“The Theory of Moral Sentiments” by Adam Smith


Today, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is considered among the most important contributions to the history of moral and political thought. Given the fact that the book was written in 1979, it was a real breakthrough in scientific thought because it provided evidence for people’s actions and moral ideas coming from the nature of them as social beings. Therefore, Smith’s central argument is that social psychology was more effective in guiding moral actions as compared to reason. Social psychology is a discipline that identifies general guidelines for justice and prudence that society can use for surviving (Anon, 2017). In addition, the discipline explains the importance of beneficent actions that can be helpful for the society to grow, expand, and prosper.

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Sympathy and self-interest is the second theme that Smith presents in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He explained these phenomena through the natural inclination of human beings to protect and look after themselves; however, as creatures of social life, people also have the quality of natural sympathy, or otherwise called empathy, toward other members of the society (Dupuy, 2008). When one sees that another person is struggling or is prospering – a person feels for them. This means that people will usually seek empathy from others in order to create stronger social bonds and grow as a community. It is also important to mention that feelings that exist within a group are regulated through empathy in order to bring everyone to the same level of emotional reactions. As people progress from childhood to adolescence and then adulthood, they continuously learn from society about acceptable and unacceptable expressions of their emotions. Therefore, Smith (2005) suggests that morality stemmed from the social nature of humans.

To support his argument on moral sentiments, Smith also discusses justice and beneficence as components of social psychology. The author argues that despite people being interested in their personal lives and interests, they still have to live in an environment with others and make sure that they do not do any harm to them. Essentially, surviving in peace through exercising beneficence and justice is the minimum for sustaining a society. Moreover, when people go even further and make positive contributions to society, others welcome it. While justice is demanded in a moral society, beneficence cannot be demanded due to the psychological differences between them.

Virtue is another theme that Smith explores in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For the author, the idea of virtue is associated with the thought that any person should completely empathize with their actions and emotions despite their beliefs. This type of empathy requires a high level of self-command. In this ability to encourage oneself to empathize lies true virtue: “as to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbor, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor is capable of loving us” (Smith, 2005: p. 19).

The Key Argument

Smith’s argument regarding morality and the nature of moral good revolves around the concept that it is impossible to measure its extent. Moral good is natural and comes from within; for example, when a person sees another who is sad or distressed, he or she will also feel sad or distressed. This also applies to positive emotions, which members of society manifest. Also, Smith (2005) suggests that people usually feel pleased when others approve of their actions and feel distressed when others believe that they are causing harm to society or separate individuals.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that people cannot feel the emotions of others with the same impact as they experience their feelings. However, when a person naturally empathizes with the struggles and victories of others, he or she learns that an excess of emotions, both positive and negative, will inevitably bring new complications (Adam Smith University, 2017). Because of this, anyone in society will try to limit their emotions and bring them to the level of others’. With regards to this point, Smith (2005) brings out the concept of an impartial spectator – a disinterested person who can differentiate between the advantages and disadvantages of a particular situation and empathize when empathy is needed. Importantly, in Smith’s (2005) argument, the impartial spectator is an imaginary figure that guides people through their experiences and gives them advice on following a system of beneficial rules of morality.

In the discussion about vital aspects of social functions, punishments and rewards play an important role. Acts that benefit society are usually rewarded, while those that cause harm are disapproved and punished. To regulate rewards and punishment, the system of justice is used for presenting rules that guide social interactions. As commented by Smith (2015), “if there is any society among robbers and murderers, they must at least, according to the trite observation, abstain from robbing and murdering one another” (p. 77). These rules are what the author calls justice, which is also sought within the context of personal relationships between individuals but cannot be enforced legally. For instance, when a person did not provide help to another person when they had an opportunity, he or she is likely to be considered ungrateful or uncharitable (Adam Smith University, 2017). However, it is immoral to push people to do good, with the exception of acts done with an intent to do harm. Societies force people to follow the rules of justice to sustain prosperity.

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In the first part of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith (2005) talks about the concept of propriety of action to lay the foundation for his theory of morals by describing the empathetic nature of people. It is important to understand that Smith’s approach to moral theory in the first part of the book comes from the philosophical ideas that are open to the methods of proof, which is similar to science. Smith’s methodology argues that the theory of morality should rely on principles in which inherently human traits resonate.

For readers, the most reasonable and logically supported point in “Of Propriety of Action” part is the humans’ fear of death. Smith (2005) argues that death as a concept cannot be feared within the limits of reason because, at a point when a person is dead, the world that used to be significant to his or her no longer has any relevance. Within this framework, the author prompts the argument that it is impossible to sympathize with a dead person because he or she does not exist in society anymore. From this comes the conclusion that sympathy may explain the fear of death: when dying, a person loses the main way of relating to other people (Smith, 2005). In analyzing the first part of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, it can be suggested that Smith’s (2005) argument about the fear of death appeals to the concept of the division or distinction between social classes.

In the second part, “Of Merit and Demerit; or of the Objects of Reward and Punishment,” Smith (2005) explores the realm of actions that should be either punished or rewarded. In this section, the author introduces his perception of justice and differentiates it from other aspects involved in the legal regulation of social interaction. Justice and beneficence are the primary virtues that Smith explores. A question to ask in terms of Smith’s (2005) argument associated with justice’s utility is whether the author’s perceptions of God come into play. While his writing in the further sections relies on God in a heavier way, in this section, the concept of “God” can be substituted for “natural selection” to reframe his argument within the context of modern science. Based on this substitution, a distinct conclusion can be made: if people accept that natural selection and evolution guide humankind’s development, it is reasonable to suggest that the psychology of human beings can be used for reinforcing a harmonious society.

The virtue of not acting with good intentions is of particular concern for Smith. Nevertheless, the author believes that beneficence cannot be enforced upon others despite the positive influence of this virtue on society. Overall, the analysis of the second part of The Theory of Moral Sentiments shows that Smith’s ideas of justices are somewhat abstract but are appealing, especially when it comes to reaching a balance between indirect and direct sympathy that people have toward other members of the society.

The third part, “Of the Foundation of Our Judgments Concerning Our Own Sentiments and Conduct, and of the Sense of Duty,” is different from the first two sections in that it addresses how people relate to themselves rather than how they relate to each other. An important argument that Smith (2005) makes is that if a person is to grow up alone on an uninhabited island away from other people, he or she will be unable to make an effective judgment of their own actions. It is also suggested that both judgment and sympathy stem from sympathy that can only develop within a group environment. For judging their own actions, people should observe others as well as determine how others judge and observe them. By doing so, members of societies that reflect on their actions and analyze the actions of others can become impartial observers and be perceived by the society as such. The ability to see themselves as impartial observers and imagine how personal actions may look to observers is something that Smith (2005) calls “conscience” (p. 127) Due to the fact that conscience is always present within individuals and judges their actions, Smith (2005) argues that there are two specific goals that people want to achieve in regards to morality: the first goal is to be praised and not blamed while the second is to be “worthy of praise and thus not worthy of blame” (p. 132).

In the fourth part, “Of the Effect of Utility Upon the Sentiment of Approbation,” Smith addresses the effect of utility on morality and aesthetics (Mazur, 2017). The section is relatively short because the author’s only goal is to refute the idea that morality is the result of utility (Eden, 2014). This part is of particular importance to the analysis because it is the moment when Smith (2005) foreshows the theory of free trade, as seen from the analogy of the invisible hand. The author writes, “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, […] advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species” (Smith, 2005: p. 165). Despite the fact that the author places great importance on virtue, it is evident that he also respects utility. In this respect, the economic ambition of the society is developed on the basis of the illusion that wealth provides usefulness and security.

In the fifth part, “Of the Influence of Custom and Fashion Upon the Sentiments of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation,” Smith (2005) addresses two main sources of mental stratification throughout various cultures. First, the author offers a belief that both fashion and custom can influence aesthetics. Second, he also argues that the two concepts have an impact on morality. In analyzing this section, it can be concluded that the author used his writing to find a balance between moral relativism and absolutism. The latter suggests that there is an absolute concept of moral goodness, while the former implies that some type of pedagogy claiming that morality is a concept enforced and supported by the cultural norms of a community. Smith’s (2005) exploration of custom and fashion showed that the philosopher was a moral absolutist in his nature and that he was convinced that the belief in God imparted some of the moral ideas into people.

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In the sixth part, “Of the Character of Virtue,” Smith (2005) presents his views on how a wise and virtuous individual should act. The author purposefully divides the manifestation of virtue into two categories, such as the manner in which a person’s personal characteristics affect other people and the manner in which they influence one’s personal happiness. In the section that follows five parts that were predominantly focused on morality as viewed by impartial observers, the author wants to frame his sentiments with regards to personal and political affections and underlines the importance of interacting with other impartial observers. Thus, in his moral theory that is based on the perspectives provided by impartial persons, Smith (2005) suggests that there are instances when partial people can cause some issues. Particularly, when an individual spends time in a group of like-minded people, it can significantly warp his or her perceptions of the world and to such extent that he or she will engage in heated arguments with those whose views were not affected by the worldview of a group.

It is important to understand that Smith’s (2005) work is dated back to the time when technologies did not exist, and thus relationships between nations were based solely on the justification of how other nations treat a specific country. In particular, the author suggests that those nations that are insecure about their ability to have patriotic feelings will virtually resent any other country in the world that may be in a threatening position. Nevertheless, nowadays, technologies can allow people from different nations to bridge gaps between them to promote ideas of solidarity and unite them in starting new movements, thus promoting thought homogeny.

In the seventh part, “Of Systems of Moral Philosophy,” Smith (2005) provides an overview of other theories of virtue as well as explores some of the practical rules of morality. The author mentions that he has the highest respect for such philosophers like Aristotle and Plato as well as others who belong to the Stoic school of thought. For instance, the foundation of Plato’s theory of virtue lay in the philosopher’s belief in living a virtuous life through navigating and mediating righteous actions. After providing an analysis of other moral thinkers’ ideas of morality and virtue, Smith (2005) discussed sets of practical rules that can be used to enforce morality.

It can be concluded that the last part of his book is predominantly focused on the refutation of counterarguments on morality made by other scholars. Smith’s (2005) explanations about what makes an individual moral and virtuous echo his previous analysis of the moral nature of human beings. The author states that virtue is a middle ground between benevolence, prudence, and propriety. Moreover, he suggests that virtue can also be drawn from other concepts; however, Smith (2005) does not mention them. Overall, the section is a predominantly discussion of terminology. Despite this, it provides readers with an opportunity to see the author’s views on morality to their fullest.


To summarize the review of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, it should be mentioned that Smith’s perception of moral judgment provided a more subtle framework if compared to such philosophers as Hume. However, it is seen from the writing that the author wanted to offer a modern version of Aristotelianism when it comes to morality. It is important to note that Smith placed great importance on imagination as an aspect of moral development. Also, the philosopher promoted the opinion that the history of humankind was predominantly guided by unplanned consequences, a thought that Smith was likely to derive from a plethora of liberal politicians. The Theory of Moral Sentiments earned its place among the most influential works on mortality due to the richness of the author’s ideas as well as their overall plausibility.

If compared to the rule-based system of morals that Kant the utilitarians offered, Smith’s approach to morality leans in the direction of virtue ethics, which is a distinguishable aspect of his philosophical work. However, the author also made attempts to include the aspects from other systems. Smith also acknowledged the fact that most people judged all actions on the basis of their consequences as well as intentions behind them and thought that such kind of judgment was appropriate as long as people perceived effects in the same way in which they had been intended. Overall, Smith provided a solid framework for sustaining the survival of the society through implementing virtuous and righteous actions and thus reflecting on the positive contributions of individuals to the experiences of societies as a whole.

Reference List

Anon. (2017) Adam Smith’s moral and political philosophy. Web.

Dupuy, J-P. (2008) A French approach based on the triangularity of human desire. Revue du Mauss. 1 (31), 81-112.

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Eden, W. (2014) Partial summary of A theory of moral sentiments. Web.

Mazur, B. (2017) Usefulness. Web.

Smith, A. (2005) The Theory Of Moral Sentiments. 6th ed. São Paulo, MetaLibri.

Adam Smith University. (2017) The theory of moral sentiments. Web.

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