Currently wending my way through Adam Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" (edition from Prometheus Books, presumably sixth edition), one comes across that jarring discontinuity which denotes a gap in expectations between thought now and then. To be taken aback is always a pleasure in reading, though enjoyment is better gained through innovation than historical incommensurability.
The halt came at Chapter VI of "On Duty" where Smith discusses duty, principle and propriety, with two examples for edification. The first cites St. Bartholomew's massacre where French Huguenots were slaughtered by Catholics. A bigoted Catholic saves Protestants rather than murdering them and "would not seem to be entitled to that high applause which we should have bestowed upon him, had he exerted the same generosity with complete self-approbation". His humanity is "admired" but he is also regarded with "pity", as his actions are inconsistent with "perfect virtue". The second example is that of a Quaker, who strikes out rather than turn the other cheek. Principle is overturned but spectators would "laugh, and be diverted with his spirit and rather like him the better for it".
Our difference resides in our approach to principle and, perhaps, our unwillingness to accept the possibility of perfect virtue as a lodestar for the acceptance or rejection of behaviour. For the Catholic who saves his enemies, valueing individual lives above the precepts of his religion and the possible punishment that his actions entail, we now privilege as an act of courage and our pity is reserved for those who feel similarly but who do not have the courage to act thus. The Quakers are now admired for the maintenance of principle and their stance has led reserved clear public space for the observance of the conscientious objector. Admiration does not equal agreement, of course.
This clearly does not feed into the philosophical arguments that tread heavily across the tensions between Smith's concept of duty and his plotting of propriety. Rather, the examples cited and the conclusions elucidated, draw upon the sense of naturalistic universals that run through the entire text. And lets us know of a world where principle was valued less than propriety: an interesting teaser more subtle than the usual clashes. It does raise the question whether philosophically inclined readers contextualise as they dice Smith within their discourse.
While time has elapsed,passing philosophy into history, such tension between universal sentiments and chosen principles mirrors and, perhaps informs the contemporary relationship between evolved predispositions and intentional action.