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Adam Smith Ethics Views in “Theory of Moral Sentiments” Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Mar 18th, 2020

Summary of the Reading

Adam Smith considers numerous ethical issues in his work Theory of Moral Sentiments. The philosopher focuses on the way people see this world and react in response to certain circumstances. For instance, Adam Smith stresses that people tend to sympathize others, especially when it comes to such emotions as joy, happiness, sorrow, or pain. The philosopher states that sympathy is a mere pleasure of seeing a person happy.

People are selfish, but they still tend to wish happiness to others as well. Smith mentions that people often understand the emotions of others since they have experienced the same or similar emotions. People can imagine the degree of pain or sorrow experienced by an individual.

At that moment, the pain and sorrow become their pain. Likewise, the joys of other people also make individuals feel happy. This is all referred to as sympathy, according to Adam Smith. Importantly, the philosopher emphasizes that it is people’s nature to be interested in the life of other people.

Adam Smith also points out that people’s ability to sympathize is closely connected with people’s judgment and the sense of propriety and impropriety of people’s affections. Thus, a person regards other people’s actions as appropriate if he/she can sympathize. If a person understands what it feels like to be in some situation, he/she will think it is normal to have certain emotions.

Notably, even if a person cannot share the same emotions at the moment for many reasons, he/she can still feel that others can feel this emotion if the situation is appropriate. For example, if a person has something to celebrate, it seems natural to be happy.

And people, who are in bad spirits, sympathize with the person as they can remember their happy moments and their need to celebrate them. Importantly, Smith states that people also support other people’s judgments if they agree with their judgments. In other words, people find it easier to agree with a person in something when they share the same ideas.

Smith continues considering moral sentiments by contemplating the human’s virtue. The philosopher claims that virtue is something which should be admired as it is the highest form of human perfection. People can conduct by rules, and this should be approved, but some people reveal real virtues (kindness, forgiveness, helpfulness in different situations), and this should be admired.

The philosopher stresses that these two concepts, propriety, and virtue, should not be confused. It is natural to conduct in a normal way, and the vast majority of people behave by major rules of nature and society. The philosopher notes that no one will think that a person reveals virtue when he/she eats when he/she feels hunger. There are numerous situations which are connected with propriety.

However, there are people who conduct outstandingly; in a way, others would react differently and in a more selfish way. For example, soldiers who are ready to defend their people even if they know they have to sacrifice their own lives. According to Smith, this exceptional conduct should be regarded as a virtue and should be praised.

Analysis of the Reading

Adam Smith considers human nature and reveals one of the most significant controversies as human beings are selfish, but they are also ready to sympathize. One of the major flaws of the philosopher’s approach is that he generalizes the concept of sympathy and people’s characters in general. At this point, it is necessary to note that the philosopher does not generalize when considering virtues and propriety.

However, the philosopher claims that people are happy when they see other people’s joys and happiness. It is true as it is always pleasant to see people who are smiling and full of joy. People like harmony and tend to prefer happy people around them. Nevertheless, there are several exceptions.

In the first place, if the joy of a person leads to another person’s sorrow, the latter would rather make the other one unhappy. People (in the vast majority of cases) are selfish and are not ready to be in misery even if it can make others happy. Thus, they would rather be happy than seeing a person happy at their expense.

Smith is also too general when considering propriety and impropriety as people are very different and there are situations in which some actions can be seen as appropriate while in other situations these actions will be regarded as inappropriate. For example, Adam Smith notes that a person can regard other people’s celebrations as appropriate even if this person is in a bad mood.

Nonetheless, there are people (each can recollect one of such situations) who get angry and jealous when they see that others are happy while he/she is miserable. Lots of people thought (at least once in their lives) why others are so happy when there is death or misery in the world.

Some people are far more selfish, and they make others feel embarrassed about being happy when they are in sorrow. They do not behave that way because they lack good experiences. These people may also have numerous happy moments in their life, and they can sympathize. Nonetheless, they choose to disapprove of actions of other people.

Hence, it is impossible to say that it is people’s nature to wish to see others happy. It is better, to put it differently. It is human nature to wish to see others happy when a person is happy. This would be a complete definition of the concept.

It is necessary to note that Adam Smith also reveals the nature of people when it comes to judgment as people tend to agree with those who share their views.

It is universally acknowledged that it is easier to agree with a person who says what a person already thinks is right than to try to accept ideas which are different. Ironically, generalization can be justified in this case as the vast majority of people behave that way. It is also part of human nature to be ready to accept similar ideas rather than agree on something doubtful or unacceptable.

Conclusion

To sum up, it is possible to note that Adam Smith reveals some facets of human nature, but his generalization is sometimes inappropriate. Thus, when it comes to judging all people are the same and tend to accept views which are similar to their own.

However, when it comes to propriety and impropriety and the nature of sympathy, generalization is unacceptable. People are very different, and in many cases, they are not ready to sympathize when they are unhappy or in danger.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Adam Smith Ethics Views in "Theory of Moral Sentiments"." March 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/adam-smith-ethics-views-in-theory-of-moral-sentiments/.

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