Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a political economist and moral philosopher, born in Kirkaldy, Scotland. He attended the University of Glasgow from 1737-1740, and Balliol College, Oxford from 1740-1746. He became professor of logic at the University of Glasgow in 1751, and professor of moral philosophy a year later. In 1764, he left Glasgow to accept a position as tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch. He spent many years working on his best-known book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776. His other works included The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and Lectures in Jurisprudence (1766). He became commissioner of customs in Edinburgh in 1778, and lord rector of the University of Glasgow in 1787. He died in Edinburgh in 1790.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an inquiry into such questions as: How do we make moral judgments? What disposes us to approve or disapprove of the actions of other individuals? How do we decide what is right or wrong? What is the role of emotions in moral judgments? What is the nature of moral virtue?
According to Smith, the harmony of the feelings of others with our own is a source of happiness, and the disharmony of the feelings of others with our own is a source of unhappiness. Our own feelings may be influenced by our perceptions of how others may respond to them. Thus, we may feel a greater degree of joy or a lesser degree of sorrow if we perceive that others are attuned to our feelings of joy or sorrow. Similarly, we may judge the actions of others by determining whether the sentiments that motivated their actions were in harmony with the sentiments that we would have had if we had been in the same situation. We may consider to be most praiseworthy those actions that are performed by individuals whose sentiments are in harmony with our own, and we may consider to be least praiseworthy those actions that are performed by individuals whose sentiments are in disharmony with our own.
We may also evaluate our own actions by determining whether others would sympathize with the sentiments that motivated those actions and whether they would have had similar sentiments if they had been in the same situation. In order to evaluate the merit or lack of merit of own own sentiments, we must attempt to view them objectively, and we must attempt to view them as others would have viewed them if they had experienced them in the same situation.
Each of us has a desire to be approved and an aversion to being disapproved by others, says Smith. On the other hand, most of us do not seek or have a desire to receive unmerited praise or blame.
There is also a distinction to be made between the desire to be praiseworthy and the desire to obtain praise, just as there is a distinction to be made between the desire to avoid blameworthiness and the desire to avoid blame. The desire to be praiseworthy is not necessarily associated with the desire to obtain praise, and the desire to avoid blame is not necessarily associated with the desire to avoid blameworthiness.
In general, the more certain we are about the propriety of our own sentiments and about the correctness of our moral judgments, the more important it is to us that others agree with or are in harmony with our own sentiments and moral judgments. The less certain we are about the propriety of our own sentiments, the less important it is to us that others agree with or are in harmony with our own sentiments.
We may judge actions as good if we sympathize with the sentiments that motivated them, and we may judge actions as bad if we do not sympathize with the sentiments that motivated them. The moral quality of actions depends primarily on their motives, says Smith, and it only secondarily depends on their consequences. The motives of actions are the true foundations for our sentiments about whether those actions are right or wrong. However, the consequences of actions do, to some degree, influence our sentiments about their rightness or wrongness.
The consequences of actions may be intended or unintended by the individual who performs those actions, but only the intended consequences merit our praise or blame of that individual, says Smith. Actions may be properly described as good only if they have good motives. The consequences of actions are not sufficient to determine their moral quality.
We may feel gratitude or resentment toward an individual if that individual has caused us to experience happiness or unhappiness, and if that individual intended us to experience that happiness or unhappiness. Our gratitude toward, or resentment of, an individual may be determined by our perceptions of that individual's motives.
What causes us to agree or sympathize with the motives that may, in a given case, have inspired an individual's actions? Insofar as we can most fully approve of an individual's actions only if they are the most praiseworthy actions that could have been performed, the sentiments that motivate them will be most fully in accord with our own if they are considered by us to be morally virtuous. Of what then does moral virtue consist?
Smith explains that in order to be virtuous we must act according to the rules of prudence, justice, and benevolence. But in order to act according to these rules, we must also be acquainted with them and have the self-command to follow them. The rules of propriety dictate that there are proper degrees to which various passions may be expressed. Self-command enables us to express a proper degree of passion or emotion. Thus, the four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, benevolence, and self-command.
Actions are good insofar as they promote the greatest possible good, says Smith, and thus they are good insofar as they promote the general happiness of humankind. The utility of actions is derived from their ability to promote individual and collective happiness. Actions that promote the happiness of a single individual are good only insofar as they promote the greatest possible good and insofar as they promote the general happiness of all individuals.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.