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Theory of Moral Sentiments





Why did Adam Smith write a Theory of Moral Sentiments rather than a Theory of Morality?

Many people call it a major breakthrough of science and philosophy - the theory of moral sentiments. This theory is reflective of the fact that our ideas of moral nature and actions are the results of our functioning as social animals. Its argument is that this particular psychology is a better way to act morally than reasoning things out. Through this theory, the identification of most basic rules of justice and being prudent are carries out which are mandatory for the survival of society. It also provides an explanation of the additional actions beneficent in nature that make it grow.

As human beings, we tend to care for ourselves naturally, sympathize and practice self-interest. This is known as mere prudence. And yet, as animals of social behavior, it is explained by Smith that human beings are also endowed with sympathy towards others naturally and that is known as empathy in today's world. Whenever we see someone in a state of distress or happiness, we experience feelings for them however less strongly. In the same way, we find others seeking out empathy from us and feeling the same way for us. If they experience particularly strong feelings, they are prompted by empathy to maintain some restrain on their emotions and bring them on the same level as our own, less severe and low intensity reactionary behaviors. With the passage of time, as we progress and grow towards adulthood, each of us learns what acceptable behavior is and what is unacceptable towards other people. Therefore, from a human being's very own social nature, morality stems out.

Justice and beneficence are very important. Even though we as human beings are interested in our own selves primarily, we need to however find out ways to live with each other peacefully and not causing any harm. This is essential for the society to survive healthily. If people choose to go even further, and do well in that practicing positive behavior and carrying out good deeds, namely beneficence, then it is warmly welcomed. But this thing cannot be demanded from others like justice can be demanded. It all depends upon the choices that people make.

Just the way justice is important, prudence and beneficence are important for moral acts, so is virtue. However, the ideal situation would be when a spectator who is impartial, as termed by Adam Smith, be it a real person or an imaginary one, should have complete empathy towards our actions and emotions. Such an endeavor calls for self-command and in it is where true virtue exists.

Smith says that morality and values is not something that we have to measure or analyze. When we observe someone who is either happy or sad, we feel the same way. We gain pleasure when people behave according to our approval and get upset when we sense they are doing harm. Certainly, it is not possible for us to feel other’s emotions as strongly as them. Our natural empathy with others teaches us about their distress caused by various emotions especially anger, grief and sadness. Hence, we attempt curbing our emotions so that they can come in line with the others. According to the impartial spectator Smith, we have to temper with the person to such a point where any normal, disinterested person would agree to empathize with us.

Similarly, when we show care towards other people, we have the knowledge of an impartial spectator approving of it, and we find pleasure in that. The impartial spectator isn’t real but he still tends to guide us: and via the use of experience, a structure is built up gradually of behavioral rules—morality. Rewards and punishments have a very vital role in the society. We accept and reward the actions that are beneficial for the society, and dislike and punish the acts that are harmful. For the continuity of our species existence on this planet and the society, nature has given us the tools of appetites and aversions that promote it. It is just as if an imaginary hand is leading us concerning what we do.

In order for the society to sustain, there have to be rules and regulations to prevent the various individuals from harming one another. Smith commented that there is a chance for a society comprising of robbers and murders to exist – but it can exist only as far as if they prevent from robbing and killing each other. The rules in a society are known as Justice. If individuals do not return good deeds and do not help each other out, we can term them as uncharitable people or those who are ungrateful. However, people are not punished and forced to perform good deeds. They are punished only in case of acts of harm they commit. They are persuaded only to abide by the rules of justice that are given or else the society will not survive.

Nature has gifted us with something that comes more instantly than punishment, that is, our self-criticism. We are not only impartial spectators for people’s actions but ourselves as well thanks to our conscience. It is how nature gives us a reminder of other people being important as well.

There are certain problems associated with morality which provide the basis for argument as to why Adam Smith preferred to write the theory of moral sentiments instead of morality. There is an absolute principle which is associated with morality and which is better understood by the following statement: Under any kind of circumstances, 'Thou shalt not kill ever'.  Then there is the problem of Consequentialism. The worth of morals is brought to judgment by consequential acts which can be explained by the following statement: 'One may kill if ends justify means and more good is done than bad'. Then is the problem of Virtue Ethics. Singular actions are not brought to judgment. But the character of a person is judged based upon what is known about his life over a period of time. Philosophies of moral concern have to bring to light what their source of authority is always. Why should people even bother to listen to laws pertaining to morals? What kind of standards should be employed by lawmakers and law practitioners in order to judge them? Different points of starting have to be taken by philosophers in order to go about this. Should the morality of an action be assessed the nature of its consequences, or by the way it conforms to a moral law that is absolute, or by the kind of characteristics a person withholds? There are problems that surround 'is' and 'ought'. It cannot be just assumed that the status quo is good in a moral sense. For example, it should not and is not a valid thing to say that 'X' is a natural phenomenon which makes it a good thing whereas 'Y' is an unnatural phenomenon which makes it a bad thing.

The difference between morality and moral sentiments is that morality denotes to what is right and wrong and provides a statement of philosophical nature to ethics and values and moral sentiments are basically feelings which relate to morality. Moral sentiments are the reactions towards what a person thinks is evil or why that is so. A different sort of approach is taken by Adam Smith which is why he writes a Theory of Moral Sentiments instead of a Theory of morality. This theory makes the promise of describing people's feelings when they think about morality but not to make decisions regarding why they are having such feelings and whether it is correct or not to experience such feelings. To quote Adam Smith: “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer. Sympathy (may) be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.” (Smith, pp.9-10)


Work Cited:

Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, London: George Bell & Sons, 1767, pp. 6-28.

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3 days

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College 4th year

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