Moral Sentiments Research Paper

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The field of economics developed out of political economy, which in the early twenty-first century would be thought of as an interdisciplinary combination of economics, political science, sociology, history, and moral philosophy. Prior to that evolution, political economy was part of the curriculum of “expediency,” a subfield of moral philosophy. Adam Smith, for example, was a professor of moral philosophy, and not until Thomas Malthus is political economy itself deemed worthy of a sole professorship. Smith, often considered the “father of economics,” was the author not only of The Wealth of Nations (1776) but also of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1769). While there was long a debate over whether the two works were consistent with one another, the consensus in the early twenty-first century is that the two works are generally (if not entirely) compatible.

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), Smith addressed the question of whether a society of perfect liberty, in other words, a society freed from the fetters of feudal and ecclesiastic authority, could attain moral order. In the Wealth of Nations (WN), Smith asked the same question but about economic order. The link was to be a third work on the institutional and legal framework ensuring this perfect society, which Smith never was able to complete but which is outlined in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (LJ). TMS is about the socialization of the individual, and WN is about the economic outcomes of the behavior of socialized individuals in the legal and institutional context of LJ (Macfie 1967; Heilbroner 1982).

In TMS, Smith introduces “sympathy” (what in the early twenty-first century would be called empathy) as the social cement of society. Sympathy is not pity but is rather fellow feeling of any kind. Our approval or disapproval of the behavior of others is determined by our imagining how we would feel and how we would respond if we were in a like situation—thus the importance in Smith of the role of the imagination. We ask whether the person’s response is appropriate to the situation and then about the effects of the response. If we sympathize, we approve; if not, we disapprove. We judge our own behavior in a similar way. Here Smith introduces his idea of the “impartial spectator”—we imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes observing our own behavior and evaluating it in a like manner. The judgment of the impartial spectator requires more than sympathy—it also requires reason. Sympathy, when joined with reason, becomes “sympathetic reason” or “rational sympathy,” the “best head joined to the best heart.” Over time the many judgments we are all making result in social codes of conduct, some of which may become law, others unwritten but no less strict codes of morality. Self-deceit or excessive self-regard can intrude, however, and if untamed may result in us justifying or rationalizing behavior we know to be wrong. Here Smith looks to “self-command” (self-control) and a “sense of duty” (commitment to society) to ensure individuals will generally obey the social rules of society.

Interestingly in TMS Smith identifies two levels of prudence. The lower level includes what we think of as economic activities, whereas the higher level concerns valor, benevolence, justice, and the like. The former is only worthy of “a certain cold esteem,” and it is only the latter, higher level that is truly and properly called prudence. Thus it can be said that, in Smith, proper self-regard—self-interested behavior moderated by selfcommand and a sense of duty as well as the socially responsible adherence to social rules and obligations—can be socially beneficial under certain conditions. It is not the higher level of prudence, but it is a kind of prudence. In no way can it be said that Smith subscribed to the notion that “greed is good.” Economic order requires not only the proper institutions but also the moral sentiments, without which Smith’s society of perfect liberty would be impossible (Rothschild 2001, pp. 236–246 and passim).


  1. Heilbroner, Robert 1982. The Socialization of the Individual in Adam Smith. History of Political Economy 14 (3): 427–439.
  2. Macfie, L. 1967 The Individual in Society. London: Allen and Unwin.
  3. Rothschild, E 2001. Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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