The Theory of Moral Sentiments Analysis

Adam Smith


(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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Virtues and Passions

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

The “Impartial Spectator”

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

The Nature of Virtue

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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,...

(The entire section is 956 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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....

(The entire section is 785 words.)