Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos

Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments

  • David ColdwellEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_121-1


The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with the following observation which largely sets the tenor of the book. Smith, far from depending on the depersonalized and egocentric “invisible hand” to explain human social and economic action, was fully aware of the more altruistic aspect of human nature in the form sympathy for others:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility.

However, Smith rejected the idea that humans were able to make moral judgments beyond their own limited sphere of activity and focused on their own self-interest, although socially beneficial outcomes emerged from this. He indicates this in his description of the behavior of the rich manufacturer:

… though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands, whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

The Theory of Moral Sentiment consists of six parts.

I will briefly describe the main aspects of each part and then discuss a recent multicultural empirical study that focuses on one particular aspect, with a view to demonstrating the durability and conceptual relevance of Adam Smith’s work today.

Central to Adam Smith’s (1976) “Theory of Moral Sentiment” is the concept of “sympathy.” Smith makes a clear distinction between sympathy and pity: “Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others. Sympathy… may now… be made use of to denote our fellow feeling with any passion” (Smith 1976, p. 6). Thus, while pity produces feelings of sorrow, sympathy must be distinguished from pity or sorrow as it involves understanding of a passionate occurrence or event through dispassionate analysis; pity, on the other hand, tends to be more emotive and visceral.

Of the Propriety of Action

In “Of the propriety of Action,” Smith begins by pointing out that however selfish some people appear to be, all humans have a propensity for compassion and sympathy. Sympathy involves imagining ourselves to be in the position of a person being observed. We are able to sympathize with those experiencing grief and joy, but when observing an angry outburst or reaction, we are more reticent. Only once we have learnt the reasons for anger and are able to take sides with it are we able to feel sympathy towards its perpetrator. Generally speaking we feel approbation for feelings that agree with our own and disapprobation for those that are in conflict/disagreement with these. Smith points out that since dispassionate observers are not fully aware of the reasons for our observed passions we need to temper them to obtain sympathy by showing the “correct” feelings socially for specific life happenings. For example, parents who showed an absence of sorrow/grief for the loss of their daughter would not obtain sympathy from an impartial observer, nor would they gain sympathy if they exaggerated their grief beyond what is considered socially appropriate and showed a lack of self-control.

Sympathy is evoked differently for different passions. Passions of the body are difficult to sympathize with because other person’s bodily passions cannot be directly experienced (although they can be imagined from prior personal experiences). Similarly passions from habits of the imagination such as love between two people cannot be fully experienced, although it can be imagined from past experiences of being in love for those observers that have experienced this and evoke differential feelings of sympathy depending on personal experiences of its intensity and outcome. Unsocial passions, such as anger, evoke little sympathy until or unless they can be seen as justified by an impartial spectator.

Smith points out that sympathy with joy tends to be of a lesser intensity than sympathy with sorrow and that ambition to succeed in life is derived not so much from the trappings of wealth and fame per se, but from the sense of approval society shows towards such achievements. Smith notes also that it is often our tendency to admire uncritically wealth and fame and despise the poor and downtrodden that corrupts moral sentiment.

Of Merit and Demerit; or of the Objects of Reward and Punishment

Smith (1976, p. 25), in “Of merit and demerit; or of the objects of reward and punishment,” writes: “The actions and conduct of mankind can be brought within range of approval/disapproval in two different ways: one is through their being proper or improper, decent or graceless, right or wrong·; the other is through their having merit or demerit, the qualities of deserving reward and of deserving punishment.” Smith goes on to state (1976, p. 36): “The sentiment that most immediately and directly prompts us to reward ·someone· is gratitude, and what most immediately and directly prompts us to punish ·someone· is resentment.”

Smith then goes on to state that a person who appears to deserve reward is the object of our gratitude, while a person who appears to deserve punishment evokes feelings of resentment in us. Sympathy for merit is found when the spectator has direct sympathy for the emotions of the benefactor and indirect sympathy for the gratitude of the beneficiaries. On the other hand sympathy for demerit occurs when there is direct antipathy by the spectator to the sentiments of a criminal and indirect sympathy with the victim’s resentment. Punishment must be proportional to the violation of justice. Beneficence is a beautiful thing in itself, like an ornament in a building, while justice is the pillar on which the whole building depends (Smith 1976, p. 47). Smith ends this part of his treatise with the importance of justice in preserving society while recognizing that punishment for a crime is not generally conducted out of a direct concern for the preservation of society, but a concern for the individual. Smith writes (1976, p. 50): “When someone steals money from me, what motivates my prosecution of him is my concern for the particular sum that was stolen…”

Moral Judgments on Our Lives: the Sense of Duty

Smith’s next discussion concerning moral judgments on ourselves and our sense of duty begins (1976, p. 62) with the assertion that we judge ourselves as we judge the conduct of others.

Thus, “we approve (or disapprove) of our own conduct according to whether, when we adopt the situation of a spectator, viewing our conduct with his eyes (so to speak) and from his standpoint, we feel that we can (or cannot) entirely enter into and sympathize with the sentiments and motives that influenced it.” Smith maintains that the way we think others would judge our actions comprises our conscience. Morality and judgment, thus, comes from an interaction of perspectives from the way people see us and our own view of our behavior. Although we are capable of self-deception, our conscience judges our actions by which we aim to be praised and not blamed by society. Although society is capable of wrongly praising or blaming our actions, our conscience will be able to inform us whether we actually deserve praise or blame. Blame where it is misplaced is regarded as one of the most shameful forms of human behavior by Smith. The strength of our conscience is dependent on our interaction with impartial people. If we only interacted with nonimpartial people, such as members of our families, we would not be able to judge our own behavior objectively. Our conscience learns to control us through experiences of moral situations and dilemmas and derives from these general rules regarding moral behavior. Such general moral rules constitute duty and that this sense of duty that we have internalized was God-given since the moral laws derived from them would help sustain harmony in the universe (God’s purpose). Smith points out, however, that duty is not always the only motive for moral action, we can also promote good out of a sense of benefice, which would both amplify and be tempered by our sense of duty. Smith also points out that duty on its own is insufficient and usually loosely defined as general moral rules that need adaptation and focus according to specific contexts.

The Effect of Utility on the Sentiment of Approval

In “The effect of utility on the sentiment of approval,” Smith tries to show that utility is not the only factor in making something beautiful in moral or aesthetic terms. Smith (1976, p. 96) writes: “The fitness of any system or machine to produce the end for which it was intended confers a certain rightness and beauty on the whole thing, making it a pleasure to think about—and this is so obvious that nobody has overlooked it”. Thus, while Smith acknowledges that utility is an aspect of beauty, there is something more: “But there’s another fact ·about utility and beauty. It is this: An artifact’s being skillfully designed so as to be suitable for some purpose is often valued more than is the purpose itself; exact adjustment of the means for attaining some convenience or pleasure is often valued more highly than the convenience or pleasure itself, though they would seem to be the sole source of the artifact’s merit.” . (Smith 1976, p. 96). Thus, beauty can exist in an object apart from its function or utility. A well-made and beautifully inscribed watch can be valued despite the fact that it may not be entirely accurate in keeping the precise time.

Smith does not think that utility is the foundation of moral approbation and disapprobation. Because morality is different from beauty and that utility is often a consequence of particular moral decisions, not their instigator. The instigator of our moral sentiment is God who put it there for the harmonious functioning of the universe. Smith suggests that if people were to act simply out of utility, we would always be propelled by self-interest. This clearly is not the case since people are able to act altruistically by showing generosity and even sacrificing their lives for others.

The Moral Influence of Custom and Fashion

In “The moral influence of custom and fashion,” Smith (1976, p. 105) writes: there are two “other considerable influences on the moral sentiments of mankind; [namely]… custom and fashion—forces that extend their sway over our judgments concerning beauty of every kind.”

Smith suggests that like utility, custom and fashion affects aesthetics and, to a lesser extent, morality. Custom is the correlation between two things that regularly occur together which creates a feeling of aesthetic pleasantness such as that found in elements of particular architecture which together create a particular style. If an element of this style is missing, it would be found incongruous and displeasing because of customary expectations. Fashion is generated from the admiration of people of high status. A particular style of clothes become fashionable if and while people of high status adopt it.

Our moral sentiments, which for Smith are largely given, are not as open to fashion and custom as aesthetics, although they can inure us to moral duty if we become accustomed to them, such as when we are exposed to frequent acts of violence and our moral approbation of these, diminishes. Smith suggests that it is the influence of fashion and custom that generates differences between cultures, with the most extreme forms of custom and fashion, generating the most extreme forms of “moral” sentiment.

Having indicated that custom and fashion have a lesser effect on moral sentiment, Smith suggests that they do have a greater effect on moral approbation than on disapprobation where there is a greater universal consensus of propriety cross-culturally. At the moral disapprobation extreme, Smith states that general “absolute” moral consensus overrides custom: “But the characters and conduct of a Nero, are what no custom will ever reconcile us to, what no fashion will ever render agreeable…” However, at the approbation continuum extreme, custom or cultural differences have a much more pronounced impact on moral sentiment consensus. For example, although beauty is a concept of approbation that is widely held, nuanced differences are evident in the way beauty is perceived in different cultures and historical periods.

Of the Character of Virtue

Smith (1976, p. 112) begins, “Of the character of virtue” with a definition of prudence which is his core concept of virtue. “The care of the health, the fortune, and the rank and reputation of the individual—these being the items on which his comfort and happiness in this life are supposed principally to depend—is regarded as the proper business of the virtue commonly called ‘prudence’”.

Because we suffer more when we fall from a better to a worse situation than is our enjoyment when we rise from a worse to a better position, Smith contends that the first and principal object of prudence is security. Prudence avoids risk and dictates our actions to avoid losing our virtue in the eyes of others. Smith lists a number of ways a prudent man interacts socially. The prudent man is sincere, friendly, inoffensive and frugal. As Smith (1976, p. 113) puts it: “The prudent man...[sacrifices],,, the ease and enjoyment of the present moment for the probable expectation of greater ease and enjoyment later on and for a longer time; and in this conduct he is always supported and rewarded by the complete approval of the impartial spectator, and of that spectator’s representative, the man within the breast.”

With respect to the happiness of others, Smith (1976, p. 115) suggests that “any individual can affect the happiness of other people only through its disposition either to harm them or to benefit them. The only motive that the impartial spectator can justify for our harming or in any way disturbing the happiness of our neighbour is proper resentment for injustice attempted or actually committed. To harm someone from any other motive should be restrained or punished by force.”

Smith concludes this discussion with the view that a person who follows the rules of prudence will be perfectly virtuous: “A man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, strict justice, and proper benevolence may be said to be perfectly virtuous. But his own passions play a role in this, and they are apt to mislead him,,,. The most perfect knowledge won’t always enable him to do his duty if it isn’t supported by the most perfect self-control” (1976, p. 126).

Thus, self-control is the means to virtue. This means controlling our passions and vanities while maintaining appropriate levels of proper indignation.

Of Systems of Moral Philosophy

In, “Of Systems of Moral Philosophy,” Smith considers some historical theories of morality to evaluate and compare with his own of virtue.

Among the ancients, Smith discusses Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicurus. As well, Smith considers and rejects the lesser known moral theories of his contemporaries and regards them as inadequate because they assume that man has the capacity for perfect virtue through a belief in God. Smith points out human beings are imperfect and therefore need social motives to be virtuous. Smith rejects Mandeville’s contention that all “moral” actions are driven by vain self-interest and consequently not virtuous. Smith maintains that even when people act out of self-interest in acting morally it is not vain but admirable. This is of central importance in understanding how Smith’s notion of self-interest, which takes a central part in his major theoretical construct in The Wealth of Nations (Smith 2007) is not regarded as morally bankrupt. For Smith, man is capable of acts of genuine altruism and benevolence aside from, or in spite of, his strong natural motive of self-interest.

Smith rejects a Hobbesian worldview because of his assertion that man has a capacity to think beyond himself by imagining himself in the position of others and sympathizing with them.

Smith then considers a theory that suggests that we understand virtue through the application of reason and a further theory that it comes from a specific perceptual facility. In the former case, Smith suggests that our virtue does not derive from reason alone because we have an instinctive moral sense found in our consciences which provides a means for forming general rules of duty. In the latter case, Smith queries that if there was indeed this perceptual facility for virtue, why is it sensitive to context and does not have an invariant quality? Smith ends by discussing practical rules of morality that can be obtained by the application of his theory. This combines the hard rules of justice and the looser rules derived from our moral sentiment.

The Relevance of the Theory of Moral Sentiment Today

Adam Smith reveals in his Theory of Moral Sentiment the Scottish characteristic of prudence (being “canny”), while displaying male chauvinism, religiousness, arrogance, and bourgeois moral orientation that may seem archaic and irrelevant in today’s secular and globalized conscientiousness. However, although written in eighteenth century Scotland, Adam Smith’s conceptual richness and practical relevance remains perennially useful. For example, Szmigin and Rutherford (2013) regard the Theory of Moral Sentiment and, in particular, Smith’s concept of “sympathy” and notion of “impartial spectator” as analytically useful today. They introduce a heuristic “Impartial Spectator Test,” “which…[they]… argue, builds on traditional stakeholder perspectives and… provides an objective route to ethical criteria of demarcation” (Szmigin and Rutherford 2013, p. 71).

Coldwell (2015) also presents a recent example of an empirical application of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment. Coldwell (2015) indicates that Smith (1976) maintains that there are “natural” rights and wrongs in moral sentiment that can be amplified or deadened through their consistency with nature and human society’s survival. Behind custom differences in moral sentiment, there are general “natural” human ideas of right and wrong. Smith (1976) maintains that custom and fashion influence moral sympathy, but also recognizes that at the extreme ends of an imaginary moral disapprobation–approbation continuum, there exists a moral consensus in absolute rights and wrongs. “Custom” appears similar in meaning to “culture,” but they have clear differences in orientation; “custom” refers to practices and tradition and “culture” ideas and beliefs (Merriam-Webster 2014). Culture and custom are used interchangeably in Coldwell’s (2015) empirical study. At the moral disapprobation extreme of the continuum, Smith (1976, p. 15–16) suggests general absolute moral consensus overrides custom factors: “But the characters and conduct of a Nero, or a Claudius, are what no custom will ever reconcile us to, what no fashion will ever render agreeable…” On the other hand, at the approbation continuum extreme, custom has a much more pronounced impact on general sentiment consensus. For example, although beauty is a concept of approbation that has some widely held basic and fundamental consensus in general human appreciation; nuanced differences are evident in the way it is perceived by different cultures and in different historical periods. This aspect is emphasized too by Smith. Smith’s argument is shown diagrammatically in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1

A diagrammatic heuristic model of Adam Smith’s “Theory of Custom and Moral Sentiment”

Figure 1 indicates that at high levels of moral sentiment consensus of absolutes (i.e., natural senses of right and wrong) in moral approbation and disapprobation of conduct, the influence of custom tends to be low. Here moral approbation (approval) and disapprobation (disapproval) remain relatively unaffected by custom. However, custom does affect sentiments of moral approval and disapproval where moral absolutes tend to be less complete and, as Smith (1976) suggests, this tends to be the case more for approval than disapproval of specific moral conduct. In Fig. 1, this is shown in the steeper curve (A, B) for moral disapprobation than approbation. This phenomenon is clearly illustrated in Smith’s (1976) examples of Nero and Claudius where a high general moral disapprobation towards the absolute wrongness of their conduct is evident. However, Smith’s further example of infanticide also emphasizes this absolute moral disapprobation aspect further (at E of line A B). The absolute disapprobation of infanticide is underlined by its natural wrongness in that, if widely adopted, human society would cease to exist altogether. Conversely, the diagram indicates that at lower levels of moral disapprobation the effect of custom would be likely to increase. For example, take the current debate concerning marijuana. Is marijuana a drug that tends to undermine society by creating an underclass of addicts that deserves moral and legal censure Or is it a drug that should be freely available to alleviating physical and mental suffering? In line with Adam Smith’s contention, much of the moral discussion around marijuana usage today is influenced by custom and culture as it lacks the natural absolute right or wrong characteristics that Smith’s (1976) theory describes. It lacks absolute moral consensus as a natural wrong as it does not pose an absolute destructive property to human survival.

On the other hand, custom is more important in moral approbation as good conduct, like beauty, which has no clear absolutes, although Smith (1976, p. 16–17) recognizes that may exist even with a concept like “beauty” at very high level of abstraction. “I cannot admit that custom is the sole principle of beauty, yet I can so far allow the truth of this ingenious system as to grant, that there is scarce any one external form to please, if quite contrary to custom …”

Smith (1976) makes it clear how particular professions give specific rigorous codes on acceptable moral conduct. Szmigin and Rutherford (2013) maintain that the impartial spectator concept affords a mechanism for freeing ourselves from bias by providing “… an explanatory mechanism of moral judgement based on common sense and enabling a disinterested and dispassionate evaluation of the motives and actions of ourselves and others. It does this through foresight to compare one situation in the context of others and in terms of moral rules and what society should approve” (Werhane 1991, p. 38). This quotation both acknowledges the propensity for cultural bases regarding moral rules and affirming that the judgment of moral conduct should, as far as possible, be that of an impartial spectator who weighs up moral conduct “averages” in terms of specific existing societal customs.

To achieve this end, Coldwell’s (2015) qualitative empirical study used German and South African postgraduate students who were under training for particular Management professions and relatively free of professional biases, but who were nevertheless, immersed in the different cultural customs of their respective backgrounds. The study empirically analyzed Smith’s theory using the heuristic devise described earlier, by investigating German and South African student moral sentiments towards specific ethical leadership behaviors. The study found, in basic agreement with Adam Smith’s theory, that while there was general cross-cultural homogeneity in moral approbation for fundamental aspects of ethical leadership behavior, nuanced custom-based differences emerge from the qualitative analysis. Thus, although ethicality of specific leadership behavior was found to be viewed similarly by both groups of students, significant nuanced differences arose among the German students who emphasized the moral autonomy of the leader in making ethical decisions rather than the “collective concern” moral orientation favored by their South African counterparts. Both these recent studies bear testimony to the continued relevance and utility of Adam Smith’s classical work.


  1. Coldwell DAL (2015) Custom and moral sentiment: cross-cultural aspects of postgraduate student perceptions of leadership ethicality. J Bus Ethics. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2951-3. Accessed 23 Nov 2015CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Economic and Business SciencesUniversity of WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Coldwell
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa