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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIV. Philosophers

§ 13. The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Theory of Moral Sentiments covers much ground already traversed by preceding British moralists. It is an elaborate analysis of the various forms and objects of the moral consciousness. It is written in a flowing and eloquent, if rather diffuse, style; it is full of apt illustration; and the whole treatise is dominated by a leading idea. Smith’s central problem, like that of his predecessors, is to explain the fact of moral approval and disapproval. He discards the doctrine of a special “moral sense,” impervious to analysis, which had been put forward by Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. Like Hume, he regards sympathy as the fundamental fact of the moral consciousness; and he seeks to show, more exactly than Hume had done, how sympathy can become a test of morality. He sees that it is not, of itself, a sufficient test. A spectator may imaginatively enter into the emotional attitude of another man, and this is sympathy; but it is not a justification of the man’s attitude. The spectator may have misunderstood the circumstances, or his own interests may have been involved. Accordingly, the only sympathy that has ethical value is that of an “impartial and well-informed spectator.” But this impartial and well-informed spectator, whose sympathy with our passions and affections would be their adequate justification, is not an actual but an ideal person; and, indeed, Smith recognises as much when he says that we have to appeal from “the opinions of mankind” to “the tribunal of [our] own conscience”—to “the man within the breast.” The great merit of the theory, as worked out by Smith, is its recognition of the importance of the social factor in morality, and of sympathy as the means by which this social factor operates. The individual man, in his view, is a being of social structure and tendencies. But the social side of his nature is not exaggerated: if man “can subsist only in society,” it is equally true that “every man is by nature first and principally recommended to his own care.” These points modify the contrast between the teaching of his first work and the “individualism” of his economic theory.