The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral Sentiments Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss what brings about the differences in one's ability to sympathize with sorrow and with joy.

    We have difficulty avoiding envy when something tremendously good happens to someone. Therefore, it is easier for us to sympathize with those who experience smaller strokes of good fortune. In regards to sorrow, we do not respect people who are sorrowful over all the trifles that they come across; rather, we detest their weakness of character. Yet we cannot help but sympathize with one who has lost everything, since we can easily imagine how horrible such a situation would be.

  2. 2

    Discuss the relationship between the idea of God and the moral sentiments of men in Smith's theory.

    God has designed all parts of the universe to work in harmony, just as various components of a watch work together. Because of this, our natural sentiments tend towards moral ends which advance society. This is particularly apparent with sentiments of justice, which present themselves to us as internal laws of conduct and which lead us to preserve society.

  3. 3

    How does utility bring about sentiments of public spirit?

    The sense of beauty can be influenced by the imaginative perception of how much something has the potential to increase pleasure or make life more convenient. This manner of viewing the world inclines us to appreciate systems which operate harmoniously. Thus, an efficient and harmonious government, which executes its offices in a morally upstanding manner, is extremely desirable and pleasing to us.

  4. 4

    Outline the process through which man develops a conscience.

    As a member of society, man has many experiences of interacting with impartial people. These people act as mirrors of his behavior, judging him without the biased perspectives of his family or friends. Over time, man internalizes this behavioral mirror, and is thereby able to judge his own behavior as an impartial observer would. This capacity is called "conscience."

  5. 5

    How does Smith account for the seemingly irrational nature of love?

    Smith classifies love as a passion which comes from habits of the imagination, and is developed by habitually fixing one's thoughts on another person. As this growth of sentiment through habit will be unique to two lovers, it is virtually impossible for others to sympathize with how they act under the influence of their passion. This is why lovers often seem to behave in ridiculous and irrational ways.

  6. 6

    Briefly account for Smith's belief that casuistry is a waste of time.

    Smith objects to casuistry because it attempts to establish concrete rules for the usage of virtues, even though virtues are necessarily flexible and based on the nuances of specific situations. The only iron-clad virtue which does not yield to circumstance, as Smith says, is justice; this is why jurisprudence is a proper practice for establishing the practical rules of morality. A strong sense of duty is the best guidance when it comes to other virtues.

  7. 7

    Give examples of the ways in which people of status can bring about corruption.

    The fact that people sympathize more with joy than with sorrow gives people incentives to demonstrate joy; when combined with the appreciation that people have for the perceived utility of riches, such demonstrations lead people of status to become well-liked. People of means are then inclined to take the easy route of flaunting their wealth and influence to build social reputations, as opposed to actively cultivating virtues to achieve the same goal. Their own distorted, unjust behavior is subsequently approved of by common people because of the high esteem in which the common people already hold these prominent figures. This constitutes the corruption of virtue.

  8. 8

    Discuss the extent to which morality can be influenced by custom and fashion.

    Where custom and fashion reinforce our natural moral sentiments, our moral sentiments are augmented accordingly. However, where custom and fashion are antithetical to our natural moral sentiments, we can become acclimated to the immorality of certain actions. This is particularly the case in uncivilized cultures. Still, because our moral nature is imparted to us by God, we cannot lose the most fundamental fabric of our moral nature; our characters cannot become so severely corrupted that society falls apart.

  9. 9

    Why does Smith argue that we have greater sentimental attachment to our children than to our parents?

    Smith believes that both nature and God have designed our biases to support the harmony of natural life and the sustenance of society. Because children are dependent on their parents to learn how to survive and to be protected in youth, we as parents must show especially deep care for our children; our parents have no such pressing need for us to ensure their survival, societally-speaking. This ordering of biases is also why we are most inclined to express beneficence towards those who have addressed us in a similar spirit in the past.

  10. 10

    Describe the process by which one acquires a sense of duty, and what role God plays in duty.

    By observing various instances in which people make choices, and judging the morality of these instances through our sympathetic abilities, we are able to extrapolate general rules of morality. These general rules determine for us the guidelines with which we can morally center ourselves in any situation. These general rules constitute duty, which was designed for us by God as a means of arranging our lives to ensure the goodness and perpetuation of society.