Why Teach "The Theory of Moral Sentiments?"

theory of moral sentiments reading guide

"Smith’s system can help adolescents build a moral narrative for their developing social lives."
By Janet Bufton for AdamSmithWorks

While Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (commonly Wealth of Nations) is his most famous work, his first book—and the one that won him acclaim during his lifetime—is The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it, Smith argues for a system of morality based on “sympathy,” by which he means something closer to modern-day empathy.

For years it was believed that the two books represented distinct and contradictory philosophies: The Theory of Moral Sentiments asks us to put ourselves in another’s shoes to learn what’s right and wrong, and Wealth of Nations asks us to rely on regard for each individual’s self-interest. Today, scholars show how viewing each text in the light cast by the other can return us to a more human-centered economics and moral philosophy that takes for granted our natural propensity for economic action.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments describes a system of morality based on a constant process of learning. Adam Smith saw social interactions as a natural classroom: it is by reacting to one another and then putting ourselves in each other’s shoes to imagine how we would react then that we develop our moral sense of proper behaviour and our sense of the difference between right and wrong. For Smith, people are inherently social, and can only be moral beings when we are interacting with others.
“Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character…than of the beauty or deformity of his own face… Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before.” [TMS, Part III, Chapter 1, paragraph 3.]  
For this reason, Smith’s moral system is well-suited for discussion with teens, who are in the process of learning what counts as right and wrong from one another, and from the world around them. They are, in effect, still establishing their moral compasses. Adam Smith outlines the process that each person goes through in learning to become a moral person. If he’s right, students are building the foundations they’ll need for moral decision-making in their lives.

In particular, students may enjoy Smith’s discussion of the impartial spectator, challenging themselves to look at themselves through the eyes of others. Coming up with possible interpretations of their actions, rather than defending their reasons for them, can help students create space for discussion without feeling defensive.

Smith’s system can help adolescents build a moral narrative for their developing social lives. It can provide a basis for discussion of what students are learning about each other and the world around them and for more consciously humane interaction.

The Book by Part
In Part 1, Adam Smith begins to establish the basis for his moral system, beginning with “propriety,” or what counts as proper behaviour (and why). Smith’s moral system rests on the idea that we naturally learn to be moral through our interactions with one another. He says that we naturally sympathize with one another by imagining what it would be like to be in each others’ shoes, and that as we do this together, watching the reactions of those around us, we learn the difference between right and wrong behaviour. The distinction established here between right and wrong behaviour is at the root of Smith’s moral system.

In Part 2, Smith explores “merit and demerit” (or what we think of as “praiseworthy or blameworthy”) and what is worthy of gratitude or resentment. There is much here to discuss with students, who may find these topics easier to relate to than concerns about “proper” behaviour. Also discussed in this chapter is the notion of justice versus the idea of “beneficence,” or generosity. A discussion of whether generosity is required for justice (or vice versa!) is relevant not only for students’ lives but for their futures as democratic citizens. Finally, Smith discusses whether or not luck has anything to do with how much we ought to admire (or disapprove of) someone compared with how much we actually admire them.

Part 3 discusses “self-approbation” and “self-disapprobation,” or how we feel about ourselves and judge our own behaviour. In a famous line, Smith observes that “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” In a departure from his approach when discussing the way that we judge others and they in turn judge us, Smith talks about how we judge ourselves and how we can improve based on those judgments. What authority does our conscience have over us? Are we capable of learning to treat others well when we naturally consider ourselves more important? In a particularly vivid example, Smith compares the feelings we experience of two circumstances—when we learn that someone will cut off our pinky in the morning compared to our feelings when we learn that there has been a terrible earthquake on the other side of the world—to explore these issues.

In Part 4, Smith discusses whether the usefulness of objects or actions affects morality, and how this affects ideas of generosity or public spirit. He discusses whether material goods can make us happy and whether that’s good or bad—a debate that continues today. This reading guide breaks down his discussion of the famous parable of “the poor man’s son” into manageable chunks for in-class discussion.  This leads to a discussion of Smith’s famous “invisible hand,” better known from his Wealth of Nations.

Part 5 may be of particular interest to adolescents. It discusses the influence of norms and trends that affect what we find beautiful and good and whether these things can (or should) influence morality. From there, Smith launches a discussion of what people can become accustomed to—for instance, a peaceful or a violent life—and how that affects each individual and her sentiments. The implications are more serious than they might seem, raising the question of whether people who have different lives and morals can hope to understand one another. In what can often seem like an increasingly politically fractured and polarized society, students feel the same urgency as adults to discuss these issues.

Part 6 brings the previous parts of the book together for a discussion of character and virtue in an appropriate introduction for students who have not encountered virtue in the classroom. The text can guide student discussion of what counts as one virtue or another and whether the virtues are worth (and are equally worth!) aspiring to. Smith also considers the ways in which individual virtues combine to build our unique characters, and the ways those characters operate in the world.  He contrasts, for example, the characters of those who want to mould the people around them with the characters of those who prefer to allow others to make their own choices. This can provide the basis for discussion of what sorts of character students aspire to and of what sorts of characters are good for different positions in society.

Part 7 opens possibilities for more advanced explorations into different moral systems. Here, Smith discusses the important parts of any moral system before an extended discussion challenges to other famous moral systems.

Some Final Notes
While Smith writes in English, it is 18th-century English. Many students will find this challenging, but reading together as a group to work out what Smith is trying to say is an ideal exercise for peer-led discovery and learning. On occasion, Smith uses what may be especially challenging language, such as describing those for whom we might feel pity as “wretched” or “miserable.” These passages can be navigated with guidance to help students understand changes in language over time, and students should be encouraged to work together to understand words they haven’t come across before.

Each student and each classroom will encounter different challenges and be intrigued by different aspects of the text. The purpose of this guide is to help facilitate the best environment to explore it together.