The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Eamonn Butler's Condensed Wealth of Nations, which includes a section on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is available to download here.

Main themes of the book

The Theory Of Moral Sentiments was a real scientific breakthrough. 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.

The argument of the book

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.