Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 7, Section 3, Chapter 1: Systems based on Feelings

Section 4: Moral system based on Feelings


17 Systems which make sentiment the principle of approbation may be divided into two classes.

18 I. According to some, the principle of approbation is founded on:

This sentiment is called a moral sense.


19 II. According to others, there is no need for supposing any new power of perception to account for the principle of approbation.


20 I. Dr. Hutcheson took great pains to prove that the principle of approbation was not founded on self-love.


21 He called this new power of perception a moral sense.


22 According to this system, the human mind derives all its simple ideas from two kinds of senses:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:


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.


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:

I imagine that our heart would forget its sympathy with the sufferer for a while.

  • But the spectator's sentiments would appear without cause or motive.
  • Our hearts would reject this perversion of sentiment with the most hatred and indignation.

    26 On the contrary, correct moral sentiments naturally appear laudable and morally good in some degree.


    27The principle of approbation is not founded on any power of perception analogous to the external senses.


    28 This is not liable to the same objections as the objections against the previous moral sense.

    1. 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.
    1. 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.

    31 I would object against every account of the principle of approbation which makes it depend on a peculiar sentiment, distinct from every other.


    32 According to the foregoing system, when we approve of any character or action, our feelings are derived from four different sources:

    1. We sympathize with the agent's motives
    2. We enter into the gratitude of those who receive the benefit of his actions
    3. We observe that his conduct has been agreeable to the general rules by which those two sympathies generally act
    4. 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.

    33 There is another system which bases the origin of our moral feelings on sympathy, different from mine.

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    Next: Chapter 4: Breaches of Moral Rules