Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 7, Section 3, Chapter 3: Systems based on Feelings
Chapter 3: Systems based on Feelings
17Systems which make sentiment the principle of approbation may be divided into two classes.
18I. According to some, the principle of approbation is founded on:
a sentiment of a peculiar nature
a particular faculty of perception exerted by the mind at the view of certain actions or affections
some actions affect this faculty agreeably
These actions are stamped as right, laudable, and virtuous.
some actions affect it disagreeably
These actions are stamped as wrong, blamable, and vicious.
This sentiment is called a moral sense.
It is of a peculiar nature distinct from every other.
It is the effect of a particular power of perception.
19 II. According to others, there is no need for supposing any new power of perception to account for the principle of approbation.
They imagine that nature acts here with the strictest economy, as in all other cases.
It produces many effects from one and the same cause.
Sympathy is a power which has always been noticed.
The mind is manifestly endowed with it
They think the mind is sufficient to account for all the effects ascribed to sympathy.
20 I. Dr. Hutcheson took great pains to prove that the principle of approbation was not founded on self-love.
He also demonstrated that it could not arise from reason.
He thought that nothing remained but to suppose it to be a peculiar kind of faculty.
Nature had endowed the human mind with this faculty to produce this one important effect.
When self-love and reason were excluded, he did not know any other known faculty of the mind to answer this purpose.
21 He called this new power of perception a moral sense.
He supposed it to be somewhat analogous to the external senses.
By affecting our external senses in a certain way, the bodies around us appear to have:
By touching this moral sense in a certain way, the human mind's various affections appear to be:
amiable and odious,
virtuous and vicious,
right and wrong.
22 According to this system, the human mind derives all its simple ideas from two kinds of senses:
The direct or antecedent senses
These derived the perception that were not antecedent to any other.
Sounds and colours were objects of the direct senses.
To hear a sound or to see a colour does not presuppose the antecedent perception of any other quality or object.
The reflex or consequent senses
These derived the perception that was the antecedent perception of some other perception.
Harmony and beauty were objects of the reflex senses.
In order to perceive a sound's harmony or a colour's beauty, we must first perceive the sound or the colour.
The moral sense was considered as a reflex sense.
According to Dr. Hutcheson, the faculty which Mr. Locke called reflection, and from which he derived the simple ideas of the human mind's passions and emotions, was a direct internal sense.
That faculty by which we perceived the beauty or deformity, the virtue or vice of those passions and emotions, was a reflex, internal sense.
23 Dr. Hutcheson tried to support this doctrine by showing:
that it was agreeable to the analogy of nature, and
that the mind was endowed with a variety of other reflex senses exactly similar to the moral sense, such as:
a sense of beauty and deformity in external objects,
a public sense, by which we sympathize with the happiness or misery of others,
a sense of shame and honour, and
a sense of ridicule.
24 But despite all the pains which he took to prove that the principle of approbation is founded in a moral sense analogous to the external senses, he acknowledges some refutations to this doctrine.
He allows the qualities which belong to the objects of any sense, cannot be ascribed to the sense itself, without the greatest absurdity.
Who ever thought of calling the sense of:
seeing black or white,
hearing loud or low, or
tasting sweet or bitter?
According to him, it is equally absurd to call our moral faculties:
virtuous or vicious, and
morally good or evil.
These qualities belong to the objects of those faculties, not to the faculties themselves.
A person might be regarded as inconvenient to himself and to society if he viewed:
cruelty and injustice as the highest virtues, and
equity and humanity as the most pitiful vices.
It would be as strange, surprising, and unnatural in itself.
But it could not be denominated vicious or morally evil without the greatest absurdity.
25 If we saw any man loudly admiring and applauding a barbarous and unmerited execution ordered by an insolent tyrant, we would regard his behaviour as most morally evil, even if it only:
expressed depraved moral faculties, or
had an absurd approbation of this horrid action as a noble, magnanimous, and great action
I imagine that our heart would forget its sympathy with the sufferer for a while.
We would feel only horror and detestation, at the thought of so execrable a wretch.
We should abominate him even more than the tyrant who might be goaded on by the strong passions of jealousy, fear, and resentment.
The tyrant would thus be more excusable.
But the spectator's sentiments would appear without cause or motive.
It would therefore be perfectly detestable.
Our hearts would reject this perversion of sentiment with the most hatred and indignation.
We would consider his mind as the very last and most dreadful stage of moral depravity.
26 On the contrary, correct moral sentiments naturally appear laudable and morally good in some degree.
A man whose censure and applause are always very accurately suited to the object even seems to deserve moral approbation.
We admire his moral sentiments' delicate precision.
They lead our own judgments.
They even excite our wonder and applause because of their uncommon and surprising justness.
We cannot be always sure that such a person's conduct would correspond to the precision of his judgments on the conduct of others.
Virtue requires habit and resolution of mind, as well as delicacy of sentiment.
Unfortunately, the habit and resolution are sometimes lacking where delicacy is most perfect.
This disposition of mind may sometimes have imperfections.
However, it is not grossly criminal.
It is the happiest foundation on which the superstructure of perfect virtue can be built.
Many men mean very well and seriously do their duty, despite the coarseness of their moral sentiments.
27The principle of approbation is not founded on any power of perception analogous to the external senses.
However, it may still be founded on a peculiar sentiment which answers only this one particular purpose.
It may be pretended that approbation and disapprobation are feelings which arise in the mind on the view of characters and actions.
Resentment might be called a sense of injuries.
Gratitude may be called a sense of benefits.
These may very properly receive the name of a sense of right and wrong, or of a moral sense.
28 This is not liable to the same objections as the objections against the previous moral sense.
However, it is exposed to other objections equally unanswerable.
7.3.29. The variations of any emotion still keeps the general features of the main emotion.
These general features are always more striking than any of its variations.
Thus, anger is a particular kind of emotion.
Its general features are always more distinguishable than all its variations.
Anger against a man is somewhat different from anger against a woman.
Anger against a woman is again different from anger against a child.
In each of those three cases, the general passion of anger is modified by its object.
This is easily observable by the attentive.
A very delicate attention is needed to discover their variations.
Everybody notices the general features.
Nobody observes their variations.
Therefore, if approbation and disapprobation were distinct kinds of emotions like gratitude and resentment, they should retain their general features in all their variations.
Those general features mark it as such a particular kind of emotion, clear, plain, and easily distinguishable.
But in fact, it happens quite otherwise.
If we attend to what we really feel when we approve or disapprove, we shall find that:
our emotion in one case is often totally different from that in another, and
no common features can be discovered between them.
Thus, our approbation on a tender, delicate, and humane sentiment, is quite different from our approbation of a great, daring, and magnanimous sentiment.
Our approbation of both may be perfect on different occasions.
We are softened by the one and elevated by the other.
There is no resemblance between the emotions they excite in us.
But according to the system that I have been trying to establish, this must be the case.
In those two cases, the emotions of the person we approve of are opposite.
Our approbation arises from sympathy with those opposite emotions.
What we feel on one occasion cannot resemble what we feel on the other.
This could not happen if approbation:
arose from a view of the sentiments it observes, like any other passion arises from the view of its object, and
consisted in a peculiar emotion which had nothing in common with the sentiments we approved of.
The same thing is true with regard to disapprobation.
Our horror for cruelty does not resemble our contempt for mean-spiritedness.
We feel a different kind of discord from those two vices, between our mind and the mind of the person having those sentiments.
7.3.30. I have already observed:
that the mind's passions that are approved or disapproved of appear morally good or evil, and
that to our natural sentiments, proper and improper approbation are stamped with the same characters.
According to this system, how do we approve or disapprove of proper or improper approbation?
I think that there is only one reasonable answer to this question.
When our neighbour's approbation on a third person's conduct coincides with our own, we approve of his approbation.
We consider it as morally good.
When it does not coincide with our own sentiments, we disapprove of it.
We consider it as morally evil.
Therefore, in this one case, the coincidence or opposition of sentiments between the observer and the person observed, constitutes moral approbation or disapprobation.
If it does so in this one case, why not in every other?
Or why do we need to imagine a new power of perception to account for those sentiments?
31 I would object against every account of the principle of approbation which makes it depend on a peculiar sentiment, distinct from every other.
It is strange that this sentiment, which Providence undoubtedly intended to be the governing principle of human nature, should have been so unnoticed that it has not gotten a name in any language.
The word 'moral sense' is very recently formed.
It cannot yet be considered as part of the English tongue.
The word 'approbation' has been appropriated to denote anything of this kind, within these few years.
We approve of whatever is entirely to our satisfaction:
the form of a building
the contrivance of a machine
the flavour of a dish of meat
The word 'conscience' does not immediately denote any moral faculty by which we approve or disapprove.
Conscience supposes the existence of some such faculty.
It properly signifies our consciousness of having acted agreeably or contrary to its directions.
Love, hatred, joy, sorrow, gratitude, resentment, etc. are all supposed to be the subjects of this principle.
Those passions have made themselves considerable enough to get names to know them by.
Is it not surprising that the sovereign of them all should have been so little heeded, that except for a few philosophers, nobody has yet given it a name?
32 According to the foregoing system, when we approve of any character or action, our feelings are derived from four different sources:
We sympathize with the agent's motives
We enter into the gratitude of those who receive the benefit of his actions
We observe that his conduct has been agreeable to the general rules by which those two sympathies generally act
When we consider such actions as part of a system of behaviour which tends to promote the happiness of the individual or the society, they derive a beauty from this utility like that of any well-contrived machine.
After deducting all that proceeds from any of these four principles, I should be glad to know what remains.
I shall freely allow this overplus to be ascribed to a moral sense or to any other peculiar faculty, provided anybody will ascertain precisely what this overplus is.
If there were such a principle as a moral sense, we should feel it separated and detached from every other sense, in some particular cases, just as we feel joy, sorrow, hope, and fear, pure and unmixed with any other emotion.
However, I imagine that this cannot even be pretended.
I have never heard of any instance in which this principle exerted itself alone and unmixed with:
sympathy or antipathy,
gratitude or resentment,
the perception of the agreement or disagreement of any action to an established rule, or
that general taste for beauty and order which is excited by inanimated as well as by animated objects
33 There is another system which bases the origin of our moral feelings on sympathy, different from mine.
places virtue in utility, and
accounts for the spectator's pleasure from his sympathy with the happiness of the people experiencing the utility of any quality.
This sympathy is different from our sympathy with the agent's motives and the gratitude of those benefited by his actions.
It is the same principle that causes us to approve of a well-contrived machine.
But no machine can be the object of those sympathies with the agent's motives and the gratitude of those benefited by his actions.