The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral Sentiments Sympathy in Media: What Smith's Theory of Morality Suggests about the 21st Century

When Smith wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments, the closest media he had to television and film were live theater and books. Today, on top of these forms of motion-picture entertainment, we face an abundance of options in social media. One reason why such pastimes appeal to us is the presence of our capacity to sympathize: we imagine how we would feel if we were in the situation of a character portrayed to us, and allow ourselves to be caught up in that character's story as though we are active participants.

Smith makes this aspect of media especially prominent because his entire theory of how we come to be moral is grounded in our capacity to sympathize. Moreover, our concept of moral duty comes from extrapolating general rules from specific situations which we observe and assess for moral content -- all processes based on our ability to sympathize. It stands to reason, therefore, that if Smith is right, the media which we watch could have a real impact on the formation of our moral code. The ramifications are far-reaching, with some positive consequences and some potentially negative ones.

Smith does not define the period of life in which people develop a sense of duty. Yet there is most likely a stage in each individual's life in which a sense of duty is formed; thereafter, although one's moral sentiments are still open to modification, they have a solid foundation in the idea of duty. This foundation is difficult to undermine. During the formative period for duty, then, one should be mindful of the media to which one is exposed. This explains the importance of parental oversight, at least up to the point when children appear capable of properly distinguishing basic moral values. This also explains the efficacy of companies like Common Sense Media, which educate parents about the content of media so that these parents can make informed decisions about what their children ought to watch.

Beyond this, there are substantial sympathy-building benefits to role playing practices such as acting. As participants in plays, we are able to transform into people other than ourselves, thereby experiencing situations and making choices which may well be alien to our ordinary lives. Such activity increases our mental flexibility and bolsters our ability to sympathize, because acting is at its core the art of reimagining ourselves as others. Acting, then, would be supported in Smith's paradigm as a means of making our moral sentiments more keen.

The same principles can be applied to the most time-honored printed media. Though certainly not a modern innovation, books are rightly hailed as excellent for extending the mind and the imagination. In reading literature, we are prompted both to imagine the world offered to us by the author and to sympathize with the characters presented within that world. The capacity to imagine, even when establishing sympathy is not the stated goal, makes us more equipped to sympathize as well. We are better able to apply the general rules of morality if our imaginations are versatile enough to project how such rules might apply in novel situations.

Yet the harmful effects of contemporary media -- as these media relate to Smith's theory -- should not be underestimated. Social media, while still in its relative infancy, has much potential to damage youth -- according to Smith's moral principles. After all, the cultivation of a healthy conscience depends on honest interactions with unbiased third parties; everyone on a friend-based social network, however, knows you and judges you in a heavily distorted way. This indicates that it would be prudent to keep children away from social media until a sufficient sense of morality and duty has been developed. All media can convey significant benefits, when used responsibly; it is up to parents to ensure that media do not distort early-stage moral education in ways that overshadow these benefits.