The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith


Adam Smith’s book on the nature of morality was a major work of enlightenment reasoning, and an example of the intellectual ‘mapping’ of the world which occupied the minds of eighteenth-century philosophers, lexicographers and encyclopaedists. Smith sets out to show that our morality and how it governs our actions is a product of the social nature of human society. It proposes that the way humans relate socially is a better guide than reason to understanding how morals develop; from this it considers how justice and prudence are social values, as are altruism and charity. 

The first section of the book is called On Propriety, discussing the appropriateness of reactions to situations. 

On Sympathy

In the chapter shown here, On Sympathy, Smith considers the nature of compassion and sympathy and fellow-feeling. At this time the word ‘sympathy’ embraced what we would now call ‘sympathy’ but also ‘empathy’; thus the terms covers both a communicated emotion and an act of will. 

Smith proposes that ‘sympathy’ is a process of echoing what we observe in others - pain, joy, etc – and that it is a universal feeling, not initially governed by reason. Sympathy arises not from the view of the passion being expressed, but from the cause of it; that is why when we see someone being angry we feel less for the person expressing anger than for the person at whom the anger is directed. He uses a reasoned discussion of the pointlessness of mourning to show how we project our emotions onto situations or objects which are neutral – it is no point feeling sad for the dead, because they have no feeling – what we are doing is feeling sad ourselves, and supposing that the dead feel the same – ‘which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition’. We ‘join to the change which has been produced upon them [the change from life to death], our own consciousness of that change’. It is an ‘illusion of the imagination’.

Robert Burns's concept of sympathy and compassion

In April 1783 Robert Burns began keeping a notebook, which includes the words:

It may be some entertainment to a curious observer of human nature to see how a ploughman thinks and feels under the pressure of Love, Ambition, Anxiety, Grief with the like cares and passions, which, however diversified by the Modes, and Manners of life, operate pretty much alike I believe, in all the Species.

Burns here is echoing Smith’s proposal that compassion is a universal sentiment; several poems in the volume Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect use the model of projecting emotions onto a neutral object – a mouse, a louse.

Adam Smith was one of the subscribers supporting the second edition of Burns’s Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – he signed up for four copies.

Full title:
The Theory of Moral Sentiments
1761, London, Edinburgh
Adam Smith
Held by:
British Library

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