Adam Smith’s Common Sense Morality

A few weeks ago I borrowed a copy of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). His text requires a little patience, but it is nevertheless clearly written.  I haven’t read enough of Smith’s book to offer an overall summary, but so far it seems that his account of moral sentiments is very different from the self-indulgent “sentimentality” promoted by some of his contemporaries (see related post). Quite the opposite. While his morality is not derived from religion directly, Smith is nevertheless respectful of Christianity, and his outlook appears to be the model of restraint that for many generations was the epitome of English manners.

As an empiricist, Smith’s approach is inductive. He believes that we should “judge of the propriety or impropriety of the sentiments of another person by their correspondence or disagreement with our own.” Smith says that our emotions need to be humbled. We cannot expect others to feel as we do. It is a fact of psychology that no matter how extreme a situation is, there is a point at which expressions of happiness, sadness, outrage, pain, etc., become excessive. There is the further paradox in that the more we lament, the less others commiserate with us. (It is like the hypochondriac whose complaints of ill health are generally ignored.) The same is true of resentment.

The insolence and brutality of anger… when we indulge its fury without check or restraint, is, of all objects, the most detestable.

According to Smith, we admire those whose words and gestures are equitable. They do not seek revenge so much as justice. It is self-control that gains us the most sympathy, rather than an outpouring of feeling. Finally, as a lifelong introvert, I admit the accuracy of the following observation:

Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquillity…. Men of retirement and speculation, who are apt to sit brooding at home over either grief or resentment, though they may often have more humanity, more generosity, and a nicer sense of honour, yet seldom possess that equality of temper which is so common among men of the world.

Perhaps the best yardstick of any moral system is whether or not it challenges us to be better. At any rate, I look forward to studying Smith’s treatise more in the coming months.

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