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The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

by Adam Smith

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Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) lays the foundation for a general system of morals, and is a text of central importance in the history of moral and political thought. It presents a theory of the imagination which Smith derived from David Hume but which encompasses an idea of sympathy that in some ways is more sophisticated than anything in Hume's philosophy. By means of sympathy and the mental construct of an impartial spectator, Smith formulated highly original theories of conscience, moral judgment and the virtues. The enduring legacy of his work is its reconstruction of the Enlightenment idea of a moral, or social, science encompassing both political economy and the theory of law and government. This 2002 volume offers a new edition of the text with clear and helpful notes for the student reader, together with a substantial introduction that sets the work in its philosophical and historical context.… (more)
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In 1759 Smith published his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Didactic, exhortative, and analytic by turns, it lays the psychological foundation on which The Wealth of Nations was later to be built. In it Smith described the principles of “human nature,” which, together with Hume and the other leading philosophers of his time, he took as a universal and unchanging datum from which social institutions, as well as social behaviour, could be deduced.

It shows that our moral ideas and actions are a product of our very nature as social creatures. It argues that this social psychology is a better guide to moral action than is reason. It identifies the basic rules of prudence and justice that are needed for society to survive, and explains the additional, beneficent, actions that enable it to flourish.

Self-interest and sympathy. As individuals, we have a natural tendency to look after ourselves. That is merely prudence. And yet as social creatures, explains Smith, we are also endowed with a natural sympathy – today we would say empathy – towards others. When we see others distressed or happy, we feel for them – albeit less strongly. Likewise, others seek our empathy and feel for us. When their feelings are particularly strong, empathy prompts them to restrain their emotions so as to bring them into line with our, less intense reactions. Gradually, as we grow from childhood to adulthood, we each learn what is and is not acceptable to other people. Morality stems from our social nature.

Justice and beneficence. So does justice. Though we are self-interested, we again have to work out how to live alongside others without doing them harm. That is an essential minimum for the survival of society. If people go further and do positive good – beneficence – we welcome it, but cannot demand such action as we demand justice.

Virtue. Prudence, justice, and beneficence are important. However, the ideal must be that any impartial person, real or imaginary – what Smith calls an impartial spectator – would fully empathise with our emotions and actions. That requires self-command, and in this lies true virtue.

Morality, says Smith, is not something we have to calculate. It is natural, built into us as social beings. When we see people happy or sad, we feel happy or sad too. We derive pleasure when people do things we approve of, and distress when we believe they are doing harm.

Of course, we do not feel others’ emotions as strongly as they do. And through our natural empathy with others, we learn that an excess of anger, or grief, or other emotions distresses them. So we try to curb our emotions to bring them into line with those of others. In fact, we aim to temper them to the point where any typical, disinterested person – an impartial spectator, says Smith – would empathise with us.

Likewise, when we show concern for other people, we know that an impartial spectator would approve, and we take pleasure from it. The impartial spectator is only imaginary, but still guides us: and through experience we gradually build up a system of behavioural rules – morality.

Punishments and rewards have an important social function. We approve and reward acts that benefit society, and disapprove and punish acts that harm it. Nature has equipped us with appetites and aversions that promote the continued existence of our species and our society. It is almost as if an invisible hand were guiding what we do.

Justice. For society to survive, there must be rules to present its individual members harming each other. As Smith comments, it is possible for a society of robbers and murderers to exist – but only insofar as they abstain from robbing and murdering each other. These are the rules we call justice.

If people do not help others when they could, or fail to return a good deed, we may call them uncharitable or ungrateful. But we do not punish people to force them to do good: only for acts of real or intended harm. We force them only to obey the rules of justice, because society could not otherwise survive.

Conscience. But nature has given us something even more immediate than punishment, namely our own self-criticism. We are impartial spectators, not only of other people’s actions, thanks to conscience. It is nature’s way of reminding us that other people are important too.

Moral rules. In the process of making such judgements on a countless number of actions, we gradually formulate rules of conduct. We do not then have to think out each new situation afresh: we now have moral standards to guide us.

This constancy is beneficial to the social order. By following our conscience, we end up, surely but unintentionally, promoting the happiness of mankind. Human laws, with their punishments and rewards, may aim at the same results; but they can never be as consistent, immediate, or effective as conscience and the rules of morality engineered by nature.

Virtues. Smith ends The Theory Of Moral Sentiments by defining the character of a truly virtuous person. Such a person, he suggests, would embody the qualities of prudence, justice, beneficence and self-command.

Prudence moderates the individual’s excesses and as such is important for society. It is respectable, if not endearing. Justice limits the harm we do to others. It is essential for the continuation of social life. Beneficence improves social life by prompting us to promote the happiness of others. It cannot be demanded from anyone, but it is always appreciated. And self-command moderates our passions and reins in our destructive actions.

Freedom and nature, Smith concludes, are a surer guide to the creation of a harmonious, functioning society than the supposed reason of philosophers and visionaries. ( )
  Marcos_Augusto | Jun 28, 2021 |
Ik geef toe als econoom nog nooit De welvaart van landen (The wealth of nations) van de Schot Adam Smith gelezen te hebben. Dat ga ik 27 jaar na mijn afstuderen binnenkort inhalen. Want met het lezen van het daaraan voorafgaande werk, De theorie over morele gevoelens, heb ik de smaak te pakken gekregen. Dit moraalfilosofische theorie verscheen voor het eerst in 1759, maar Smith bleef er tot zijn overlijden in 1790 aan werken.

Makkelijk samen te vatten is zijn verhandeling niet, wel trof me regelmatig de treffende observaties van gevoelens, het onderscheid tussen mannen en vrouwen en het doorhebben van verschillen in culturen. De theorie over morele gevoelens geeft een boeiend inzicht hoe de beste man, als diepgelovige, raad wist met de klassieke filosofen, tijdgenoten en tegelijk de vertaling kon maken naar de praktijk van alledag. Wat citaten: "Ontberingen, gevaren, kwetsuren, onrecht en tegenspoed zijn de enige leermeesters die ons de uitoefening van deze deugd (zelfbeheersing) kunnen onderwijzen. Ze zijn echter stuk voor stuk leermeesters bij wie niemand graag in de leer gaat." (p.248).

"Als we alleen zijn, hebben we de neiging om alles wat onszelf raakt te sterk te ervaren; we zijn dan geneigd de goede diensten te overschatten die we anderen hebben verleend, en de krenkingen te overdrijven die ons zijn aangedaan; we zijn geneigd te opgetogen te zijn over het goede dat ons toevalt en al te bedroefd vanwege ons ongeluk." (p.250).

De roemruchte 'onzichtbare hand' uit De welvaart van landen gebruikt hij eenmaal in dit boek om uit te leggen hoe bijvoorbeeld een landheren met zijn horigen en voedselproducten uiteindelijk tot eenzelfde verdeling van eerste levensbehoeften over de bevolking komt als "de aarde in gelijke delen onder al haar bewoners verdeeld was; en aldus, zonder dit oogmerk te hebben, zelfs zonder het te weten, dienen ze het belang van de samenleving en verschaffen ze middelen voor de vermenigvuldiging van de soort." (p.299)

"Wil je je kinderen zo opvoeden dat ze zich van hun plichten jegens hun ouders bewust zijn, dat ze aardig en liefdevol jegens hun broers en zusters zijn? Breng hen dan in een positie waarin ze genoodzaakt zijn hun plichtsbesef te tonen, om vriendelijke, warme en hartelijke broers en zusters te zijn, en voed hen thuis op." (p.360).

Adam Smith worstelt zich door de morele systemen van zijn eveneens gelovige voorgangers uit de scholen van Platonisten, Stoïcijnen en Casuïsten heen, legt hun zwakheden bloot en tracht met een doordachte kijk op moraliteit, goed en fout, goed- en afkeuring, deugden en ondeugden te komen. En ja, native Americans, Afrikanen en Aziaten zijn nog 'wilden', slavernij geen discussiepunt en West-Europa (nog) heel duidelijk het centrum van de wereld. Off topic, maar evengoed interessant voor de klassiek opgeleiden onder ons en studenten taalwetenschappen, zijn zijn overwegingen over het ontstaan van talen in een appendix.

Complimenten voor vertaler Willem Visser die de honderden pagina's Engels uit de Penguin editie van 2009 omzette naar een soepel lopende, prettig leesbare Nederlandse tekst. Volgens de uitgever Boom pas ik de juiste volgorde toe: voorafgaand aan Wealth of Nations eerst The Theory of Moral Sentiments lezen om de ideeën van Adam Smith beter te begrijpen. ( )
  hjvanderklis | Oct 18, 2020 |
The mind, therefore, is rarely so disturbed, but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquility and sedateness. The breast is, in some measure, calmed and composed the moment we come into his presence. We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is not what Smith is known for, but it should be. In it, he argues comprehensively that to the extent that we sympathize with the passions of another person, we find their passions proper. Specifically, we "approve of another man's judgment, not as something useful, but as right, as accurate, as agreeable to truth and reality: and it is evident we attribute those qualities to it for no other reason but because we find that it agrees with our own."

I especially appreciate Smith's observation that our desire for praise is largely derived from our desire for praiseworthiness, not the other way around. When we impartially imagine our own conduct or character as praiseworthy, and it is subsequently praised by others, we feel confirmed and reassured; however, we feel our blameworthy actions no more praiseworthy simply because they were improperly praised by others.

As other reviewers have noted, the prose is certainly 18th century, but articulate and clear nonetheless. Smith covers sympathy's role in determining propriety, merit, duty, justice, and utility. He is commonly understood as utilitarian of sorts, but this is not truly accurate. His version of moral sentimentalism is something more akin to a hybrid of virtue ethics and utilitarianism—almost a precursor to modern day social intuitionism.

I definitely recommend TMS for anyone who is interested in less rigid moral systems that reflect the indeterminate and vague nature of human morality. ( )
  drbrand | Jun 8, 2020 |
Reprint of edition published London : Henry G. Bohn, 1853 ( )
  ME_Dictionary | Mar 20, 2020 |
Someday I hope I'll be ambitious enough to read this in its entirety, because the excerpts I've come across have been incredible. Latest example, found in [b:The Better Angels of Our Nature|11107244|The Better Angels of Our Nature Why Violence Has Declined|Steven Pinker|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1311281857s/11107244.jpg|16029496]:
It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that it is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves.
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
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Since the first publication of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was so long ago as the beginning of the year 1759, several corrections, and a good many illustrations of the doctrines it contained in it, have occurred to me.
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Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) lays the foundation for a general system of morals, and is a text of central importance in the history of moral and political thought. It presents a theory of the imagination which Smith derived from David Hume but which encompasses an idea of sympathy that in some ways is more sophisticated than anything in Hume's philosophy. By means of sympathy and the mental construct of an impartial spectator, Smith formulated highly original theories of conscience, moral judgment and the virtues. The enduring legacy of his work is its reconstruction of the Enlightenment idea of a moral, or social, science encompassing both political economy and the theory of law and government. This 2002 volume offers a new edition of the text with clear and helpful notes for the student reader, together with a substantial introduction that sets the work in its philosophical and historical context.

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