The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral Sentiments Summary and Analysis of Part I


In Part I, "Of the Propriety of Action", Smith lays the groundwork for his moral theory by describing at length the sympathetic nature of human beings. People, Smith says, feel for other people based on imagining themselves in the positions of others -- what is called the imaginative capacity of sympathy. It is important to note that this capacity is based more on the situation someone is viewing than on the feelings of the person being viewed: you may see someone who is oblivious to the impropriety of his or her actions, but you will feel a sensation of embarrassment from imagining how you would feel if you were to commit such improprieties.

Interestingly, Smith says that this is how our fear of death comes to be. Those who are dead have no sense of the tangible world, so they cannot in any way feel what it is like to have lost their lives; however, we superimpose our consciousness on the dead when we sympathize. We imagine how horrible such a loss would feel, even though we would not actually feel loss upon death. Smith says that this fear of death is one of the greatest societal safeguards against injustice, and he means by this that sympathy is responsible for the restraint of lethal force.

We derive pleasure from sympathy with the sentiments of others, Smith says, because the concord of our own sentiments with those of another individual reinforces our own feelings and convictions. We are delighted to experience like-mindedness. On the other hand, there is nothing more jarring or upsetting than not being able to sympathize with someone else, because this lack of sympathy generates feelings of opposition. When the sympathy of the observer is perfect, the observer's sentiments are in concord with the sentiments of the person observed; it is from this concord that moral approbation arises. Disapprobation, similarly, comes from a complete absence of sympathy.

Because other people are less interested in our affairs than we are, we often must temper our sentiments in order for other people to be able to sympathize with them. This is where the notion of propriety, the proper conduct of oneself in relation to society, comes from. What propriety demands of us varies widely based on specific circumstances, and based on what sort of passions we are experiencing.

Smith classifies people's feelings, or passions, as follows: passions of the body; passions from habits of the imagination; unsocial passions; social passions; and selfish passions. Sympathy operates somewhat differently in the case of each class of passion.

Passions of the body are very difficult to sympathize with, because they are based entirely on physical stimuli which the observer has no way of experiencing. Tempering sensations such as pain is therefore admirable, because observers know how difficult it is to temper pain, and consequently respect the sufferer for the self control expressed for propriety's sake.

Passions from habit of the imagination are those which are only accessible through the unique experiences which a particular person has. Love is a major example of this. Though two people in love have cultivated through habit a powerful attachment to one another, their relationship is not accessible to even a sympathetic observer.

Unsocial passions are those such as anger, hatred, and resentment, and are only accessible through sympathy when they seem justified. As a whole, they are disagreeable because, through sympathy, we feel fear for the persons against whom these passions are directed; it is only in cases of tempered resentment brought about by real injustice that one can approve of such sentiments.

Social passions consist of sentiments such as generosity, humanity, and compassion. Just as we disagree with unsocial passions based on the fear we feel for their targets, we are most able to connect to these passions when we feel sympathy with their intended targets.

Passions directed toward the self are joy and grief. Smith argues that it is easiest to sympathize with small joys and large griefs. It is easy to be happy for someone when a small goodness takes place, but large joy -- particularly an elevation in status -- excites envy in the observer and interferes with sympathy. On the other hand, a small grief is but a trifle, and observers are likely to see people who grieve over every little thing as having weak constitutions, whereas there is nothing more tragic than seeing someone who has lost everything -- particularly if this afflicted individual tempers his or her surely immense grief.

We are more disposed to sympathize with joy than with sorrow, at least when envy does not interfere. This is because joy is much more agreeable for the sympathizer, and also because it is virtually impossible to fully enter into the pain of someone who has experienced true sorrow. This disposition towards joy leads us to admire the rich and powerful through sympathy with their apparent joy and ease in life; this is the origin of ambition. This is also why we almost worship the rich, and are so impressionable when it comes to the fashions and philosophies of the wealthy. People of low rank are willing to work tirelessly to cultivate skills and virtues, and to put themselves in any position where they can demonstrate these abilities and be acknowledged. In contrast, those in power will only take risks of great magnitude -- for example, will initiate wars by which great glory may be gained. Unless the possible returns are that great, they will not put everything they already have at risk.

Our admiration for the rich, Smith says, is a major source of moral corruption. As noted above, our admiration for them leads us to have a distorted view of morality, because we are liable to approve of almost anything that they do. Moreover, in seeking approval, we see our options as either being purely wise and virtuous, or being rich and high in status. Thus, though lower-class people who do not have easy access to wealth will happily work towards virtue, people in higher classes often sacrifice virtue for the easier path of being approved of purely as the result of status and wealth.


It is useful to know that Smith is approaching moral theory from a school of thought which argues that moral philosophy is open to the methods of proof characteristic of other disciplines, such as math and science. Rather, this pedagogy argues, a theory of morality must be grounded in what resonates with innately human traits. Because morality is inherent to humanity, any theory of morality must be intuitively agreeable to us. So, as Smith presents his various examples and appeals to basic emotional knowledge, you should stop and ask yourself whether you can relate to his ideas, and whether his theory can explain experiences which you have actually had. (For more on how Smith views the accountability of moral philosophers, see 312-313.)

The most logically-accessible point in this first section is the fear of death. As Smith says, the actual concept of death cannot reasonably be feared in the way that most people fear it because, at the point of death, the world which is now so significant to us is no longer an imposition upon us. The argument that we are imagining what it would be like for us to be in the position of dying, though the concept is itself paradoxical, is emotionally intuitive. One could also consider in this framework the point that, when someone is dead, it is impossible for us to sympathize with him or her any longer because the person in question no longer exhibits agency. Since sympathy is our main way of relating to others, this could also explain why we fear death: it is a loss of the ability to be related to, and a severance of the bond the between self and others.

One should also note that, to a certain degree, Smith's argument here presupposes some form of class distinction and division. Though such stratification appears inevitable in many societies today, and surely was present when Smith was writing, one should ask whether this has always been the situation. Before appreciable wealth was available, it is unclear whether ambition would have existed, since people would have had no wealthy upper-class models to aspire to or to imitate. It does not appear that Smith has a satisfactory response to these inquiries.

Smith also never distinguishes between sympathy and empathy. Though one could argue that his idea of perfect concord between observer and agent is what we commonly call "empathy," it is more likely the case that Smith simply does not believe in empathy. His method of distinguishing between the self and others requires, in many respects, that we can never truly feel what someone else is feeling, a fact which is exacerbated when someone else experience acute sorrow. Yet we know some people to be what are called "empaths," capable of deeply experiencing the emotions of others.

This underscores an issue with Smith's philosophy which is entirely a product of the historical timeframe in which he is wrote: he presupposes relatively consistent psychology across all people. He points out routinely that his theory is mainly directed towards men, but what is not clearly stated is his assumption that different people, given the same series of relationships and experiences over their lives, will possess the same moral constitutions and act in the same ways. Again, in modern times, we can thank neuroscience and psychology for informing us that people's minds can be organized in radically different ways, an insight which renders a theory entirely based on how people mentally relate to others precarious.