The Theory of Moral Sentiments Summay

Adam Smith

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

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The Theory of Moral Sentiments Summay

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Political economist and social philosopher Adam Smith’s later works, including Wealth of Nations, Essays of Philosophical Subjects, and Lectures of Justice, Police, Revenue, and Arms, all have their roots in his Theory of Moral Sentiments,first published in 1759. Inspired by the work of Francis Hutcheson, whom Smith claims as a mentor, Smith views moral philosophy as a four-part theory made up of ethics and virtue, private rights and natural liberty, economics (also known as familial rights), and state and individual rights.

Hutcheson moved from a psychological perspective on moral philosophy to the theory of a sixth sense in order to explain morality. David Hume, with his Treatise of Human Nature, built on this theory and felt that utility (the inherent benefits in something, or its ability to prevent something negative) is what makes people happy. Smith, however, did not subscribe to the idea of a sixth sense, and followed Hume’s concept of focusing on human experience to construct his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Smith does not consider morality something that needs to be measured or quantified. He presents it as a natural state that is inherent to humans, as they are social beings. When individuals view others as happy or sad, he writes, they experience those emotions as well. Pleasure comes to people when others do things that appeal to them and with which they agree. The opposite occurs as well: when others do things that are perceived as harmful, people who witness those actions experience sadness. This state of feeling empathy, which Smith also sees as a natural state, does not imply that people feel the emotions of others as strongly as the people in whom the emotions initially occur. This structure of reaction leads the individual to control his emotions in an attempt to align them with those of other people. It is a search for equilibrium, in that the goal is to have others, who have no stake in the situation, feel empathy nonetheless. Relatedly, when individuals display concern for others, outsiders to the situation will derive pleasure from observing that concern. Thus, a system of behaviors develops and makes up what is called morality.

Morality, then, comes from man’s ability to sympathize both directly and indirectly with his fellow beings. Being praised and feeling worthy of the praise, and not being blamed or deserving blame are concepts basic to morality. Individuals remain more concerned with their own issues than those of others, which necessitates keeping egos in check and trying to see the self as the collective members of society do. This is possible because of possessing a conscience, which allows one to detach and view the self objectively.

Smith also addresses the presence of a God within his theories. To Smith, God is omniscient and kind, which Smith interprets as meaning that human behavior is by nature moral. God created the universe, in which man exists to be harmonious,and where everyone works together to keep things running smoothly—therefore, man’s innate behavioral tendencies must have divine goodness as their ultimate objective. Smith stresses that God fundamentally designed man to be moral by nature. He also warns, however, that being inherently moral does not prevent man from being susceptible to outside influences that can lead him astray and into immoral situations. He cites as a potential source of moral decay the upper class in society, where power, status, and money can be seen as ways to garner acceptance. When wealth and status are confused with virtue, then people pursue wealth for wealth’s sake. Likewise, when members of the upper class become popular, they can mistakenly use that recognition as a justification for actions that they previously might have viewed as immoral.

In spite of the possible corruption that could stem from the social class system, Smith sees such a system as part of God’s plan. Working hard for advancement in itself is not a bad thing. If, however, an individual does not advance even with continued effort, it is possible that he might already be in God’s chosen place for him. Smith also believes that even if the rich class continues to act with only its own desires in mind, it is still a good thing for society. The rich cannot use the overabundance of the things it strives to amass, so even though it may be unintentional and indirect, the lower classes will benefit. For example, a result of having a wealthy class might be increased opportunities and financial rewards for the working classes. Smith refers to this concept as an “invisible hand,” when people focused only on their own interests end up helping others in the process.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith suggests that by having experiences of moral and immoral actions people develop a moral code of principles. He presents justice as being different from other virtues in that it is the only one that is susceptible to enforcement, and the only rule of virtue people can be punished for breaking.