Adam Smith on Moral Education

Jonathan Jacobs for AdamSmithWorks


October 16, 2019
Many great moral philosophers included important claims concerning moral education in their theories. This is certainly true of Plato, Aristotle, many of the medievals, Hume, Kant, and others. Their claims about moral education are often a reliable guide to what they think is most important in their anthropologies, in their conceptions of what human beings are like, what sorts of virtues are most significant, and how human beings can acquire virtues. Adam Smith also paid careful, nuanced attention to issues of moral psychology and moral education. He had a novelist’s eye for details of moral life and moral experience, and his reflections on those details present a rich and subtle appreciation of human sensibility. Also, if we keep in mind that The Theory of Moral Sentiments is, in large measure, based on lectures he was delivering to undergraduates—young men perhaps not yet sixteen years old—it helps us to see that it is a combination of observation, analysis, explanation, and prescription, indicating the contours of virtue and how they are to be formed by moral education.

For Smith, much of moral education is focused on the texture and suitability of various sentiments and reflection upon them, rather than, say, the inculcation of rules. Smith did indeed believe there are important moral rules but he also held that 
They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, or natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of. We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions; because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed, by finding from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of.  [1]

In Smith’s view moral education is not mainly a matter of learning rules of right action, though there are numerous such rules (do not steal; do not assault unprovoked; tell the truth; and so on). Rather, moral education is chiefly a matter of coming to have the sorts of dispositions and motivations such that the person acts rightly and does so reliably. This involves having certain forms of attention and receptivity, and also engaging in certain reflective exercises of imagination, those of an impartial spectator. Acting rightly is not a thoughtless matter of habit though certain (thoughtful) habits can be critically important to acting rightly.

Alexander Broadie has noted that, 
Smith regards us humans as beings in nature, as part of nature and appropriately to be investigated by a method-ology appropriate for the investigation of nature. Smith’s moral philosophy is in effect a form of natural philosophy and... for Smith, moral philosophy benefits from the systematic application of the experimental method of reasoning to moral subjects.”  [2]

Thus, Smith studied moral life empirically, but not just by reporting facts about it. Smith did not have an a priori conception of morality that he applied to facts about social and moral life. He considered the empirically rich and textured aspects of experience, interaction, and judgment and articulated a conception of them, disclosing their ethical significance. He presents an empirical but not merely descriptive anthropology, and his view of moral education is an important part of it. It is a naturalistic view insofar as it focuses on facts that are ascertainable empirically. But it is not merely descriptive because the facts themselves can be shown to be ethically significant. 

It was an important part of Smith’s view—and the views of the British Moralists generally—that human beings exhibit a natural sociability. They did not mean that persons are never selfish or even that they do not generally show a preference for their own interests. It is quite clear that people do generally give priority to their own ends and interests. Smith meant that people do not typically need to be argued into having concern for the wellbeing and interests of others, as though they have no inclination at all to have concern for others. People are not naturally so exclusively self-interested that taking others’ feelings, needs, and interests into account is contrary to their natural disposition. 

The ways that we are responsive to others, and the dispositions we develop regarding how we treat others depend on how we are habituated and what sorts of examples others set for us. Part of sociability is that we do not develop moral motives and attitudes entirely on our own, independent of others. We are always in society, even if it is only the domestic society of family. At the same time, one can only experience one’s own feelings directly. We can represent those of others through sympathetic reproduction, and we can consider the extent to which our sentiments are in agreement with those of others. Still, ultimately,
 Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another. I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason,  of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them.  [3]

Of course, he did not mean that a person simply expects others to have exactly the sentiments he or she has, and then concludes that others are mistaken if they do not have them. Nor did he mean that one’s own uncritical, spontaneous responses provide an appropriate measure of judgment. Instead, he meant that it is through our own sensibility that we judge others’ sentiments for appropriateness and their fittingness to their motivating causes, and to their ends or what they tend to bring about. This involves considering them from a perspective wider than just “this is how I feel.” However, even acknowledging the authority of the impartial spectator is something we are able to do so on the basis of our sentiments, not a criterion or principle that has some other source. Moral life and moral judgment are continuous negotiations involving the self, sympathetic appreciation of others’ situations, and responsiveness to impartiality. 

While one’s own sentiments are a crucial basis for making moral judgments the fact that a sentiment is one’s own does not imply that it is egoistic. It was not part of Smith’s view (or Hume’s or Mill’s or Reid’s) that a natural egoism needs to be somehow overcome in order for people to have a generalized concern for others. Of course one’s own interests are of the first importance and it is appropriate to expect a person to pursue his or her interests. But that does not mean that concern for others must somehow be extracted from what is otherwise strictly self-interest. Smith wrote, “Generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem, all then social and benevolent affections, when expressed in the countenance and behaviour, even toward those who are not peculiarly connected with ourselves, please the indifferent spectator upon almost every occasion.” [4] We find other people’s benevolent affections “agreeable” and we sympathize with them. “We enter into the satisfaction both of the person who feels them, and of the person who is the object of them.” [5] 

At the same time, Smith was alert to our bonds of special concern and affection with certain persons, on account of their importance in our lives. He said, “The man who should feel no more for the death or distress of his own father, or son, than for those of any other man’s father or son, would appear neither a good son not a good father. Such universal indifference, far from exciting our applause, would incur our highest disapprobation”. [6] The impartiality of moral judgment does not mean that everyone is to be regarded and treated in exactly the same ways.

Smith recognized a distinction between what we might call the respect owed to any individual as a member of the human community and the importance of a person on account of how that person figures in one’s life. Striving for impartial judgment does not require us to ignore the potentially very great difference between the importance of a family member, a lifelong friend, or a fellow soldier on the one hand, and complete strangers, or persons from far away lands on the other. That is not license to have no concern for the latter, but Smith had a realistic appreciation of the significance of proximity, and the types of partiality to be found in morality. 

That is a good example of the naturalism of Smith’s view. He took seriously facts about what human beings are actually like without settling for a very modest, undemanding notion of virtue. But it is empirically very implausible to insist, for example, that we should have exactly similar concern for every human being, whatever their presence or role—or absence from or remoteness from—our lives. That is in its own right an important insight to understand as part of one’s moral education.

Any social world will include a variety of contexts, and especially a social world in which there are extensive freedoms and a high level of voluntary interaction, as in the commercial society Smith saw developing in Britain. When individuals can buy and sell, and can enter into contractual relations, and are able to pursue their interests without these interactions being ordered in specific ways by the state, a complex, diverse civil society is likely to develop, reflecting the multitude and variety of persons’ interests and concerns. In diverse contexts there might be different norms, given what is important in that context. For example, the norms governing activity in a primary school differ in some respects from those in a manufacturing company, a ballroom dancing club, or the emergency services department of a city hospital. This does not mean they are all completely different. Many of the same values will be important in all of those contexts. But there are differences in how accountable decisions are made, in what the various responsibilities of persons are, and in how the purposes of each are fulfilled. One’s moral imagination is developed and enlarged through its exercise in multiple contexts. 

Smith was thinking about a society in which there is scope for initiative, the pursuit of a wide variety of ends and interests, and in which the arts, commerce, and industry exhibit dynamism rather than remaining fixed in certain patterns strictly limited by government, tradition, or both. Smith was thinking about the moral education of persons in a recognizably modern world, and he had a very subtle appreciation of the character of social relations and their role in shaping morality. Smith noted that “In estimating our own merit, in judging of our own character and conduct here are two different standards to which we naturally compare them.” [7] One is the ideal of propriety and perfection, and the other is the standard “commonly attained in the world, and which the greater part of our friends and companions, of our rivals and competitors, may have actually arrived at.” He goes on to say that the wise and virtuous person focuses on the former and is always refining and clarifying it, and endeavoring to realize it. 

Though the overall social world of Smith’s time still included status and privilege, in many respects it was also one in which the rights and liberties of individuals were important. While aristocratic taste and manners might still have an important social role the morality he described was democratic in a fundamental sense, giving each person’s sensibility and imagination a full complement of authority. When Smith wrote, “The man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence, may be said to be perfectly virtuous” [8] he was not confining the scope of that claim to the nobility. He was talking about the ideal of self-command all persons can strive to realize. [9]

In Smith’s view, there is an inevitably social, interactive dimension to the learning of moral concepts and acquisition of moral perspective. We can think of there being an integral role in moral education for what goes on between people; their forms of mutual regard, the ways they react to each other’s conduct and motives, and modes of sensibility that are unavoidably social or at least inter-subjective—without this being merely subjective.

Smith explores at length the forms of sympathy that are most significant in moral life, looking very carefully at how we respond to each others’ circumstances and responses to identify especially important aspects of those responses and what it is reasonable to expect of each other. He notes, for example, “we are still more anxious to communicate to our friends our disagreeable than our agreeable passions, that we derive still more satisfaction from their sympathy with the former than from that with the latter, and that we are still more shocked by the want of it.” [10] It is more important to us that they should sympathize with our resentments than that they should share our gratitude. This is indeed plausible; when we are ill-served or treated unjustly we expect friends to be angry on our behalf. If someone we thought was a true friend tells us that he or she is above indignation in such matters we would have grounds to wonder what they take friendship to mean. Smith undertakes a great deal of this kind of empirical yet theoretically articulated and integrated explanation of moral sentiments. This is a way of finding moral significance in the facts of life, we might say. The explanations he provides are illustrations of the sensibility and understanding of someone with a sound moral education. 

A key element of his view overall is that human beings are made for society, at least in the sense that our joys and sorrows and passions generally are the objects of approval and disapproval of others, and their response matters to us. Those responses bring into being a whole new set of passions beyond the first-order passions excited by various objects of a person’s thought. They bring into existence responses to how others respond to one’s passions, and a desire to be in agreement with others. As Smith says of a person, “Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before...it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind.”  In that respect there is an unavoidably social aspect to our own passions and self-evaluation. 

Moreover, Smith wrote:
Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favourable, and pain in their unfavourable regard. She rendered their approbation most flattering and most agreeable to him for its own sake; and their disapprobation most mortifying and most offensive. [12]

It is an important part of his view that generally, one “desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise.” [13] And, “Neither can we be satisfied with being merely admired for what other people are admired. We must at least believe ourselves to be admirable for what they are admirable. But, in order to attain this satisfaction, we must become the impartial spectators of our own character and conduct.” [14] Well ordered moral education is a training of sensibility and reflection to become and remain focused on what genuinely merits praise, and to steadily desire to be thought well of on account of one’s genuine virtues. That requires acting in the appropriate ways. It is not just a matter of appearances. 

In that respect Smithian moral education has a point very like Aristotelian moral education, and Smith’s notion of propriety has numerous affinities with Aristotle’s view of ethical virtue. Both centrally involve a shaping of the passions and sentiments in ways that avoid excesses and defects. This is very familiar in Aristotle but it is also true of the “kind of affective dialogue that Smith describes in his account of the process by which mutual sympathy is achieved.” [15] Smith himself wrote, “The propriety of every passion excited by objects peculiarly related to ourselves, the pitch which the spectator can go along with, must lie, it is evident, in a certain mediocrity.” [16] (By that Smith meant something like a mean.)

It is in that “affective dialogue” that the greatest part of moral education is achieved (or not). It is in the complex ways that we respond to others, and in the ways persons adjust and revise their feelings so that they are more in harmony with others that moral education occurs. Of course, various explicit forms of guidance and encouragement can be part of this. But a key point is that the very activity of participating in the multiple departments of social life in a society with a wider rather than narrower range of voluntariness is how we develop our moral understanding and awareness. The importance Smith attached to being in harmony with others and the distinctive pleasures that come from agreement in sentiments is evident and can be reinforced in any context of human activity. 

When moral education has succeeded persons have thoughtful, informed, prudent concern with their own interests while also valuing sympathetic union—a “correspondence of sentiments”—with others, along with a durable concern to see that justice is served. 

The man of real constancy and firmness, the wise and just man who has been thoroughly bred in the great school of self-command...He does not merely affect the sentiments of the impartial spectator. He really adopts them. He almost identifies himself with, he almost becomes himself that impartial spectator, and scarce even feels but as the great arbiter of his conduct directs him to feel. [17]

The aspiration for moral education is within the scope of any person’s moral imagination as long as that person has not been corrupted in quite extraordinary ways. The process of moral education occurs through the ordinary business of leading a life in a social world shaped by human activity, purposes, and an abiding interest in having sentiments in harmony with those of others. 







[1] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. D.D. Raphael, A. L. Macfie, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1985, III. 4.8., p. 159.
[2] Alexander Broadie, “Aristotle, Adam Smith and the Virtue of Propriety,” The Journal of Scottish Philosophy, 8 (1), 79-89, 2010, p. 88.
[3]  Smith, TMS, I.i,3.10, p. 19.
[4] Ibid., I.ii.4.1, pp. 38-9.
[5]  Ibid., p. 39.
[6] Ibid., III.3.13, p, 142.
[7]  Ibid., VI.iii.23, p. 247.
[8] Ibid., p. 247.
[9]  Ibid., VI.iii.1, p. 237.
[10] Ibid., I.i 2.3., p. 15.
[11]  Ibid., III.1.3, p. 110.
[12] Ibid., III.2.6, p. 116.
[13] Ibid., III.2.1, p. 114.
[14] Ibid., III.2.2, p. 114.
[15] Broadie, p. 83.
[16] Ibid., I.ii.intro.I, p. 27.
[17] Ibid., III.3. 25, pp. 146-7.