The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral Sentiments Quotes and Analysis

In every part of the universe we observe means adjusted with the nicest artifice to the ends which they are intended to produce; and in the mechanism of a plant, or animal body, admire how every thing is contrived for advancing the two great purposes of nature, the support of the individual, and the propagation of the species. But in these, and in all such objects, we still distinguish the efficient from the final cause of their several motions and organizations. The digestion of the food, the circulation of the blood, and the secretion of the several juices which are drawn from it, are operations all of them necessary for the great purposes of animal life. Yet we never endeavour to account for them from those purposes as from their efficient causes, nor imagine that the blood circulates, or that the food digests of its own accord, and with a view or intention to the purposes of circulation or digestion. The wheels of the watch are all admirably adjusted to the end for which it was made, the pointing of the hour. All their various motions conspire in the nicest manner to produce this effect. If they were endowed with a desire and intention to produce it, they could not do it better. Yet we never ascribe any such desire or intention to them, but to the watch-maker, and we know that they are put into motion by a spring, which intends the effect it produces as little as they do. But though, in accounting for the operations of bodies, we never fail to distinguish in this manner the efficient from the final cause, in accounting for those of the mind we are very apt to confound these two different things with one another. When by natural principles we are led to advance those ends, which a refined and enlightened reason would recommend to us, we are very apt to impute to that reason, as to their efficient cause, the sentiments and actions by which we advance those ends, and to imagine that to be the wisdom of man, which in reality is the wisdom of God. Upon a superficial view, this cause seems sufficient to produce the effects which are ascribed to it; and the system of human nature seems to be more simple and agreeable when all its different operations are in this manner deduced from a single principle.

Smith, 87-88

Smith is utilizing a proof of intelligent design known as the "watchmaker analogy," which argues that the existence and harmony of natural laws imply a creator in the same way that the intricate mechanisms of a watch imply a watchmaker. In particular, he emphasizes that this argument for intelligent design has a larger scope than the movements of heavenly bodies (planets, stars, etc.), that it extends to the actions of people: because God is benevolent, Smith argues, God has designed people's sentiments to naturally trend towards moral ends. People are not typically aware of this state of affairs, except upon reflection. Smith's particular mindset explains his overall approach to morality: he mostly posits his theories as straightforward observations of human nature, because human nature, designed by God, is inherently moral. Therefore, while there are morally corrupting influences which must be avoided, Smith does not see morality as something which must be taught.

To [innocent people who have been wrongly accused], that humble philosophy which confines its views to this life, can afford, perhaps, but little consolation. Every thing that could render either life or death respectable is taken from them. They are condemned to death and to everlasting infamy. Religion can alone afford them any effectual comfort. She alone can tell them, that it is of little importance what man may think of their conduct, while the all-seeing Judge of the world approves of it. She alone can present to them the view of another world; a world of more candour, humanity, and justice, than the present; where their innocence is in due time to be declared, and their virtue to be finally rewarded: and the same great principle which can alone strike terror into triumphant vice, affords the only effectual consolation to disgraced and insulted innocence.

Smith, 120-121

Smith is devoutly religious, as evidenced my the integral role that God plays in his conception of morality, and this passage demonstrates the notion that religion provides comfort when one is faced with the seeming unfairness of human life. (Ironically, this is a notion that brings to mind atheist Sigmund Freud's argument for how religion came to be -- an argument set forward over 100 years later). In instances when one suffers injustice, such as when one is believed to have committed a crime of which one is innocent, the belief that God is absolutely just and will reward one in the afterlife serves to offer solace and prevent despair.

But though man has... been rendered the immediate judge of mankind, he has been rendered so only in the first instance; and an appeal lies from his sentence to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct. The jurisdictions of those two tribunals are founded upon principles which, though in some respects resembling and akin, are, however, in reality different and distinct. The jurisdiction of the man without, is founded altogether in the desire of actual praise, and in the aversion to actual blame. The jurisdiction of the man within, is founded altogether in the desire of praise-worthiness, and in the aversion to blame-worthiness; in the desire of possessing those qualities, and performing those actions, which we love and admire in other people; and in the dread of possessing those qualities, and performing those actions, which we hate and despise in other people. If the man without should applaud us, either for actions which we have not performed, or for motives which had no influence upon us; the man within can immediately humble that pride and elevation of mind which such groundless acclamations might otherwise occasion, by telling us, that as we know that we do not deserve them, we render ourselves despicable by accepting them. If, on the contrary, the man without should reproach us, either for actions which we never performed, or for motives which had no influence upon those which we may have performed; the man within may immediately correct this false judgment, and assure us, that we are by no means the proper objects of that censure which has so unjustly been bestowed upon us.

Smith, 127

Smith here underscores two important distinctions in his theory of morality: the difference between external and internal judges, and the difference between being praised or blamed versus being praise-worthy or blame-worthy. Though our moral sentiments and behaviors are based on our desire to be both approved of by society and worthy of that approval, society may sometimes misjudge our actions, and may blame us for things we did not do. Such situations are addressed by our conscience, the internal judge of our behavior: our conscience always knows the truth of both our intentions and our actions. An active conscience makes us feel guilt when we are praised but do not deserve praise, and leads us to feel resentment or pain when we are blamed but do not deserve blame.

When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? 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 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. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

Smith, 132-133

Here, Smith addresses where our notion of altruism (acting for the sake of others and not for ourselves) comes from. We are naturally more interested in our own affairs than in those of others, since such interest is necessary for the sake of survival. Yet Smith attributes altruism to the conscience, our internal capacity to imagine how an observer might perceive our actions. Because we desire to be the proper objects of praise by society, we act in ways that would earn society's approval, even though we see ourselves as more important than other people are.

In solitude, we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves: we are apt to over-rate the good offices we may have done, and the injuries we may have suffered: we are apt to be too much elated by our own good, and too much dejected by our own bad fortune. The conversation of a friend brings us to a better, that of a stranger to a still better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and conduct, requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty, by the presence of the real spectator: and it is always from that spectator, from whom we can expect the least sympathy and indulgence, that we are likely to learn the most complete lesson of self-command.

Are you in adversity? Do not mourn in the darkness of solitude, do not regulate your sorrow according to the indulgent sympathy of your intimate friends; return, as soon as possible, to the day-light of the world and of society. Live with strangers, with those who know nothing, or care nothing about your misfortune; do not even shun the company of enemies; but give yourself the pleasure of mortifying their malignant joy, by making them feel how little you are affected by your calamity, and how much you are above it.

Are you in prosperity? Do not confine the enjoyment of your good fortune to your own house, to the company of your own friends, perhaps of your flatterers, of those who build upon your fortune the hopes of mending their own; frequent those who are independent of you, who can value you only for your character and conduct, and not for your fortune. Neither seek nor shun, neither intrude yourself into nor run away from the society of those who were once your superiors, and who may be hurt at finding you their equal, or, perhaps, even their superior. The impertinence of their pride may, perhaps, render their company too disagreeable: but if it should not, be assured that it is the best company you can possibly keep; and if, by the simplicity of your unassuming demeanour, you can gain their favour and kindness, you may rest satisfied that you are modest enough, and that your head has been in no respect turned by your good fortune.

The propriety of our moral sentiments is never so apt to be corrupted, as when the indulgent and partial spectator is at hand, while the indifferent and impartial one is at a great distance.

Smith, 147-148

Here, Smith explains the relationship between society and conscience. He stresses the need for people to be socially active and to interact with people who are not invested in them, because the perception of strangers is the best education for the conscience. Your friends and family, as well as your enemies, are biased in relation to you, and are therefore likely to judge you in ways which do not perfectly reflect how are actually acting. If these are the only perspectives you are exposed to, your conscience will be distorted and you will not be properly equipped to determine how to act morally. Therefore, Smith says, you should spend time with people who are not familiar with you, and should study how they perceive you in order to achieve genuine clarity on how society might view your actions.

The animosity of hostile factions, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is often still more furious than that of hostile nations; and their conduct towards one another is often still more atrocious. What may be called the laws of faction have often been laid down by grave authors with still less regard to the rules of justice than what are called the laws of nations. The most ferocious patriot never stated it as a serious question, Whether faith ought to be kept with public enemies?—Whether faith ought to be kept with rebels? Whether faith ought to be kept with heretics? are questions which have been often furiously agitated by celebrated doctors both civil and ecclesiastical. It is needless to observe, I presume, that both rebels and heretics are those unlucky persons, who, when things have come to a certain degree of violence, have the misfortune to be of the weaker party. In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties. A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them, it may be said, that such a spectator scarce exists any where in the universe. Even to the great Judge of the universe, they impute all their own prejudices, and often view that Divine Being as animated by all their own vindictive and implacable passions. Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.

Smith, 149

Factions, according to Smith, are the end results of the corruption of perspective and judgment. Such corruption is brought about by the banding together of like-minded individuals with extreme views -- for example, the individuals who form staunch political parties. In situations in which parties come into conflict, the party which wins has the luxury of branding the weaker party as morally wrong, or, as Smith says, as a group of "rebels and heretics" (149). This is the mentality behind the old idea that history is written by the victors. The environment created by factions is unsuited to wise men, Smith says, because these men see through faction-based propaganda and are not interested in the distorted perspectives of factions. Because factions are prone to the belief that people must either be with them or against them, wise men find no place in any faction and therefore become outcasts, even though they are probably the only level-headed people around.

The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it. A man may learn to write grammatically by rule, with the most absolute infallibility; and so, perhaps, he may be taught to act justly. But there are no rules whose observance will infallibly lead us to the attainment of elegance or sublimity in writing; though there are some which may help us, in some measure, to correct and ascertain the vague ideas which we might otherwise have entertained of those perfections. And there are no rules by the knowledge of which we can infallibly be taught to act upon all occasions with prudence, with just magnanimity, or proper beneficence: though there are some which may enable us to correct and ascertain, in several respects, the imperfect ideas which we might otherwise have entertained of those virtues.

Smith, 171

This is Smith's clearest description of his proposed relationship between justice and the other virtues. If behavior is like a language, then proper morality treats justice like grammar and other virtues like style. This is because justice is a negative virtue, which means that justice dictates what we ought not to do to other people; justice may therefore be described as a set of strict rules, and we may know when an action violates these rules and is deserving of punishment. However, other virtues, such as gratitude and self-restraint, are so dependent on the exact circumstances of a given moment that it would be impossible to attempt to govern the expression of these virtues. Additionally, it is not as necessary to determine rules for these virtues as it is for justice, because only a violation of justice entails punishable pain. Someone who did not properly express gratitude for a favor would surely not deserve severe punishment.

The cause too, why utility pleases, has of late been assigned by an ingenious and agreeable philosopher, who joins the greatest depth of thought to the greatest elegance of expression, and possesses the singular and happy talent of treating the abstrusest subjects not only with the most perfect perspicuity, but with the most lively eloquence. The utility of any object, according to him, pleases the master by perpetually suggesting to him the pleasure or conveniency which it is fitted to promote. Every time he looks at it, he is put in mind of this pleasure; and the object in this manner becomes a source of perpetual satisfaction and enjoyment. The spectator enters by sympathy into the sentiments of the master, and necessarily views the object under the same agreeable aspect. When we visit the palaces of the great, we cannot help conceiving the satisfaction we should enjoy if we ourselves were the masters, and were possessed of so much artful and ingeniously contrived accommodation. A similar account is given why the appearance of inconveniency should render any object disagreeable both to the owner and to the spectator.

Smith, 177-178

Smith explains that the usefulness of an object is pleasing to a spectator because the spectator can use his or her imagination to sympathize with the owner, whose life is made either more pleasurable or more convenient by the object in question. This, according to Smith, helps to explain why people so admire the palaces and lavish objects of the upper class. This is also why people collect knick-knacks, which are not especially helpful: here, ownership is more about the idea of how useful the objects could be than about how useful they actually are, which is what makes such behavior seem so frivolous to observers.

It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the economy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

Smith, 181-182

This passage resonates with Smith's later work on economics, The Wealth of Nations: in particular, it uses the analogy of an invisible hand guiding the distribution of resources, which reappears in The Wealth of Nations. This metaphor is used to represent the idea that the pursuit of self-interest by the wealthy ends up helping everyone, because the wealthy can only consume as many resources and experience as much pleasure as humanly possible; the remainder of their wealth then ends up being distributed among those who help to produce wealth it in the first place. Thus, Smith argues, people pursuing their own interests tends to leave everyone secure and stable, and places people into their proper social classes. This idea is similar to Smith's previous argument that God has designed our natural sentiments to lead to the most perfect arrangement of the universe. In modern terms, this is an argument for a free market and for trickle-down economics: if everyone is free to pursue individual economic interests, the wealth generated by the wealthy will leave everyone better off.

The principles of the imagination, upon which our sense of beauty depends, are of a very nice and delicate nature, and may easily be altered by habit and education: but the sentiments of moral approbation and disapprobation, are founded on the strongest and most vigorous passions of human nature; and though they may be somewhat warped, cannot be entirely perverted.

But though the influence of custom and fashion upon moral sentiments, is not altogether so great, it is however perfectly similar to what it is every where else. When custom and fashion coincide with the natural principles of right and wrong, they heighten the delicacy of our sentiments, and increase our abhorrence for every thing which approaches to evil. Those who have been educated in what is really good company, not in what is commonly called such, who have been accustomed to see nothing in the persons whom they esteemed and lived with, but justice, modesty, humanity, and good order; are more shocked with whatever seems to be inconsistent with the rules which those virtues prescribe. Those, on the contrary, who have had the misfortune to be brought up amidst violence, licentiousness, falsehood, and injustice; lose, though not all sense of the impropriety of such conduct, yet all sense of its dreadful enormity, or of the vengeance and punishment due to it. They have been familiarized with it from their infancy, custom has rendered it habitual to them, and they are very apt to regard it as, what is called, the way of the world, something which either may, or must be practised, to hinder us from being the dupes of our own integrity.

Smith, 199-200

Smith believes that our aesthetic and moral perceptions can both be influenced by what is typical of the society around us (what he calls "custom") and by what is typical of those people of particularly high status in our society (what he calls "fashion"). He believes that morality is so powerfully ingrained in our nature that it is greatly resistant to this sort of influence in the case of moral extremes. Nonetheless, Smith asserts that culture can distort what is morally acceptable; he uses as evidence "barbaric cultures" such as Native American tribes, whose daughters, he claims, will customarily kill themselves upon dishonoring their families.