Wisdom of the Moderns: Smith’s Account of Evil

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith attempts to explain the processes by which people come to acquire moral sentiments. The primary element he identifies is the process of sympathy. Smith defines this phenomenon as a capacity to imagine ourselves in the position of others. He asserts that the method by which people judge the propriety of their own actions is by imagining a “spectator” who ought to be impartial (III.I.6). We consider how others would imagine themselves in our position, and this informs us of the correctness of our own behavior. However, says Smith, many people do not listen to their impartial spectator, “foolishly and weakly” preferring self-deceit (III.I.91).

Smith begins his analysis with a discussion of sympathy. He describes this as “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever” (I.I.5). Today, we would call this empathy rather than sympathy. Smith notes that we greatly enjoy entering into another person’s passion, and we also enjoy other people entering into our passion. Conversely, we dislike it when neither of these sympathies occur. When we are excited about a promotion, we desire other people to be excited along with us, and when we see others go through a deep grief, we grieve with them, and it helps them to heal. Smith says that “whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked by the appearance of the contrary” (I.I.14). From this consideration, Smith discovers two virtues: easily sympathizing with others, and making it easy for others to sympathize with us. In other words, being quick to enter into other people’s passions, and expressing and controlling our own passions in such a way as to make others likely to enter in our own.

These two virtues are how we judge others. But how do we judge ourselves? Smith says that we judge ourselves in the same manner, but there is a problem. Because we have complete access to our own history, feelings, and experiences, we are always able to immediately and fully sympathize with ourselves, and thus, we always approve of ourselves. But we are also surrounded by others, with whom we are always attempting to enter into sympathy. This means that when we feel a passion or do an action, not only do we sympathize with ourselves, we sympathize with the others that are attempting to sympathize with us. In other words, we “remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavor to view [our own sentiments and motives] as at a certain distance from us” (III.I.2). When we do this, Smith says that we are being a “spectator” of ourselves (III.I.6).

Though this entire process is part of our nature and we cannot help but do it, some people do not have the two main virtues. Why is this? What went wrong? Smith says that these people do begin to use the impartial spectator part of themselves to observe their own actions, but then they realize that this causes them to hold themselves in disapprobation, and this is a painful position to be in. Therefore, they deliberately ignore the spectator, or at least cause its distance from themselves to greatly decrease, thereby increasing its ability to sympathize with them; “It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves, that we often purposefully turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavourable” (III.I.91). He goes on to say, “This self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind, is the source of half the disorders of human life” (III.I.93). Indeed, “if we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us … a reformation would generally be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight” (III.I.93). The self-deceit of which Smith speaks is the ignoring of our “impartial spectator.” We cannot get rid of our spectator as it is part of our human nature, but we can choose to listen to it or not. He states that if we choose to always view ourselves as others would view us, we could not bear to not change ourselves, and the result would be a great reformation of mankind.

In conclusion, Adam Smith sets out an overarching moral philosophy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that is based on his concept of sympathy. He says that human beings most enjoy joining each other in their passions, and this is the basis of virtue. He explains that we judge the propriety of our own actions through the eyes of a “spectator.” When we choose to ignore how our spectator reacts to our own actions and motives, this is the beginning of immorality and vice. If we would always choose to see ourselves through the eyes of others, we could not help but reform ourselves.

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