Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sympathy for Human Existence

The Theory of Moral SentimentsThe Theory of Moral Sentiments 
by Adam Smith

"what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages we can propose to derive from it." (p. 50)

Reading Adam Smith, like Hume or Gibbon, takes you into a century where the prose styles were more classical than today. I was fortunate to study Latin in high school, but Smith had Greek and Latin studies from an early age. His references to Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics and Cicero are central to his work. But his immediate predecessor was Francis Hutcheson of the University of Glasgow, who divided moral philosophy into four parts: Ethics and Virtue; Private rights and Natural liberty; Familial rights (called Economics); and State and Individual rights (called Politics). In contrast to Hutcheson, Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, divided moral systems into: 1) Categories of the nature of morality: These included Propriety, Prudence, and Benevolence; and 2) Categories of the motive of morality: These included Self-love, Reason, and Sentiment. Hutcheson had abandoned 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 A Treatise of Human Nature), claimed that man is pleased by utility.

Smith rejected his teacher's 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. Throughout the work the Smith demonstrates a superior ability to observe in detail the human experience. 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 departed from the "moral sense" tradition of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume, as the principle of sympathy takes the place of that organ. "Sympathy" was the term Smith used for the feeling of these moral sentiments. It was the feeling with the passions of others. It operated through a logic of self projection, in which a spectator imaginatively reconstructed the experience of the person he watches. This process allows a person to build and maintain a sense of propriety which sense is of utmost importance for Smith's theory. Also important is the relevance of this book for Smith's more famous tome, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. P. J. O'Rourke has this to say about this connection:
"The Wealth of Nations was part of a larger enterprise in moral philosophy. The first installment of Adam Smith's great undertaking was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published 17 years before Wealth. Smith finished an extensive revision of Moral Sentiments the year before he died. He considered it his most important work. The book is not much read or referred to nowadays, but his theories in The Wealth of Nations cannot be understood without The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
"Smith devoted most of his career to the project of bettering human existence. A modern person_or a modern person who doesn't wear Birkenstocks_is tempted to laugh. It is a hilariously big job. But most of us have undertaken hilariously big jobs such as raising children. We were lured into the enterprise by the, so to speak, pleasures of conception. New beginnings are always fun. And the prospect of making wholesale improvements in ordinary life was as novel and fascinating in the 18th century as the prospect of making life simpler and less stressful and blocking e-mail spam are today." (P.J. O'Rourke, "Smith's Law,'" The Weekly Standard July 17, 2006).

Adam Smith's book was well-received and sold well. More importantly it influenced thinkers from political philosophers to literary stylists. Just read Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility) to get a flavor of Smith's influence. This is an important and original book to read for all who are interested in the development of the philosophy of the enlightenment.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary James. I love this stuff and should get to this one.

Though my knowledge of the modern theories on these things is a bit sketchy, it sounds like Smith was really on top something with his theory of sympathy and projection.

James said...


Yes Smith was both prescient and perceptive in this work. It had an impact in many places; for example, consider Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.