Adam Smith, Sympathy, and Spontaneous Social-Moral Order

essay moral philosophy wealth of nations propriety sympathy spontaneous order theory of moral sentiments impartial spectator social order

by Lauren Hall* for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) is his least-read book and for many, his most challenging. In it, Smith argues that the moral sentiments—primarily sympathy—socialize and moderate our passions. The account offered in TMS is often contrasted against the apparently amoral (or on some accounts, immoral) self-interest of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN).[i] Far from representing an inconsistency in Smith’s thought, however, Smith’s account of sympathy is perfectly compatible with his account of self-interest. Both are more complex and nuanced than many commentators give him credit for. 
Sympathy in Smith’s moral world acts much like self-interest in his economic world. Sympathy is the invisible hand supporting human social orders. For Smith, while sympathy helps to create social order it is always grounded in the individual, who sympathizes from his own subjective, but nevertheless socialized, viewpoint. Interactions between many imperfectly sympathetic individuals create a spontaneous moral order that makes other social and economic orders possible. 

Smithian sympathy and social order
Smith defines sympathy at the beginning of TMS as “fellow-feeling with any passion whatsoever.”[ii]  Sympathy is therefore an expansive sentiment that allows us to respond to the sorrow or joy of our companions. It allows us to feel, at least in part, what others are feeling. Smith’s sympathy is more than a simplistic nod to humanity’s “good” side. It is part of a concept of human nature characterized by mixed motives, in which individualism is both supported and challenged by group membership.  
Sympathy’s role in moderating the claims of the individual and the group is central to Smith’s understanding of how social orders are created and maintained. The sympathetic equilibrium between the observer and observed “may, it is evident, have such a correspondence with one another, as is sufficient for the harmony of society. Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required.”[iii]  Sympathy creates moral order by operating in both the observer and the observed to bring their passions into alignment with one another. The passion of the moment is moderated in the observer by virtue of the fact that no one can feel someone else’s sorrows or joys with the same intensity that she feels her own. As Smith notes, “Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned.”[iv] In other words, the secondhand nature of sympathy means that individuals feel for others, but always in a moderated, softened version of what they feel for themselves. 
The very presence of an observer in a way challenges the subjectivity of emotions in the person who is feeling them and being observed. She is forced to take a more objective viewpoint of her own joy or suffering. It is therefore the social environment itself that triggers the modulation between observer and observed and helps to create a kind of equilibrium between the two sets of feelings. This equilibrium is neither perfect nor complete, of course, but as noted earlier, the sentiments of the observer and observed “may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required.”[v]  Sympathy acts to moderate the passions of the person feeling them in another way as well. The sympathy of the observer in some sense alleviates some of the burden of the feeling itself.  We are social beings. We seek the sympathy of others and “nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast.”[vi] The presence of a sympathetic observer allows us to share our sorrows and joys with others, resulting in heightened joy or subdued grief.[vii] Sympathy is a powerful tool by which individual experiences become shared social events. 
Sympathy of course, is hardly a panacea. Sympathy is always countered by self-interest and by our own subjective assessments of our actions.  We are much kinder to ourselves than we ought to be, Smith argues. In fact, “This self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind, is the source of half the disorders of human life.”[viii]
Smith is, then, a realist about the possibility of both human virtue and the harmony of social orders. Humans will always feel more for themselves than for others, but through habit and education individuals learn to adjust their behavior to form part of a reasonably harmonious whole. As individuals practice this habit of moderating their responses while observing their effects, they gradually create what Smith calls the “impartial spectator” or the “man within the breast.” 

The impartial spectator can be used as a kind of moral yardstick to assess one’s own behavior against the sympathy or antipathy it’s likely to attract.[ix] The impartial spectator performs this function not by providing us with access to objective standards of virtuous behavior, but instead by offering a kind of “discovered” virtue, unearthed by watching how other humans behave and what kind of behavior is compatible with human social order.  This kind of virtue, because it starts with individual experience, is consistent with Smith’s bottom-up approach to the creation of order generally. 
Sympathy alone is inadequate for preserving moral orders indefinitely, particularly those that are complex and that require interactions among strangers. Other moral sentiments, like resentment for inflicted harms, provide humans with tools for self-defense when sympathy fails. But despite its incompleteness, sympathy forms the foundation for all social order, making it possible for family, neighbors, and friends to cooperate with each other with a minimum of external intervention.
Sympathy, combined with habit and self-interest, provides a way to moderate our passions and adjust our actions to fit those of our neighbors and friends. This gradually creates a kind of conformity of opinion and habit. This conformity allows the community to operate most of the time with little conflict. By moderating behavior, sympathy thereby allows those around us to predict the behavior of others. This predictability allows us to plan our lives.
Unlike early liberals, such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, for whom society is little more than a safety net to which humans flee out of fear, Smith believes that humans are profoundly social and born to live with other humans both out of need and desire.[x] The state of nature, insofar as it exists in Smith’s account, is less a state of “warre” and more a state of mostly peaceful interactions mediated by fellow-feeling. Fellow-feeling is itself supported by the desire of humans to be beloved, which in turn comes from man’s profoundly social nature.[xi] Social nature, in turn, is rooted in the sympathetic ability to feel what others are feeling.  Sympathy is how “man, who can subsist only in society, was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made.”[xii] In an important way in Smith’s system, society is the state of nature. Man is made for society, not driven into it.

Sympathy and Propriety
Sympathy links the individual and the social in another way as well. Sympathy is mediated not just by the observer’s relationship to the person feeling an emotion, but also through our feelings about which emotions are fitting and proper in what context—what Smith calls “propriety”. Smith argues that the propriety of a response can be found “[i]n the suitableness or unsuitableness, in the proportion or disproportion which the affection seems to bear to the cause or object which excites it.”[xiii] 
It is therefore not just the distance from an event that cools the observer’s reaction; the perceived propriety by the person of the reaction to grief or joy also affects their sympathetic response to it.[xiv] What is fitting or proper will depend in large part on broader group norms, and so propriety depends on the broader social order. A sympathetic response requires not only some affection with the person observed, but also the feeling that the observed person is feeling the right kinds of feelings at the right level and the right time. The link between sympathy and propriety is one of the main ways sympathy moderates our passions in a social environment. As social creatures, we want others to share our joys and sorrows, but in order to do so we must moderate our joys and sorrows to bring them down to a level that the observer can enter into, which requires that they be fitting for the occasion and in accordance with the practices of our community. 
The fact that the sympathetic response requires consideration of propriety ensures that behaviors are pulled to a kind of mean. Under the right circumstances, both the observer and observed move toward each other: “In order to produce this concord, as nature teaches the spectators to assume the circumstances of the person principally concerned, so she teaches this last in some measure to assume those of the spectators.”[xv]  The result is a conformity of feeling that helps create bonds between individuals and limits (but does not eradicate) conflict within a community. This sort of sympathetic equilibrium plays an important role in moderating not just the passions of individuals, but the claims of individuals and the claims of the community to which they belong. It balances subjective individual experiences against accepted social norms. 
An isolated individual without home or country would not bother moderating his joys or sorrows. All that matters from his perspective is his own subjective experience. Smith argues that “to a man who from his birth was a stranger to society, the objects of his passions, the external bodies which either pleased or hurt him, would occupy his whole attention.”[xvi] In contrast, if there existed some kind of objective standard of behavior one could appeal to, all individuals would share the same passions all the time.  
Smith rejects both the asocial individual and the perfectly harmonized society as starting points. Instead, he emphasizes the need for nature and habit to work together to balance conflicting claims: “to feel much for others and little for ourselves... to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, consititutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.”[xvii] The perfection of human nature, for Smith, is neither the triumph of self-interest nor the eradication of the individual, but the constant adjustment of the individual to make her self-interest compatible with the interests of the community.

Sympathy and Government
Smith is not utopian about how much agreement is created by sympathy. The invisible hand of sympathy does not create a social order without conflicts. According to Smith, sympathy is a more effective invisible hand in simpler societies than in complex ones because proximity is so important to our sympathetic feeling to others. Those we sympathize the most with—family, friends, and neighbors—are precisely those people who are most necessary for our happiness and whose happiness or unhappiness most directly affects our own. Sympathy and self-interest are therefore related. 
However, the relationship between sympathy and self-interest means that sympathy is less effective in large-scale societies where individuals interact frequently with strangers. Smith argues that in simpler societies, where property is limited and where individuals are presumably well known to each other, “civil government is not so necessary.”[xviii] Before the advent of complex societies and the resulting growth of trade, sympathy did most of what is required to moderate the passions and creates a relatively stable moral order.[xix] 
The limit of our sympathetic response is one reason that Smith argues not for an absence of government but for limited government. Precisely because the bonds of sympathy become less strong as individuals move outside their circle of family, friends, and acquaintances, government must administer justice when sympathy fails to do so. Government is necessary for a variety of reasons, Smith argues, not least of which is the administration of justice when sympathy fails. Private property encourages interactions between strangers through trade and represents a new temptation to injustice. Private property therefore requires oversight by the government because the sympathy that might prevent injustice is less strong among unknown individuals.

Sympathy and Liberty
What, then, is the link between sympathy and Smith’s overall theory of liberty?  In the first place, Smith’s sympathy is the foundation for the spontaneous moral order that makes all other orders possible. Without basic sympathy tying humans together, unmitigated self-interest would carry the day, passions would remain unmoderated, and conflicts would abound. Smith assumes that limited government is possible because cooperation is the default for most people most of the time. While Smith’s starting point is always the individual and her experiences, the individual is never left untethered to more objective notions of propriety or virtue. Sympathy creates a feedback loop that binds sentiments and behaviors to what is acceptable to our particular society and in social orders more broadly. 
Sympathy creates a bond between members of the group that is compatible with individual desires. As long as most people are living in groups with whom they sympathize either by habit or by necessity, such as family and neighbors, vice will be limited by the moderating effects of sympathy pulling everyone’s behavior toward the mean. No Leviathan is necessary to achieve basic cooperation.
Sympathy’s limitation forms the basis for a different argument for limited government. Because sympathy is limited to those we are connected to, Smith is doubtful about the success of benevolently motivated collective action. A person’s goals should be, for Smith, “[t]he care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country: that he is occupied in contemplating the more sublime, can never be an excuse for his neglecting the more humble department.”[xx] 
Individuals lack both the knowledge and the ability to benevolently help strangers en masse. More importantly, outside our circle of friends, family, and neighbors, sympathy and self-interest, rather than coinciding, begin to diverge. The sympathy that I feel toward a stranger is not enough to overcome the self-interest I might feel in cheating him. This is not the case with a friend, where my happiness is linked to his happiness in a way that makes self-interest and sympathy align. Moreover, sympathy itself is an imperfect link to objective standards of the good.  Humans do not, Smith argues, sympathize automatically with what is wise, virtuous and just. Sympathy is warped by admiration and ambition, particularly by wealth and greatness.[xxi]  This itself produces a kind of order by encouraging the creation of luxury, which in turns provides jobs (yet another link between the moral and economic orders in Smith’s work), but it also means that sympathy is not a simplistic stand-in for virtue itself.  By taking care of themselves, their families, their friends and neighbors, individuals support the creation of an order that assists strangers as well. The invisible hand of the sympathetic moral order connects with the self-interested motivator of the economic order to create a society where individuals, acting in their limited individual capacities, create good for those they cannot see or know without intending to do so. 
Widespread government intervention is both unnecessary and likely to do more harm than good because “in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own.”[xxii] These principles of motion are the interests individuals have in their own lives and the sympathy they feel for those closest to them. They limit the ability of legislators to impose top-down change while also making such top-down change largely unnecessary. Attempts by “the man of system”, as Smith calls him, to radically restructure society will be both unsuccessful and actively harmful. 
It is precisely because of the (albeit imperfect) harmony sympathy creates that government is free to deal with more limited but nevertheless important tasks such as maintaining a military and administering justice.[xxiii] Sympathy creates a moral order that begins with the individual while coordinating and harmonizing those individuals into a community. It is a moral order that grows from the bottom up, respects the importance of the individual, and relies on individual action rather than collective action to achieve most community goals. By creating this order, sympathy, for Smith, is the invisible hand that makes all other invisible hands possible.

*Readers may also be interested in Hall's essay, "Self-Interest Rightly Understood" at AdamSmithWorks.

[i] The perceived conflict in Smith’s works between a pro-social sympathy and an anti-social self-interest was highlighted by German theorists at the turn of the twentieth century who believed that this contrast was evidence of a rift in Smith’s thought, one they termed “Das Adam Smith Problem.”

[ii] Adam Smith, TMS, 10.

[iii] Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments: Glasgow Edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1976), 22. 

[iv] Smith, TMS, 21.

[v] Smith, TMS, 22.

[vi] Smith, TMS, 13.

[vii] Smith, TMS, 15.

[viii] Smith, TMS, 158.

[ix] Smith, TMS, 111.

[x] Smith, TMS, 9, 13.

[xi] Smith, TMS, 113

[xii] Smith, TMS, 85.

[xiii] Smith, TMS, 18.

[xiv] Smith, TMS, 18.

[xv] Smith, TMS, 22.   

[xvi] Smith, TMS, 110. 

[xvii] Smith, TMS, 25

[xviii] Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume 1, Vol. 1 edition (Indianapolis, Ind: Liberty Fund, 1982), 710.   

[xix] Smith, TMS, 14.

[xx] Smith, TMS, 237.

[xxi] Smith, TMS, 61.

[xxii] Smith, TMS, 234.

[xxiii] Smith, WN, Volume 1, 687.