Chapter 4

Licentious Systems

by Adam Smith Icon

93 All these systems suppose that there is an essential distinction between vice and virtue. There is a real and essential difference between:

  • the propriety and impropriety of any feeling,
  • benevolence and any other principle of action, and
  • real prudence and shortsighted folly or precipitate rashness.

All of them mainly contribute to:

  • encourage the praise-worthy disposition, and
  • discourage the blamable disposition.

94 It might be true that some of them:

  • break the balance of the affections, and
  • give the mind an disproportional bias to some principles of action

The ancient systems which place virtue in propriety chiefly recommend the virtues of self-government and self-command.

These are the great and respectable virtues which include:

  • fortitude
  • magnanimity
  • independence on fortune
  • contempt of:
    • all outward accidents
    • pain
    • poverty
    • exile
    • death

The noblest propriety of conduct is displayed in these great exertions. In comparison, all the virtues of indulgent humanity are but little insisted on. These virtues were the soft, amiable, and gentle ones. The Stoics particularly regarded them as weaknesses which a wise man was not supposed to harbour.

95 On the other hand, the benevolent system very highly fosters all those milder virtues. It entirely neglects the more respectable qualities of the mind.

  • It even denies to call them virtues.
  • It calls them moral abilities.
  • It treats them as qualities which do not deserve the same esteem and approbation due to virtue.
  • It treats all those principles of action which aim only at our own interest, still worse.
  • It pretends that they do not have any merit of their own.
  • It reduces the merit of benevolence when they cooperate with it.
  • It asserts that even prudence is not a virtue when it is used only to promote private interest.

96 The benevolent system makes virtue consist only in prudence. It gives the highest encouragement to the habits of:

  • caution,
  • vigilance,
  • sobriety, and
  • judicious moderation.

It equally degrades the amiable and respectable virtues. It strips:

  • the amiable of all their beauty, and
  • the respectable of all their grandeur.

97 Despite these defects, those three systems encourage our best habits. It would be good if people regulated their conduct by any one of them. The ancient moral systems would be sufficient if the mind could be inspired with fortitude and magnanimity through precept and exhortation.

The benevolent system might work if the mind could be softened, through precepts, into humanity, kindness, and love towards those we live with.

Epicurus’ system was the most imperfect of all three. We may learn from it how much the practice of the amiable and respectable virtues is conducive to:

  • our own interest, and
  • our own ease and safety and quiet even in this life.

Epicurus placed happiness in the attainment of ease and security. He tried to show that virtue was the best, surest, and the only means of acquiring those invaluable possessions.

Other philosophers have chiefly celebrated the good effects of virtue on our inward peace of mind. Without neglecting this topic, Epicurus chiefly insisted on the influence of virtue on our outward prosperity and safety. Because of this, his writings were so much studied in the ancient world by all philosophical parties.

The Stoics were the most opposite to the Epicureans, with Cicero as their great enemy. He borrows from Epicurus his proofs that virtue alone is sufficient to secure happiness. Seneca, a Stoic, quotes Epicurus more frequently than any other.

Dr. Mandeville’s System of Vanity

98 Dr. Mandeville’s system also totally removes the distinction between vice and virtue. Its tendency is totally pernicious. His notions are wrong in almost every respect. However, some aspects of human nature favour them initially in a certain way. He exaggerated these by his lively and humorous, though coarse and rustic eloquence. This gave his doctrines an air of truth and probability.

99 He considers whatever done from a sense of propriety as being done from vanity or the love of praise. He observes that man is more interested in his own happiness than in that of others. It is impossible that in his heart he can ever really prefer their prosperity to his own.

Whenever he appears to do so, he is just:

  • imposing on us, and
  • acting from the same selfish motives.

Among his other selfish passions, vanity is one of the strongest. He is always easily flattered and greatly delighted with applauses. When he appears to sacrifice his own interest to that of his companions, he knows:

  • that his conduct will be highly agreeable to their self-love, and
  • that they will give him the most extravagant praises.

The pleasure which he expects from this over-balances the interest which he abandons to get it. Therefore, his conduct is really just as selfish. It arises from just as mean a motive, as on any other. However, he is flattered and he flatters himself, with the belief that it is entirely disinterested.

Since, if he were really disinterested, it would not seem to merit any commendation in his own eyes or in those of others.

Therefore, all public spirit, all preference of public to private interest, is a mere cheat and imposition on mankind.

Human virtue is:

  • so much boasted of,
  • so much emulated among men, and
  • the mere offspring of flattery begot on pride.

100 I shall not examine whether generous and public-spirited actions come from the ego.

Ego can frequently be a virtuous motive and so it is not important in establishing the reality of virtue. I shall only show that the desire of doing honourable and noble things cannot be called vanity. Instead, it is properly called the love of virtue.

Even the love of fame does not deserve to be called the love of virtue. The desire for fame is the love of true glory, a passion inferior to the love of virtue. Dignity-wise, it comes immediately after virtue.

A person is guilty of vanity if he:

  • desires praise for qualities which are not praise-worthy,
  • desires praise for something which does not belong to him, and
  • sets his character on:
    • the frivolous ornaments of dress and equipage, or
    • the frivolous accomplishments of ordinary behaviour.

The following are examples of vain people:

  • the empty vain man who gives himself airs of importance which he has no title to,
  • the silly liar who assumes the merit of adventures which never happened,
  • the foolish plagiary who claims to be the author of something that he doesn’t know,
  • the person who is not contented with the silent esteem and approbation.
    • He is fonder of their noisy acclamations than of their approbation.
  • He is fond of:
    • titles and compliments,
    • being visited, attended, noticed in public places with deference and attention.

This frivolous passion is totally different from:

  • the love of virtue and
  • the love of glory.

This is of the lowest passion, just as the love of virtue and glory are of the noblest.

101 These 3 passions are widely different:

  1. The desire of becoming honourable and estimable
  2. The desire of acquiring honour and esteem by really deserving those sentiments
  3. The frivolous desire of praise at any rate

These first two are always approved of. This third desire is always despised. However, there is a certain remote affinity among them which was exaggerated by Dr. Mandeville through his humorous and diverting eloquence. This enabled him to impose it on his readers.

The affinity between vanity and the love of true glory is that they both aim at acquiring esteem and approbation.

  • But the love of glory is a just, reasonable, and equitable passion.
  • While vanity is unjust, absurd, and ridiculous.

The man who desires esteem for what is really estimable, desires only what he is justly entitled to. He does not get jealous or suspicious when we do not esteem him enough.

On the contrary, the person who desires undeserved esteem is never satisfied. He is jealous if we do not esteem him as much as he desires because he is secretly aware that he desires more than he deserves. He considers the least neglect of ceremony as a mortal affront. He is perpetually afraid for us to lose respect for him and so he always wants to obtain new expressions of esteem.

102 There is an affinity too between:

  • the desire of becoming honourable and estimable, or the love of virtue, and
  • the desire of honour and esteem, or the love of true glory.

They resemble one another. Both aim at:

  • really being what is honourable and noble, and
  • some reference to the sentiments of others.

In this respect, the love of true glory resembles vanity. The man of the greatest magnanimity:

  • desires virtue for its own sake, and
  • is most indifferent about what actually are mankind’s opinions about him.

Such a magnanimous man is still, however, delighted with:

  • the thoughts of what they should be, and
  • with the awareness that:
    • he is still the proper object of honour and applause even if he may neither be honoured nor applauded, and
    • they would not fail to honour and applaud him if mankind:
      • were cool, candid, and consistent with themselves, and
      • properly informed of:
        • his motives
        • his conduct’s circumstances

He despises the actual opinions of others of him, but he has the highest value for those which should be entertained of him.

The great and exalted motive of his conduct was that:

  • he might think himself worthy of those honourable sentiments, and
  • he always has the highest idea of his own character when he puts himself in the situation of other men to consider what should be their opinion.

There is a great difference between the love of virtue and the love of true glory. A lover of virtue acts from the most godlike motive if he acts solely from a regard to what is right and fit to be done. His happiness is secure and independent of chance. He considers the contempt and hatred thrown on him by the ignorant as not belonging to him.

On the other hand, a lover of glory might fear the injustice and envy of others. His motives have a greater mixture of human infirmity. His happiness is not as secure as the lover of virtue. Only the weakest and most worthless of mankind are much delighted with false glory. Yet by a strange inconsistency, false ignominy can often mortify the most determined.

103 Dr. Mandeville not only represents vanity as the source of all virtuous actions. He also points out that virtue is a concealed indulgence of our passions.

According to him, anything beyond ascetic abstinence and what is necessary to support human nature is a luxury. There is vice even in the use of:

  • a clean shirt, or
  • a convenient habitation.

He considers sexual indulgence in marriage as the same with the most hurtful sexual gratification. It derides that temperance and chastity which can be practised so cheaply. His sophistry is really covered by the ambiguity of language. Some of our feelings have no other names except those which are disagreeable. We only think of such feelings when those feelings shock us or give us some uneasiness. This makes us give our sentiments a name. In normal times, we overlook them altogether and do not name them at all.

If we give them any name, it is one which marks the passion’s subject than its degree. Thus, the common names of ’the love of pleasure’ and ’the love of sex’, denote a vicious and offensive degree of those passions. On the other hand, the words ’temperance’ and ‘chastity’ mark the restraint which ’the love of pleasure’ and ’the love of sex’ are kept under. They do not indicate the degree which they are allowed to subsist in.

Mandeville thinks that he has demolished the virtues of temperance and chastity by showing that they are mere impositions on mankind’s inattention and simplicity. In reality, temperance and chastity do not require an entire insensibility to lust. They only aim at restraining lust as not to hurt the person or offend society.

104 His book’s great fallacy was to represent every passion as totally vicious. He sees everything which has any reference to the feelings of others as vanity. Through this sophistry, he establishes his favourite conclusion that private vices are public benefits.

The following are public benefits if they are regarded as luxury, sensuality, and ostentation=

  • a taste for:
  • the elegant arts and improvements of life,
  • whatever is agreeable in dress, furniture, equipage, architecture, statuary, painting, and music, and
  • the indulgence of those passions without inconvenience,
  • the love of magnificence.

He bestows such scornful names on such qualities. Without those qualities, the refined arts could never find encouragement. They would languish for lack of employment.

This licentious system was caused by the popular ascetic doctrines before his time. They placed virtue in the destruction of all our passions. It was easy for Dr. Mandeville to prove:

  • that this entire conquest never actually took place among men
  • that if it took place universally, it would be harmful to society

With this, he seemed to prove that:

  • there was no real virtue
  • what pretended to be virtue was a mere cheat

Virtue would end all the industry and commerce of human life. Therefore, private vices were public benefits, since without them, no society could prosper or flourish.

105 Dr. Mandeville’s system once made so much noise in the world. It perhaps never caused more vice than if it didn’t exist. But it taught vice to:

  • appear with more rudeness, and
  • avow the corruption of its motives with a profligate audaciousness, unheard of before.

106 This system may appear destructive. However, it borders on the truth. This is why it was able to impose on so many people and have alarmed moralists.

A system of natural philosophy may appear very plausible and be received in the world for a long time, and yet have:

  • no foundation in nature, and
  • no resemblance to the truth.

For nearly a century, Descartes’ vortices were regarded as a most satisfactory account of the revolutions of the heavenly bodies. Yet they do not exist.

But it is otherwise with systems of moral philosophy. A moralist who accounts for the origin of our moral sentiments cannot deceive us so grossly.

When a traveler tells an account of some distant country, he might lie about certain facts. But when he tells us of what happens in our neighbourhood, he can only deceive us if we are so careless not to examine things with our own eyes. The falsehoods that he imposes must bear some resemblance to the truth and must even have a mix of truth in them.

An author on natural philosophy who assigns the causes of the phenomena of the universe, gives an account of the affairs of a very distant country. As long as it stays within the bounds of possibility, we might believe him.

But when he explains the origin of our desires and feelings, he gives an account of our own domestic concerns. We can be imposed on like indolent masters who trust their steward who deceives them. Some of the steward’s actions must be just, otherwise he would be exposed as a fraud immediately. Similarly, the moralist who assigns the cause of our natural feelings must have some regard to the truth, otherwise it would appear ridiculous to the most inexperienced reader.


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