Adam Smith's Theory Of Moral Sentiments

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Despite being primarily known as an economist, Adam Smith assumed the role of a moral philosopher in writing The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In the work, he develops a unique moral theory that intertwines a reality based on human observation with an ideal that arises from Smith’s thoughts on the way people should be. In order to establish a foundation, Smith begins by describing the feeling of sympathy as being one that is shared by all humans. His discourse on sympathy, formed predominantly on observations, shifts to the theoretical topic of judging the propriety or impropriety of others and ourselves. These judgments are what ultimately form the basis of what is just and what is unjust, often being abstracted into general rules about justice.…show more content…
He describes sympathy as the most innate human feeling, one even “the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society” is not without. Every human being naturally cares for others’ happiness. This may seem counterintuitive, as one may expect humans to be self-serving, only caring for others’ happiness if it benefits them personally. However, Smith counters that “how selfish soever man may be supposed”, he still renders others’ happiness necessary, even though “he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it”. Smith continues, sparing no detail, to explain the source this feeling, its function, and the variables influencing the degree to which one sympathizes. The feeling can be evoked in two ways: witnessing the fortune or misfortune of another, or having this fortune or misfortune vividly depicted. In order to sympathize with another, one must use their imagination. By placing oneself in another’s situation, the other’s agonies are adopted as one’s own, to the degree that they are vividly depicted. “For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity of dullness of the conception”. In addition to the vividness of the depiction and the overall knowledge of the situation, another important factor in evoking sympathy is the type of emotion that is observed. Certain emotions,…show more content…
Based on the innate human feeling of sympathy, the impartial spectator judges the propriety of others’ actions based on the amount of sympathy evoked, yet free of any personal biases that may exist. However, the existence of the impartial spectator in Smith’s framework proves problematic. Impartial spectators from different cultures can potentially reach different judgments about the same situation, contradicting the consistency that the spectator is supposed to have. If we then assume that one of the cultures is simply wrong, a person who has lived their entire life in isolation will be unable to pass judgment on themself because they lack the experience necessary to do so. This also leads to a contradiction, as there cannot be a distinct truth and a requirement of experience at the same time. These contradictions lead to the impartial spectator’s ultimate failure to contribute to a sound theory of
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