Course Video 1: Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments

Lynne Kiesling

For the past few months I’ve been working with some talented and creative folks at Northwestern University Academic Technologies to produce some videos for use in my History of Economic Thought course. Over the next few weeks I’ll be releasing them here, and they will be available on my Vimeo page. Please distribute them widely (they have Creative Commons attribution + non-commercial licensing)! Please also leave comments, questions, suggestions, related readings, etc. so we can extend the learning environment far and wide.

Adam Smith: Theory of Moral Sentiments from Lynne Kiesling on Vimeo.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith asserts that humans have an innate interest in the fortunes of other people and desire for sympathy with others. Humans are complex individuals in Smith’s theory – rightly motivated by self-interest, but also by the innate sociability and desire for sympathy from and with others that he observed empirically. Sympathy, which Smith defined broadly as fellow-feeling with the situations (not just the emotions) of others, forms the foundation of our moral judgment.

I’m intrigued by Smith’s concept of sympathy. Smith’s model of sympathy is a process of coordination between the self and others. The Smithian sympathetic process has three essential characteristics: sympathy as a synthesis of empathy with judgment based on reason, a spectatorial/external perspective on one’s own behavior and the behavior of others, and an innate capacity for imagination that enables individuals to place themselves in the situations of others. This sympathetic process leads to coordination of expressions and actions across individuals, resulting in harmony and social order. That’s an important sense in which TMS forms the philosophical and psychological foundations of Smith’s later works, especially the Wealth of Nations.

Another subject in TMS that undergirds WON and later work in economics is Smith’s discussion of justice and beneficence. Smith argues that (commutative, or negative) justice is necessary in order to have a peaceable and productive society, while beneficence is nice but not essential. From this argument he concludes that provision for the enforcement of commutative justice is a proper role of government, an argument he will pick up in Book V of WON.

I discuss both of these subjects in the video.

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