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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy in the University of Glasgow. He is perhaps better known for his work in economic theory, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (commonly known as The Wealth of Nations; 1776), than for The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his other major work. Smith was a contemporary and friend of Scottish philosopher David Hume. Accepting Hume’s moral doctrines on the whole, Smith offered the theory of moral sentiments as a treatment of an area Hume left only vaguely outlined. Smith considered the science of ethics to have as its business the description of the moral rules with a justness and nicety that would both ascertain and correct one’s ideas of proper conduct.

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Smith was close on the heels of the “moral sense” philosophers, the third earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) and Francis Hutcheson. Unlike them, however, he did not ascribe moral perception to an inner sense such as the exterior senses, a sense capable of recognizing moral quality in a manner analogous to the way the eye perceives color and shape. Smith asserted that philosophers should give greater attention to the causes of the passions along with the due heed paid to their consequences.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

Smith regarded the origin of the moral feelings to be in the process of sympathy with the passions. This process consists of placing the self in imagination in the place of another, of conceiving the self as undergoing the same events and, consequently, having the same feelings as the other person. One does not have the other person’s feelings, which is simply impossible; but imagination copies one’s own feelings upon earlier occasions and supplies them anew to one’s mind. Thus, a sympathetic feeling could be one of compassion for the misery of an unfortunate person or the joy of one delivered from danger. Because one is not actually, but only imaginatively, in the situation of the other, one can never have feelings in such great strength as the other. Furthermore, some passions do not arouse fellow feeling but rather act as stimuli to some opposing feeling. Sometimes when one perceives a person’s anger, one is aroused against the individual rather than against those toward whom the person’s anger is aimed; or one may experience fear of the person rather than anger. A sympathetic response is aroused more by the knowledge of the situation in which the other’s feeling first arises than it is by the perception of the other’s feeling. This is shown when one occasionally sympathizes with the dead, who actually have no feelings at all. The exercise of sympathy brings pleasure both to those who give and to those who receive it. The pleasure of receiving sympathy in the disagreeable passions is more intense than in the agreeable and may serve as a measure of relief.

The basis of one’s approval of the feelings of other people is whether perfect concord exists between one’s own sympathies and theirs, when one is aware of the other’s situation. One determines in this way that their passions are suitable and proper to their objects. Just as to have the same opinion as another is to approve of the person’s having it, so with the feelings; one approves the other’s feeling if, in like circumstances, one would have the same feeling. Even in cases in which one does not actually have sympathetic feeling with another, experience leads one to learn the nature and the amount of feeling appropriate to the other’s circumstances, and thus to approve of his feelings.

People’s natures are so constituted that they can be at variance with their fellows in their feelings, yet tolerate or even enjoy one another’s company, as long as the...

(The entire section contains 3902 words.)

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