"Prying Eyes: The Moral Significance of Sentimental Curiosity in Adam Smith and Joanna Baillie"
This paper examines sentimental curiosity -- curiosity about what other people feel and desire. While sentimental curiosity is an important background psychological principle in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759/90), explaining why we are motivated to do the often-arduous work of spectatorship, he has very little to say about what it is, how it functions, and what ethical significance it has. Fortunately there is an
under-appreciated resource that can help us fill in this account for Smith: Joanna Baillie’s “Introductory Discourse” to her 1798 Plays on the Passions. This text is clearly indebted to Smith’s moral theory, and offers a far more detailed analysis of sentimental curiosity and how it functions. Baillie shows that sentimental curiosity can degenerate into prurient and intrusive prying, or a fascination with cruel spectacle. But she also explicitly argues for the educational powers of theater, and her plays are a testament to her conviction that staging spectacles and dramatizing curiosity and spectatorship can help to regulate and check sentimental curiosity in readers and audience members. Bringing Baillie’s treatment of curiosity back to Smith, I argue that Smith can
and should similarly admit the role of the theater in regulating curiosity. I also show that Smith’s brief remarks on “troublesome and impertinent curiosity” contain a promising account of how respect for the privacy of others can also be cultivated as a check on sentimental curiosity.
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