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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...

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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.

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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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 matters that arouse them are items of indifference to people’s particular lives. However, when an event touches one directly, one hopes for the greatest possible concord of the spectator’s feeling with one’s own, and one is likely to select one’s company only from those who feel similarly. Yet recognizing that no other can feel precisely what one feels, because the person cannot imagine all the conditions that stir the feeling in one, people restrain and moderate their own feeling to a degree. Thus, one’s desire for their approval and the satisfaction one can expect from it act as a curb on the extremes of our feelings, and the society of those who have fellow feeling with one aids in restoring and preserving the tranquillity of one’s mind.

Virtues and Passions

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Two classes of virtues follow from these tendencies. The amiable virtues of “candid condescension and indulgent humanity” stem from the sympathy of the spectator, and the respectable virtues of self-denial and self-command come from the moderation of passion in the person involved. “To feel much for others and little for ourselves . . . to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.” The propriety or the impropriety of an affection is in its “suitableness or unsuitableness, in the proportion or disproportion which the affection seems to bear to the cause or object which excites it.” Certain qualities are favorable but not necessarily admired; those that excite not only approbation but also wonder and surprise are the admirable qualities. This is true of one’s actions. Many, perhaps most, actions exhibiting propriety do not require virtue; but those that arouse people’s admiration at their uncommon delicacy of feeling or strength of self-command are signs of the admirable degree of the amiable or respectable virtue.

Passions originating with the body, such as hunger or pain, are objects more of disgust than of sympathy, since the onlooker can enter into them only to a very low degree. However, those that originate in the imagination, such as the loss of one’s fortune or the frustration of an ambition, can readily take on the configuration of the imagination of the person affected. A tragic drama may fitly turn on such an event, but not even on so great a physical loss as the loss of a leg.

The passions fall into a set of classifications. The unsocial passions are hatred and resentment, with their variations. They arouse in the spectator rival feelings, which must work against each other, for the spectator has as much tendency to sympathize with the person hated as with the person showing hatred. These passions are disagreeable both to the spectator and the person feeling them. They tend to drive people apart and destroy society. The social passions, such as generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, friendship, and all the benevolent affections, are felt with enjoyment; they bring people together and cement society. People enter into a feeling of satisfaction both with the person who shows them and with the person who is their object. Finally, the selfish passions take a middle place between the others. They are grief and joy when arising over the particular good or bad fortune of the person by whom they are felt. These become neither as disagreeable as the unsocial passions, for there is no rival to arouse a contrary sympathy, nor as agreeable as the social passions, for there is no additional beneficiary in whose satisfaction one would share.

The qualities of merit and demerit are the qualities of deserving reward or punishment, distinct species of approbation and disapprobation. Whereas the propriety of an action is the fitness of its motivating feeling to the cause of that feeling, the merit or demerit of the action rests upon the beneficial or hurtful effects that the action tends to produce. An action appears to deserve reward if it is the proper object of gratitude. Similarly, an action appears to deserve punishment if it is the proper object of a fitting resentment. These passions of gratitude and resentment, like every other, “seem proper and are approved of, when the heart of every impartial spectator entirely sympathizes with them, when every indifferent bystander entirely enters into, and goes along with them.”

The “Impartial Spectator”

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In one passage, Smith refers to the impartial spectator as “every human heart,” but again he modifies this to “every body who knows of it.” While he thus apparently sets up a standard of popular approbation, he seems to regard its basis—”the impartial spectator”—as an abstraction from instances of the human heart rather than as a census by count. Thus it is possible to have moral judgments in a case in which no feelings, or the “wrong” feelings, have been stirred; it is possible to judge of the demerit of an injury to a person who is unaware of injury; and it is possible to alleviate the apparent demerit of an act that is accidental rather than springing from an improper resentment. Judgments of merit are based on direct sympathy with the agent, through which one approves or disapproves the affection giving rise to the action, and upon a sympathy, indirect but no less strong, with the recipient affected. Smith’s view makes retaliation a natural impulse and incorporates it, in due degree, into the body of proper actions.

However, the standard of the impartial spectator undergoes a further transformation. “I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; . . . I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator . . . The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself.” The first of these persons Smith refers to again and again as “the man within the breast.” Thus imagination and sympathy become the account of conscience or the voice within.

People naturally desire not only to be approved of by society but also to be what ought to be approved of, to be worthy of approbation. Therefore, the “man within the breast” has a powerful voice in determining one’s actions, so much so that in many cases inward approval may completely replace that of others. The inward person knows one’s inmost secrets of motivation and is not contented to approve merely external appearances of rightly motivated actions.

The general rules of morality are formed inductively upon instances of what one’s moral faculties approve or disapprove. These rules, together with good habits of action, serve as guides to one’s conduct when one’s involvement is great and one’s passions violent, conditions in which the “ideal man” within is deceived or haste prevents his being consulted. One’s sense of duty is one’s regard for these general rules. Some actions, such as marks of gratitude, are of course better when they are prompted by an immediate feeling than when done solely from a sense of duty. The commandments of justice are the most exact duties; they admit of only such exceptions as may also be derived from the same just principles and with the same precision. Justice is an ordinary virtue, largely negative because on most occasions it only avoids harm rather than doing positive good. Nevertheless, it is the foundation of society, for where people are ready to do each other harm without restraint there can be no society. On the other hand, benevolence, which is free and never required, is the ornament of society and often an admirable virtue.

Nature has made all people concerned first of all for the preservation and health of their own bodies. People soon learn to transfer their diligence in these regards toward obtaining social desires, such as the respect of their equals and credit and rank in society. The care of such objects as these, upon which one’s happiness depends, is the virtue called prudence. It is perfectly respectable, yet neither endearing nor ennobling. Insofar as one’s actions may injure or benefit others, the character of the individual may affect the happiness of others. The concern for others prompts the virtues of justice and benevolence. The only motive that can justify one’s hurting or interfering with the happiness of one’s neighbor is proper resentment for injustice attempted or actually committed; and the punishment should be more aimed at making the person aware of the hurt inflicted and at drawing the person’s disapproval toward the motive of it than at inflicting harm. While prudence, justice, and benevolence may often summon the approval of people, their passions may yet mislead them. Therefore, still another virtue is needed, that of self-command. Its best form shows greatness and steadiness of the exertions over self-love, with the strong sense of propriety needed to make and maintain that exertion. The degree of self-estimation, neither too high nor too low, which the impartial spectator would approve, is the same as that which will secure for the individual the most happiness.

The Nature of Virtue

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Smith sharpens the outlines of his doctrine by adding, in the final part of his book, an examination of various systems of moral philosophy. He divides his subject according to two questions: First, wherein does virtue consist? Second, by what power or faculty of the mind is this character of virtue recommended to us? These represent the traditional questions, metaphysical and epistemological respectively, around which the philosophy of morals has centered in Western thought. Smith recognizes three possible answers to the first question: First, virtue consists either in propriety, the “proper government and direction of all our affections,” which considered singly may tend either toward good or toward evil; or second, virtue consists in prudence, the pursuit of one’s own happiness; or third, it consists in benevolence, the promotion of the happiness of others.

Smith places the ethical systems of Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics within the group making the first answer. He claims that Plato’s system is consistent with his own description of propriety. Aristotle differs in having virtue consist of habits of action rather than sentiments and judgments. The Stoics, he insists at some length, mistake entirely the kind of a system nature made for people, for they reduce to nothing the importance of what one has the most power over, one’s immediate circumstances; and they would deaden the sentiments that are the very basis of moral judgments. Smith adds to the group the systems of Samuel Clarke, William Wollaston, and the third earl of Shaftesbury, remarking that they fail to supply what he has provided, the element of sympathy on which morality is based.

Smith finds Greek philosopher Epicurus giving the second answer, that virtue is in prudence. Epicurus, however, was too eager to rest everything on a single principle, bodily pleasure and pain; he failed to notice the powerful satisfaction that people take in the approval of others.

Philosophers proposing the third answer, regarding the principle of benevolence as the primary virtue, included Ralph Cudworth, Thomas More, and John Smith of Cambridge, but especially Francis Hutcheson, “the soberest and most judicious.” Smith commends these philosophies of benevolence as nurturing the most agreeable and noblest affections, but he objects that Hutcheson and the others fail to provide an adequate account of the real worth of the lesser virtues, such as prudence. Their works in that respect are not true to human nature. Bernard Mandeville, who urges that all society and all virtue are founded on self-love, also did people an injustice, for he presents any passion that is ever vicious as always vicious, and to the utmost degree.

For Smith, the problem of the knowledge of moral worth is the problem of approbation. To him, the three possibilities seem to be self-love, reason, and sentiment. Against Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, and Mandeville, he argues that society cannot have been founded simply as a means of furthering private interest because sympathy is not a selfish principle; rather, a sympathetic feeling arises entirely on account of the other individual. Cudworth and other opponents of Hobbes advanced reason as the source of moral knowledge. Smith agrees that reason gathers the moral rules inductively but argues that people must have some source, some “first perceptions,” from which the reason gathers its instances. Smith commends Hutcheson for first seeing to what extent moral distinctions arise in reason and to what extent they are founded on immediate sense and feeling. However, on grounds of the nature of experience, he opposes Hutcheson’s claim to have discovered an inner moral sense. The inner sense, said to have as its sole purpose the judging of the rightness of actions, could not function as claimed because right actions do not always have the same appearance or form. Further, sentiments, whether proper or improper, feel inwardly the same. If the inner sense is devoted to identifying proper approbations, a species of moral feeling, it is superfluous, for one does not require particular inner senses to account for other species of feelings that are unrelated to the moral. Still further, the inner moral sense is never detected operating apart from allied feelings such as sympathy or antipathy, and there is therefore no evidence of its existence such as its single operation would afford.

Finally, Smith affirms that the ancient sort of moralists, who delineated characters in general, in accordance with recognizable virtues, were much superior to later writers, such as the casuists, who attempted to lay down particular rules covering human conduct in advance of the fact. For conduct will always be various, and systems of human law will never be equal to natural justice, made known to people by their sympathies.

The moral system of Adam Smith stands at an interesting place in the development of ethics. It was not a brilliant constructive performance in itself, being here and there imprecise, and advancing very few grounds for the claims made. It did, however, serve to ameliorate some of the more extreme views of its time by helping to emphasize the complexity and subtlety of human experience and conduct. Although it was among the last of the works to found morality upon a plan of virtues, it was among the early efforts to provide a sound psychological basis for choices of conduct. Although it provides clear glimpses of the narrowing influence of Smith’s own temperament and of the culture and times in which he lived, the work also presents acute and instructive interpretations of human motives. Despite its copious didactic passages, the work shows a hearty desire not to let one’s wishes for the moral elevation of humanity get in the way of one’s seeing the facts of a person’s actual moral life.


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Sources for Further Study

Ekelund, Robert B., Robert F. Hebert, and Robert D. Tollison. “Adam Smith on Religion and Market Structure.” History of Political Economy 37, no. 4 (2005): 647-660. A concise review of Smith’s rather detached and skeptical views of religion. Bibliography.

Brown, Maurice. Adam Smith’s Economics: Its Place in the Development of Economic Thought. London: Routledge, 1992. Scholarly but approachable work sets forth the economic and historical contexts of Smith’s theories.

Campbell, R. Hutchinson, and Andrew S. Skinner. Adam Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. This volume not only provides biographical information on the philosopher but also furnishes facts on eighteenth century Scotland and Smith’s well-known circle of acquaintances, which included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin.

Fay, Charles R. Adam Smith and the Scotland of His Day. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1956. A loosely linked collection of essays that places Smith in the larger context of his time and place.

Fay, Charles R. The World of Adam Smith. New York: A.M. Kelley, 1965. Classic work on the philosopher. This book presents an historical, economical, and philosophical overview of Scotland and England in the eighteenth century, providing insight into the development of Smith’s philosophy. It particularly illustrates the reasoning behind his disdain for mercantilism.

Fitzgibbons, Athol. Adam Smith’s System of Liberty, Wealth, and Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Argues that Smith set out to overthrow the prevailing traditional (Christian, Aristotelian, authoritarian) approach to morals with a more liberal view derived from the Stoics, consistent with the kind of natural law represented by Sir Isaac Newton.

Fleischacker, Samuel. On Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”: A Philosophical Companion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Despite the title, there is extensive discussion of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Religious sentiments receive only a brief commentary, but there are chapters on moral philosophy, vanity, and distributive justice.

Glahe, Fred R., ed. Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations: 1776-1996. Bicentennial Essays. Boulder: Colorado Associated Press, 1978. A collection of appreciations by twentieth century champions of the free market.

Griswold, Charles L., Jr. Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Primarily focused on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but effectively blends this with The Wealth of Nations to stress Smith’s concern for individual freedom (against religious dogma as well as slavery and political autocracy).

Heilbroner, Robert. The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. Well-recognized authority on Smith dissects the philosopher’s works, in particular The Wealth of Nations, to indisputably establish Smith as a predominant figure in the rise of capitalism and a free-market economy.

Hollander, Samuel. The Economics of Adam Smith. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973. The best survey of Smith’s economic ideas.

Lindgren, J. Ralph. The Social Philosophy of Adam Smith. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973. Undertakes to survey the full breadth of Smith’s philosophy, including moral judgment, psychology, religion, and science.

Muller, Jerry Z. Adam Smith in His Time and Ours: Designing the Decent Society. New York: Free Press, 1993. Broad, relatively nontechnical view of Smith’s analysis and philosophy, defending his relevance for modern society.

Pack, Spencer J. Capitalism as a Moral System: Adam Smith’s Critique of the Free Market Economy. Brookfield, Vt.: Edward Elgar, 1991. Draws out Smith’s criticisms of laissez-faire and of capitalism.

Raphael, D. D. Adam Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. A brief intellectual biography written for the general reader.

Rashid, Salim. The Myth of Adam Smith. Lyme, N.H.: Edward Elgar, 1998. The author argues that Smith’s economic analysis is greatly overrated and finds inaccuracies in factual data and inconsistencies and fallacies in Smith’s analysis.

Skinner, Andrew S. A System of Social Science: Papers Relating to Adam Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. A collection of essays dealing with different aspects of Smith’s thought by a leading authority on the subject.

Tawney, Richard H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publications, 1998. Reprint of Harcourt Brace’s popular 1926 edition. The author dramatically illustrates the social conditions of eighteenth century Britain and the role Christianity played as the religion of capitalism.

Taylor, Overton H. A History of Economic Thought. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960. Devotes chapter 3 to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, stressing the central roles of prudence, justice, and benevolence, and noting Smith’s confidence that the spontaneous evolution of moral sentiments works to promote the welfare of society.

Wood, John Cunningham, ed. Adam Smith: Critical Assessments. 4 vols. London: Croom Helm, 1983. Presents 150 articles and excerpts, many of which extend beyond Smith’s economic analysis.

Young, Jeffrey T. Economics as A Moral Science: The Political Economy of Adam Smith. Lyme, N.H.: Edward Elgar, 1997. Stresses the moral and ethical dimensions of Smith’s economic ideas.

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