Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 7, Section 2, Chapter 1: Virtue as Propriety

Section 2: Different Accounts On the Nature of Virtue

1Virtue is the temper of mind which constitutes the excellent and praise-worthy character.

4Virtue must either be:

Chapter 1: Moral Systems which make Virtue consist in Propriety

5According to Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno, virtue consists in the propriety of conduct.

Plato's System

6 In Plato's system, the soul is as a little state or republic composed of three faculties or orders.

7The first is the judging faculty, very properly called by Plato as 'reason'.

He considered it as the faculty that has the right to be the governing principle of the whole.

  • It lets us judge of:
  • 8 The different desires are the natural subjects of reason.

    9 We rarely break that plan of conduct prescribed by reason.

    10 The essential virtue of prudence was placed in the strength, acuteness, and perfection of reason.

    11 Through reason, the irritable passions formed the virtue of fortitude and magnanimity when reason was strong enough to enable them to despise all dangers in the pursuit of honour.

    12The three parts of our nature are:

    1. reason
    2. the irritable part
    3. the lustful part

    The perfect concord of those three is called temperance, good temper, or sobriety and moderation of mind.


    13 According to Plato's system, justice is the last and greatest of the four cardinal virtues.

    Justice as Restoring Balance


    The word justice in Greek has several meanings.
    1. In one sense we are said to do justice to our neighbour when we:
      • abstain from doing him any positive harm
      • do not directly hurt him in his person or estate or reputation.
        • This is that justice I mentioned in Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 2.
        • Its observance may be extorted by force.
        • Its violation exposes one to punishment.
      • This first sense coincides with what:
        • Aristotle and the Schoolmen call commutative justice
        • Grotius calls it justitia expletrix
          • It consists in [self-command]:
            • abstaining from what is another's, and
            • doing whatever we can with propriety be forced to do.
    2. In a second sense, we are said not to do justice to our neighbour unless we feel all the love, respect, and esteem for him which is suitable to his character, situation, and his connection with ourselves.
      • It is in this sense, we are said to do injustice to a good man who is connected with us, if we do not exert to serve him and place him in that situation in which the impartial spectator would be pleased to see him, even if we abstain from hurting him.
      • This second sense coincides with what:
        • some have called distributive justice
        • Grotius' justitia attributrix
          • It consists in proper beneficence, in:
            • using what is ours
            • using it for the charity or generosity most suitable in our situation
      • In this sense, justice comprehends all the social virtues.
    3. In a third sense, the word 'justice' is more extensive than the two, though very much similar to the second one.
      • This sense also runs through all languages.
      • It this sense, we are said to be unjust when we do not value or pursue any object with that degree of esteem or ardour that the impartial spectator feels it should deserve
        • Thus, we do injustice to a poem or a picture if we do not admire them enough.
        • We do them more than justice when we admire them too much.
        • In the same way, we do injustice to ourselves when we do not give enough attention to our objects of self-interest.
      • In this sense, 'justice' means the same thing with exact and perfect propriety of conduct.
        • It comprehends:
          • commutative and distributive justice
          • every other virtue, of prudence, fortitude, temperance
      • Plato understands justice in this last sense.
        • According to him, justice comprehends the perfection of every virtue.

    15 According to Plato, virtue consists in that state of mind in which every faculty:

    His account coincides with what I have said on the propriety of conduct in Part 2, Chapter 1.

    Aristotle's System: Virtue is in the middle ground of feelings

    16 According to Aristotle, virtue consists in the habit of mediocrity according to right reason.


    According to Aristotle, virtue consists in the habit of this moderation of those feelings.

    18 When Aristotle established virtue to consist in practical habits, he probably had this in view, to oppose Plato's doctrine.

    Next: Chapter 1b: Stoicism