Adam Smith as a very young man in 1737 went off to University in Glasgow Scotland and soon fell under the spell of a warmhearted humanist professor Francis Hutcheson who believed in the innate goodness of human beings. This was at the dawning of what came to be known as the Scottish Enlightenment when everyone was aflame with intellectual quest. In part this flame was caused by their outrage at the execution of a student, Thomas Aikenhead. Thomas had been walking with some student friends down High Street, Edinburgh one winter night, and said something like, “I’m so cold I could warm my hands on Hell’s fires.” His friend mentioned this to a priest and Thomas was called on the carpet. After a couple of weeks of haggling over various interpretations of his beliefs, Thomas was executed for blasphemy. Many people of Scotland were outraged at this vicious treatment of an otherwise respectable young man. The controversy created an intellectual fire which has raged to this day, not just in Scotland but worldwide. Perhaps Scotland was at a tipping point with their intellectual quest but when Smith went off to school things like Hutcheson’s lectures were filled with intellectual fire.
Then in 1734 David Hume another student of Hutcheson published his A Treatise of Human Nature which hit all of these Scotsmen as even worse than immoral, like Aikenhead, it was amoral. For Hume, self interest was the ultimate religious sentiment of the human being. Humans have no innate moral sense at all, they have only self interest and people behave as well as we do towards one and another because it serves their own personally perceived desires. The only reason society exists and functions as well as it does is to protect the personal property of its individual members. He saw people as a cesspool of conflicting passions and the function of a society was to channel those passions onto constructive paths. Societies and their governments channel human behavior with the ultimate Golden: Rule: I won’t disturb your self-interest, if you don’t disturb mine. Society is set up to implement this rule.
Adam Smith was stretched on an intellectual rack, being torn in one direction by Hutcheson’s innate moral goodness of humans, a quality given to us by a loving God, and torn the other direction by the non-moral humans described by Hume as being given to us by an uncaring mother Nature. Why are we good? Smith seems to place his hopes on what we now call empathy. We are good to one another because we feel the pain and pleasure of other people and when we help them feel good we feel good. This seemed to weld the two conflicting theories together and find a common ground between them, because both would be satisfied that self interest would feel good and if helping other members of society feels good that would fulfill the need for self interest. This is rather circular but we are dealing with humans and philosophy. We become moral judges of what makes other people feel good by observing ourselves and what makes us feel good. By judging others we place moral strictures upon ourselves and on our own behavior. We seek our own personal approval by behaving in ways of which we approve.
We are good people because we judge the behavior of other people.