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About the Author:
Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1723, Adam Smith delivered a series of public lectures in Edinburgh beginning in 1748. The success of these lectures led ultimately to Smith's election to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1752, where he distinguished himself as a teacher. Every morning of the term, Smith lectured his high-school-age audience in natural theology, ethics, and jurisprudence. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a re-working of the ethics segment of his yearly cycle of lectures.
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The Theory of Moral Sentiments
By Adam Smith
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
HOW SELFISH soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.
That this is the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others, that it is by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels, may be demonstrated by many obvious observations, if it should not be thought sufficiently evident of itself. When we see a stroke aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer. The mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do if in his situation. Persons of delicate fibres and a weak constitution of body complain, that in looking on the sores and ulcers which are exposed by beggars in the streets, they are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation in the corresponding part of their own bodies. The horror which they conceive at the misery of those wretches affects that particular part in themselves more than any other; because that horror arises from conceiving what they themselves would suffer, if they really were the wretches whom they are looking upon, and if that particular part in themselves was actually affected in the same miserable manner. The very force of this conception is sufficient, in their feeble frames, to produce that itching or uneasy sensation complained of. Men of the most robust make, observe that in looking upon sore eyes they often feel a very sensible soreness in their own, which proceeds from the same reason; that organ being in the strongest man more delicate than any other part of the body is in the weakest.
Neither is it those circumstances only, which create pain or sorrow, that call forth our fellow-feeling. Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator. Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is not more real than that with their happiness. We enter into their gratitude towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them. In every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible, the emotions of the bystander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer.
Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others. Sympathy, though its meaning was, perhaps, originally the same, may now, however, without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.
Upon some occasions sympathy may seem to arise merely from the view of a certain emotion in another person. The passions, upon some occasions, may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them in the person principally concerned. Grief and joy, for example, strongly expressed in the look and gestures of any person, at once affect the spectator with some degree of a like painful or agreeable emotion. A smiling face is, to everybody that sees it, a cheerful object; as a sorrowful countenance, on the other hand, is a melancholy one.
This, however, does not hold universally, or with regard to every passion. There are some passions of which the expressions excite no sort of sympathy, but, before we are acquainted with what gave occasion to them, serve rather to disgust and provoke us against them. The furious behaviour of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies. As we are unacquainted with his provocation, we cannot bring his case home to ourselves, nor conceive any thing like the passions which it excites. But we plainly see what is the situation of those with whom he is angry, and to what violence they may be exposed from so enraged an adversary. We readily, therefore, sympathize with their fear or resentment, and are immediately disposed to take part against the man from whom they appear to be in danger.
If the very appearances of grief and joy inspire us with some degree of the like emotions, it is because they suggest to us the general idea of some good or bad fortune that has befallen the person in whom we observe them: and in these passions this is sufficient to have some little influence upon us. The effects of grief and joy terminate in the person who feels those emotions, of which the expressions do not, like those of resentment, suggest to us the idea of any other person for whom we are concerned, and whose interests are opposite to his. The general idea of good or bad fortune, therefore, creates some concern for the person who has met with it; but the general idea of provocation excites no sympathy with the anger of the man who has received it. Nature, it seems, teaches us to be more averse to enter into this passion, and, till informed of its cause, to be disposed rather to take part against it.
Even our sympathy with the grief or joy of another, before we are informed of the cause of either, is always extremely imperfect. General lamentations, which express nothing but the anguish of the sufferer, create rather a curiosity to enquire into his situation, along with some disposition to sympathize with him, than any actual sympathy that is very sensible. The first question which we ask is, What has befallen you? Till this be answered, though we are uneasy both from the vague idea of his misfortune, and still more from torturing ourselves with conjectures about what it may be, yet our fellow-feeling is not very considerable.
Sympathy, therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality. We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour; because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner.
Of all the calamities to which the condition of mortality exposes mankind, the loss of reason appears, to those who have the least spark of humanity, by far the most dreadful; and they behold that last stage of human wretchedness with deeper commiseration than any other. But the poor wretch, who is in it, laughs and sings, perhaps, and is altogether insensible to his own misery. The anguish which humanity feels, therefore, at the sight of such an object, cannot be the reflection of any sentiment of the sufferer. The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and, what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment.
What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant, that, during the agony of disease, cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder; and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will in vain attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.
We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave, a prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations. Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity. The tribute of our fellow-feeling seems doubly due to them now, when they are in danger of being forgot by every body; and, by the vain honours which we pay to their memory, we endeavour, for our own misery, artificially to keep alive our melancholy remembrance of their misfortune. That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity; and to think that all we can do is unavailing, and that, what alleviates all other distress, the regret, the love, and the lamentations of their friends, can yield no comfort to them, serves only to exasperate our sense of their misery. The happiness of the dead, however, most assuredly is affected by none of these circumstances; nor is it the thought of these things which can ever disturb the profound security of their repose. The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change; from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and thence conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death—the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind; which, while it afflicts and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.CHAPTER 2
OF THE PLEASURE OF MUTUAL SYMPATHY
BUT WHATEVER may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary. Those who are fond of deducing all our sentiments from certain refinements of self-love, think themselves at no loss to account, according to their own principles, both for this pleasure and this pain. Man, say they, conscious of his own weakness, and of the need which he has for the assistance of others, rejoices whenever he observes that they adopt his own passions, because he is then assured of that assistance; and grieves whenever he observes the contrary, because he is then assured of their opposition. But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration. A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks round and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself. On the contrary, the mirth of the company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause.
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Table of Contents
Part I. Of the Propriety of Action; Part II. Of Merit and Demerit; or of the Objects of Reward and Punishment; Part III. Of the Foundation of our Judgments Concerning our Own Sentiments and Conduct, and of the Sense of Duty; Part IV. Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation; Part V. Of the Influence of Custom and Fashion upon the Sentiments of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation; Part VI. Of the Character of Virtue; Part VII. Of Systems of Moral Philosophy.
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"One of the truly outstanding books in the intellectual history of the world...A global manifesto of profound significance to the interdependent world in which we live. It is indeed a book of amazing reach and contemporary relevance."
-Amartya Sen, from the Introduction
Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1723, Adam Smith was the only child of Margaret Douglas (his father died before his birth). He attended the University of Glasgow from 1738-1740 and studied under Frances Hutcheson. Smith spent the next six years at Balliol College, Oxford, where, though his teachers were idle, he himself busily read classical works andFrench literature. Upon returning home to Scotland, thanks to the patronage of Henry Homes (later Lord Kames), Smith delivered a series of public lectures in the city of Edinburgh beginning in 1748, the first on rhetoric, and then further talks on the history of philosophy and law. The success of these lectures led ultimately to Smith's election to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1752. There he distinguished himself as a teacher and administrator for the next twelve years. Every morning of the term, Smith lectured his high-school-age audience in natural theology, ethics, and jurisprudence. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a re-working of the ethics segment of his yearly cycle of lectures, first published in 1759.
Smith was the archetypal absentminded professor. One anecdote, of many, has him in his dressing-gown one Sunday morning, absorbed in thought in his mother's garden in Kirkcaldy and wandering fifteen miles to the town of Dunfermline to be awoken from his reverie only by the church bells calling the townspeople to service. In 1764 he resigned his academic post to become the tutor of the young Duke of Buccleuch on his grand tour. Residing in Toulouse, Geneva, and later Paris, Smith became acquainted with the writer Voltaire, had stimulating discussions with the economist Quesnay, and made the most of Parisian social life. Returning to Britain in 1766, he was occupied with the writing of The Wealth of Nations. After it finally appeared, to much acclaim, in 1776, he took up residence in Edinburgh, participating in the social and intellectual life of the city and accepting an appointment as Commissioner of Customs. Despite failing health, he made extensive changes to what was to be the sixth edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, some of the revisions in the final months of 1789 reflecting his apprehension of the gathering storm of the French Revolution. He died at the age of sixty-seven the following year.
The life and work of Adam Smith epitomize the Scottish Enlightenment, the remarkable literary, scientific and philosophical movement that vitalized the city of Edinburgh and the Scottish universities for much of the eighteenth century. In the dining rooms and convivial taverns of the city, gentry, merchants, and professionals rubbed shoulders, enjoying each other's company and acquiring polite knowledge. Smith himself belonged to many clubs - the Select Society, the Poker Club, the Oyster Club - whose members included the chemist Joseph Black, the medical researcher William Cullen, the philosopher David Hume, the geologist James Hutton, the sociologist Adam Ferguson, and the historian William Robertson. With his friends and fellow literati, he was animated by civic pride and public-spiritedness in the quest for scientific knowledge, economic development, and a system of morals and manners appropriate to a progressive commercial society. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the work of a "civic moralist" educating and exhorting but also reflecting the values of the middling ranks of that provincial city.
The moral ideal that underlies the work is the refinement of self-control and sentimental feeling. Although admiring of the Stoic goal of "secure tranquillity," moral perfection for Smith did not entail a cultivated indifference to pleasure and pain nor resignation in the face of the misfortunes of this world. Selfish feelings were to be moderated and corrected not eradicated. Instead of aiming for contemplative detachment, nature's prescription was for active engagement in the duties of family, friends, and country and the cultivation of a heightened sensibility to the feelings of others. Wisdom and virtue could never be achieved in solitary retreat, but only amidst the "bustle and business of the world" where justice was demanded, benevolence expected, and our own partiality made visible through the eyes of others.
Although individuals were most immediately and intensively excited by their own feelings, they were also naturally disposed to sympathize with the feelings of others. Smith used "sympathy" in the general sense of "fellow-feeling with any passion whatever." As commentators note, Smith did not mean by the term the sentiment of compassion, but an agreement or harmony of feeling. This natural correspondence of feeling involved more than the involuntarily inducement of emotion from one person to another, like the infectious merriment of partygoers. Sympathy, for Smith, was characterized by an "imaginary change of situation" whereby we put ourselves in someone else's shoes, attempting to understand their situation and replicate their emotional state.
Our moral convictions about what is right and wrong derived for Smith from this act of imaginative sympathy. The conduct of other people was evaluated by comparing their emotional response to a situation with our own imagined response. If their real and our imagined feelings coincided, it implied that their feelings and the actions that flowed from them were proportionate to the circumstances, and their conduct was judged to be proper or right. A parent's heartfelt grief at the death of a child, for example, would elicit direct sympathy and an approving judgement from other mourners at a funeral. Disapproval of the actions of an angry man beating his dog had its source in the disharmony between the sentiments of a sympathetic spectator and intemperate dog owner.
Sympathy held society together in a mesh of mutual emotional connections. Despite a spectator's best efforts, the imaginative change of situation could only imperfectly reproduce the complex contextual details and vivid emotions of another person. The emotional gap was narrowed, however, by the sufferer's cognizance of the inevitably weaker and reflected sympathy of the spectator. The person enraged, or in love, or in physical pain was naturally inclined to tone down, in the presence of others, the intensity of their original passion. At the same time the humane neighbor or colleague would endeavor to heighten their sensibilities. By these means shared sentiments were more closely harmonized. The scrutiny and adjustment of our own conduct followed a similar pattern. "We suppose ourselves spectators of our own behaviour," anticipating, in the mirror of society, how others will view and judge us. Society was "the great school of self-command" where we learned and internalized the approval and disapproval of others, installing within ourselves an inner judge. Smith's account of the formation of conscience thus anticipates some aspects of Freud's theory of the super-ego.
The device of the "impartial spectator" in Smith's theory secured some degree of objectivity in moral judgement. Given the problem of partiality and self-deceit, it was the approval or disapproval bestowed on human actions by an impartial spectator, the well-informed but disinterested standpoint of an imaginary observer, that served as the ultimate check and corrective to our behavior. The distance of that position from our own helped our exercise of self-control, for it brought into perspective the relative attraction of present and remote pleasures (TMS, IV.2.6). The impartial spectator represented a societal ideal, to which the inner court of conscience strived to conform. Were standards of moral judgement socially relative for Smith? In a section dealing with the influence of custom and fashion on moral sentiment, Smith noted different standards of propriety between savage and civilized societies. Though acknowledging that "[h]ardiness is the character most suitable to the circumstances of a savage; sensibility to those of one who lives in a very civilized society," nevertheless, he assumed there to be a "natural propriety of action" that was independent of particular perverted practices (e.g., infanticide) sanctioned by custom in some societies.
While locating the immediate perception of right and wrong in sympathetic feeling, Smith conceded to reason the task of formulating general rules of morality. Through induction our experience of approval or disapproval in particular situations was ordered into a system of general maxims to regulate our judgements and behavior. The virtuous man was he who had refined, by habitual reflection, his natural hunger for the approval of others into a steadfast desire not for mere approval (often lavished upon pretended qualities), but "a desire of being what ought to be approved of." Thus in the face of unmerited social blame or when praise was unfairly withheld, the man of virtue was sustained by his own self-approbation that conformed with the view of the impartial spectator. Self-love was thus overawed by a stronger force: "It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct."
An alternative explanation of moral approval that Smith gave attention to was that of utility. While he agreed with Hume that approval and positive utility often accompanied each other, he thought the agreeableness of useful actions to be distinct from and supplementary to our sympathetic moral approval of them. The beneficial consequences of an action added merit to its propriety. Smith did believe, however, that an aesthetic fascination with the efficient functioning of (rather than the end produced by) a useful device was an extremely important factor in people's motivation. Whether it be the mechanism of a pocket watch or the complex functioning of society itself, "it is the ingenious adjustment of those means to the end for which they were intended, that is the principal source of …admiration."
At some level, commercial societies were magnificent machines founded upon a great deception of nature. The admiration of the lower and middling ranks of society for the wealthy and the powerful had its source in the confusion of real contentment with the "numberless artificial and elegant contrivances" made to procure superior ease and pleasure. But mistaking real happiness with higher status and ingenious convenience had beneficial consequences for society as a whole. The distinction of ranks and the order of society rested upon deference for and emulation of the great and powerful. The ambition to better one's position "rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life." The wealthy, in their turn, seeking only the "gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires" consume, in the end, only what their stomachs can hold, but in putting thousands to work in the process they inadvertently "divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements."
Thus, as in The Wealth of Nations, beneficial outcomes are achieved, not by an appeal to the benevolence of individuals, but by the direction of the self-interested actions of individuals by an invisible hand. Although, according to his moral theory, wisdom and virtue were the attributes in a person most worthy of admiration, Smith was resigned to the fact that it was a corrupt and frivolous aristocracy that captivated the attentions of society. Given, however, that the "great mob of mankind" lacked a discerning eye, nature had wisely founded social order upon "the plain and palpable difference of birth and fortune, than upon the invisible and often uncertain difference of wisdom and virtue." Despite bad role models and mistaken expectations, ambition drove the other orders to work vigorously, to play fairly, and to live modestly. Thus, Smith was reassured that "[i]n the middling and inferior stations of life, the road to virtue and that to fortune. . .are, happily in most cases, very nearly the same."
It is reported that Smith "always considered his Theory of Moral Sentiments a much superior work to his Wealth of Nations." Be that as it may, Adam Smith the philosopher has been overshadowed by his close friend David Hume, and Smith's achievements in philosophy have been overshadowed by his contribution to economics. Up until the 1830s, The Theory of Moral Sentiments was re-published many times in English, as well as appearing in French and German translations. It was first admired by Smith's contemporaries, then engaged and criticized by professional philosophers as an account of moral judgement. Its popularity declined with shifting fashions in philosophical enquiry. A later preoccupation with Smith as a political economist generated much interest in The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a key to understanding his economic ideas. Most recently, intellectual historians of the eighteenth century, and of the Scottish Enlightenment in particular, have returned to the work. As a penetrating investigation, an astute apology and an exacting critique of the morals and manners of his own society, The Theory of Moral Sentiments remains an exemplary work of an important Enlightenment philosopher.
Pat Moloney is senior lecturer in Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Rutgers University, and his research in the history of ideas focuses on theories of colonization and the representation of non-European peoples in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.