. 38.

    To avoid confusion, I do not mean to imply laws of nature are broken.

  39. 39.

    Smith is sometimes treated as a defender of ordinary common sense, but it is worth noting that he also wrote: “I shall give an instance in things of a very frivolous nature, because in them the judgments of mankind are less apt to be perverted by wrong systems.” (TMS, 17)

  40. 40.

    Of course, not just any kind of superstition – presumably only those views that help fortify our sense of justice. This has resemblance to Smith’s views on how morality constrains and regulates theology. See Schliesser (2008). I thank Chad Flanders for discussion on this point.

  41. 41.

    Contrast Kant’s embrace of some historical taboos; see Kant (1797: 318–9, 339–40).

  42. 42.

    Because they lack fear I hesitate to call them “superstitious,” however they do rely on numerous superstitious elements. I thank Andrew Corsa for discussion on this point.


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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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Schliesser, E. (2013). The Piacular, or on Seeing Oneself as a Moral Cause in Adam Smith. In: Lenz, M., Waldow, A. (eds) Contemporary Perspectives on Early Modern Philosophy. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol 29. Springer, Dordrecht.

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