The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral Sentiments Glossary


The deep-seated approval one feels for someone who is performing a moral action. The strength of this sentiment comes from the strength of one's moral conviction, and Smith sees this as the highest form of approval.


The close personal attention paid to someone who is an object of interest or affection.


One of the main virtues Smith describes. It is goodness done freely, without initial provocation or a subsequent debt, to someone else.


This term refers to the use of complex systems of rules in order to sort out the moral content of any situation, so that one can determine precisely what the right thing to do is. Smith looks down on casuists (people who practice casuistry) because he believes that such moral precision is only possible in the case of justice; trying to sort out other virtues with precise rules, he says, is an exercise in futility. For Smith, the actions necessitated by other virtues are very sensitive to the nuances of specific situations.


Harmony between different people or groups. Smith uses this term to describe the state when the actions of a person coincide exactly with the sympathetic feelings of an observer. It is concord which leads an observer to be morally approving of someone's actions.


Our imaginative capacity to judge our own actions or possible actions as a disinterested third party might.


Smith derives his idea of custom from philosopher David Hume's theories. According to Hume, the human idea of cause and effect comes from seeing one event consistently follow another event, so that we expect the second event whenever we observe the first (193). Custom, Smith argues, can distort our perceptions of beauty and, to a lesser extent, our perceptions of morality.

direct sympathy

The ability of one to imaginatively take on the perspective of someone who is acting; using this technique, one can determine whether or not the actions of another person are justified.


Deep resentment and blame in response to a moral violation. As is the case with approbation, the strength of this moral reaction comes from one's moral convictions.


The act of concealing one's thoughts, feelings, or character. Note that dissimulation is different from tempering one's emotions after considering how they appear to a third party: genuinely tempering emotions changes them to make them more socially acceptable, whereas dissimulation simply masks these emotions. The former is worthy of approbation in Smith's eyes, but the latter is not.


Smith uses the term "fashion" to reflect the behaviors and tendencies of high-class people, particularly behaviors that people in lower classes admire and attempt to make their own (193-194). He believes that responses to fashion can distort our sense of beauty and, to a lesser degree, of morality.


Smith's usage of the term refers to events that cannot be changed by human action or initiative.

indirect sympathy

The ability to imaginatively put oneself in the perspective of someone who is being acted upon, and to determine through this technique whether or not the action in question is justified. For example, if someone receives a favor and expresses gratitude, an observer would experience indirect sympathy with the grateful person, and would, presumably, approve of that gratitude.


The moral virtue which constitutes not acting upon others in a way that would cause undue pain to others. Justice is the only moral virtue which Smith believes can be described by exact rules; therefore, this virtue forms the basis of human law.


Smith defines the virtue of magnanimity as neither overvaluing nor undervaluing oneself, so that one behaves with integrity and virtue.


Smith employs a somewhat outdated usage of this word, applying it to people of average quality and station in life. "Mean" most closely means "generally average" and is associated by Smith with the poverty of the common class.


Deferring to someone as a servant might. Smith sees this as a typical behavior displayed toward people of status or authority, often as a result of confusing status with wisdom and moral value.


An adjective meaning deceitful and untrustworthy.


The moral quality of an action which indicates that it is worthy of society's approval.


The moral virtue which consists of self-restraint. Prudence is particularly important in light of the fact that Smith's system of morality emerges from sympathy. People are less likely to be objects of sympathy if they are not able to temper their emotions so that strangers can appreciate how these individuals feel.


The sentiment that comes from imagining through sympathy how much easier or more pleasant an object or system makes its user's life. While not a moral sentiment, the approval which people feel for highly useful things can cause utility to be mistaken for a moral sentiment.