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The Moral Principle of Sympathy

The broad context of Smith’s work was the debate on the different motivations for human action. His contribution consisted in pointing out the complementarity between pursuing self-interest and attributing a central role to moral rules for the sound functioning of common life in society. This interpretation of Smith’s contribution, which conforms largely to that of the editors of the critical edition of his works,[1] emerges from reading Smith’s two main works, The theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, as complementary rather than contradictory.[2]

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith proposed the ‘moral principle of sympathy’. ‘The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved’; sympathy, namely the ability to share the feelings of others, leads us to judge our actions on the basis of their effects on the others in addition to their effects on ourselves.

Thus man ‘must ... humble the arrogance of his self-love, and bring it down to something which other men can go along with.... In the race for wealth, and honours, and preferments, he may run as hard as he can, ... in order to outstrip all his competitors. But if he should justle, or throw down any of them, the indulgence of the spectators is entirely at an end. It is a violation of fair play, which they cannot admit of.’ This kind of moral attitude is a prerequisite for the very survival of human societies: ‘Society ... cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another.’[3]

In other words, Smith’s liberal views are based on a twofold assumption, namely that commonly each person knows better than anybody else her/his own interests and that among the interests of each there is the desire to be loved by the others and hence respect for the well-being of the others. The first assumption accounts for rejection of centralised management of the economy, even if by an enlightened prince; hence the preference for a market economy over a command economy. The second assumption constitutes a precondition to ensure that the pursuit of self-interest on the part of a multitude of economic agents in competition among themselves leads to the well-being of society.

Moreover, according to Smith, individuals evaluate their own actions by taking the viewpoint of an impartial spectator, endowed with the knowledge of all the elements they know.[4] Juridical institutions, the functioning of which is indispensable to guarantee the security of market exchange, find in this principle of moral behaviour the necessary concrete support. Thus the famous Smithian statement, observing that ‘it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’,[5] implies the assumption - vital for the functioning of a market economy - of a society grounded on the general acceptance of the moral principle of sympathy and endowed with the administrative and juridical institutions necessary to deal with the instances in which common morality is violated.

The distinction between private and public interest becomes opposition only if the private interest is interpreted in a restrictive way, as selfishness rather than self-interest, the latter implying attention to one’s own interests moderated by the recognition of (or, better, ‘sympathy’ for) the interests of the others.[6] Thus, following in the tradition of the Scottish sociological school, Smith evoked a view of man and society differing both from the arbitrary absolutism that the social and political structure of his times inherited from feudalism, and which can be associated with the Aristotelian tradition, and from Hobbes’s contractualism, in which a state, though enlightened and benevolent, dominates the life of its subjects. Smith (1759, p. 82) proposed the line of a greater confidence in the self-governing capacity of individuals: ‘Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so.’ However, the free pursuit of personal interest comes up against two limits: one external to the individual (the administration of justice, one of the fundamental functions that Smith attributes to the state) and one internal to him, ‘sympathy’ for his fellow human beings. The simultaneous recourse to these two elements shows how Smith, faithful in this to the Aristotelian tradition of hostility to extreme positions, had a positive but not idealised vision of man (common, for instance, to Kant as well).

  • [1] The six volumes of the ‘Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of AdamSmith’ (edited by D.D. Raphael and A.S. Skinner, Oxford University Press, Oxford1976-83; paperback anastatic reprint, Liberty Press, Indianapolis, 1981-85) includeThe Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by A.L. Macfie and D.D. Raphael; The Wealth ofNations, edited by R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner; Essays on Philosophical Subjects,edited by W.P.D. Wightman, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, edited by J.C. Bryce;Lectures on Jurisprudence, edited by R.L. Meek, D.D. Raphael and P.G. Stein;Correspondence, edited by E.C. Mossner and I.S. Ross.
  • [2] According to one thesis, there is a contradiction between the two works, the free pursuit ofself-interest corresponding to the mature position of the Wealth of Nations supersedingreference to a sympathetic behaviour initially defended in The Theory ofMoral Sentiments.This thesis appears untenable when we recall that The Theory of Moral Sentiments wasrepeatedly reprinted, on all occasions under the control of the author, even after thepublication of The Wealth of Nations; moreover, in Smith’s correspondence there is no hintthat he himself or any of his correspondents saw even the slightest contradiction betweenthe two works. The ‘contradiction’ thesis appeared in the stage (late nineteenth century)in which a mono-dimensional notion ofman prevailed, while in the eighteenth century thesimultaneous presence of even conflicting passions and interests as the foundation forhuman action was considered a matter of fact.
  • [3] Smith 1759, pp. 41, 83, 86.
  • [4] On the notion of the impartial spectator, and more generally on Smith’s moral philosophy,cf. Raphael 2007.
  • [5] Smith 1776, pp. 26-7. This passage, or variants of it, also occurs in the Lectures onJurisprudence and in the Early Draft of Parts of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ (now reprinted inSmith 1978, pp. 562-81). Smith’s reference to benevolence is an implicit reference toHutcheson, who attributed it an important role as a guide to human action.
  • [6] Smith’s view of self-interest, not reducible to a mono-dimensional maximising behaviour,is evident for instance in the following passage: ‘What can be added to the happiness of theman who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience? To one in thissituation, all accessions of fortune may properly be said to be superfluous; and if he ismuch elevated on account of them, it must be the effect of the most frivolous levity’ (Smith1759, p. 45).
 
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