The Wealth of Nations

The Appealing Moral Principles of Adam Smith

David Hume, who wrote Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in 1751, and Adam Smith, who authored The Wealth of Nations in 1776, both spoke of a particular human emotion or characteristic called sympathy that differs greatly in definition from the colloquial meaning attributed to it today. Each mentioned the word not as a synonym for pity, sorrow, or compassion, but more as a mutual relationship within which whatever affects one correspondingly affects another. Within the context of each philosopher's starkly different moral code, however, the term and its ethical value are dissimilar.

Hume begins his discussion of the term with a strikingly vague description, arguing that a "fellow-feeling" exists among all men, and that it is demonstrated in man's inability to be alone: "Reduce a person to solitude, and he loses all enjoyment, except either of the sensual or speculative kind; and that because the movements of his heart are not forwarded by correspondent movements in his fellow-creatures" (Hume, 43). Not only does all non-sensual and non-speculative feeling arise in man from sympathy, but "fellow-feeling" allows man to accept or deny moral principles. Virtues speak most loudly to the...

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