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The Theory of Moral Sentiments

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The Theory of Moral Sentiments written by Adam Smith in 1759, is one of the most important works in the theory of capitalism. It provides the ethical, philosophical, psychological and methodological underpinnings to Smith's later works including The Wealth of Nations (1776), A Treatise on Public Opulence (1764) (first published in 1937), Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1795), and Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue, and Arms (1763) (first published in 1896).

Broadly speaking, Smith followed his mentor, Francis Hutcheson's (University of Glasgow), division of moral philosophy into four parts: Ethics and Virtue; Private rights and Natural liberty; Familial rights (called Oeconomicks); and State and Individual rights (called Politicks).

More specificly he divided moral systems into:

Categories of the nature of morality
These include Propriety, Prudence, Benevolence, and Licentiousness.
Categories of the motive of morality
These include Self-love, Reason, and Sentiment.

Hutcheson had abandoned the latter, the psychological view of moral philosophy claiming that motives were too fickle to be used as a basis for a philosophical system. Instead he hypothesised a dedicated "sixth sense" to explain morality. This idea, to be taken up by David Hume (see Hume's Treatise 1740), claimed that man is pleased by utility.

Smith rejected his teachers reliance on this special sense. Starting in about 1741 Smith set on the task of using Hume's experimental method (appealing to human experience) to replace the specific moral sense with a pluralistic approach to morality based on a multitude of psychological motives. The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with the following assertion:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes 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 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 sorrows 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 or the 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.

Smith departs from the "moral sense" tradition of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume, as the principle of sympathy takes the place of that organ. Sympathy, is the term Smith uses for the feeling of these moral sentiments. It is the feeling with the passions of others. It operates through a logic of mirroring, in which a spectator imaginatively reconstructs the experience of the person he watches:

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 on 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.

Sympathy arises from an innate desire to identify with the emotions of others. It can lead people to strive to maintain good relations with their fellow human beings and provide the basis both for specific benevolent acts and for the general social order. Thus is formed within the beast the psychological basis for the desire to obey natural laws. The Theory of Moral Sentiment cuminates in man as self-interested and self-commanded. Individual freedom, according to Smith, is rooted in self reliance, the ability of an individual to pursue his self-interest while commanding himself based on the principles of natural law.

See also

References

  • Bonar, J. (1926) The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith, Journal of Philosophical Studies, vol. 1, 1926, pp. 333-353.
  • Morrow, G. R. (1923) The Ethical and Economic Theories of Adam Smith: A study in the social philosophy of the 18th century, Cornell Studies in Philosophy, no. 13, 1923, pp 91-107
  • Morrow, G. R. (1923) The Significance of the Doctrine of Sympathy in Hume and Adam Smith, Philosophical Review, vol. XXXII, 1923, pp 60-78.
  • Schneider, H.W. editor (1948) Adam Smith's Moral and Political Philosophy, Harper Torchbook edition 1970, New York.

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