Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.