A Mother’s Suffering through the Eyes of Adam Smith

sympathy theory of moral sentiments suffering fellow-feeling sympathetic imagination mothers children illness

Edward J. Harpham for AdamSmithWorks

The connections forged by sympathy among human beings can be life enhancing, as in the case of a mother’s feelings for a sick child. The mother’s fellow-feelings and experiences of the world motivates her to do something to lessen the child’s suffering which helps the child. There is a downside as well. 
How are we to understand “the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels?” Are the infant’s emotions being directly transferred to the mother like an infection being spread from one person to another or like a violin string vibrating in sympathy with another? Or is it something else entirely different, something grounded in the operations of the human imagination? Smith’s ingenious understanding of the human imagination and the operations of sympathy shed light on this all-too-human phenomenon.

In Chapter 1 of Part 1 in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith lays out his basic theory of sympathy, namely the human capacity to have fellow-feelings with the passions of others. However selfish a person might be, Smith believes that we are naturally interested in the suffering and happiness of other creatures. We do not have any immediate experience of the feelings of others. We develop an insight into other’s feelings only by imagining how we might feel if we were in their situation: 

“Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.” (TMS: 10) 

Through sympathy and the human imagination, we are naturally sociable creature who share our feelings, emotions, and passions with one another.

The emergence of fellow-feeling among adults interacting together thus appears to be relatively straightforward. As an attentive observer, I witness the pain and suffering (or joy and happiness) being experienced by another and imagine how I might feel in their situation. Analogous emotions or fellow- feelings arise at the thought of their situation and we emotively share our experiences together. We come to experience the world together.

But what about the pains that a mother feels when she hears the moaning of her sick child and sees the infant’s distress? Are the fellow-feelings that she has for this baby the same as those that she might for her sick husband? Note how different the husband’s emotional experience of being ill might be. The husband may be distraught knowing what the illness means for his present and future. The infant does not fully comprehend and remains blissfully ignorant of its present circumstances. 

Smith’s explanation of the fellow-feelings that a mother has for a sick child is complicated. The mother cultivates an understanding of what her child is suffering by observing its behavior and listening to its cries. She imagines what she would feel in the situation of the infant, but with an important caveat: As an adult, the mother emotionally experiences the idea of suffering differently than the blissfully ignorant infant. Through her imagination, she also brings to this idea of her child’s suffering three other ideas based on her own subjective view of the world: first, a deeper understanding of how helpless the infant is; second, a “consciousness of that helplessness;” and third, her own emotional response (“her own terrors”) to her assessment of the long-term consequences of the illness. (TMS: 12). The fellow-feeling of pain a mother experiences upon observing her child’s response to illness thus is ultimately a complex emotion “based upon the most complete image of misery and distress” made possible by the human imagination. 

The connections forged by sympathy among human beings can be life enhancing, as in the case of a mother’s feelings for a sick child. The mother’s fellow-feelings and experiences of the world motivates her to do something to lessen the child’s suffering which helps the child. There is a downside as well. Mature humans have an emotional attachment to the future through the imagination that infants do not. This sense of the future enables mothers (and fathers) to protect themselves and those placed under their care. At the same time, it sets the stage for unhappiness by heightening their appreciation of the precariousness of life in this world both for themselves and those that they love.  

The capacity for sharing fellow-feeling with others can be a blessing and a curse. Unlike adults, infants live in the present freed, for the most part, of the fears and anxieties of adults.  Smith writes, 

“The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regards to the future, it is perfectly secure, and its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an anecdote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.” (TMS: 12) 

For Smith, a mother’s feelings for her sick child tells us much about the powerful and potentially disturbing psychological forces that bind human beings together into a human community across generations.


Want to Read More?
Edward J. Harpham's Sympathy, Fellow-Feeling, and the Imagination | Adam Smith Works
Edward J. Harpham's Smith on Sympathy and the Loss of Reason | Adam Smith Works
Kevin Stucker, Sympathy and Spectatorship in Adam Smith: A Collection
Samuel Fleischacker’s Adam Smith, Chapter 4 “Sympathy” (Routledge 2021)
Charles Griswold, Jr.’s Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, Chapter 2 “Sympathy and Selfishness, Imagination and Self” (Cambridge 1999)
James R. Otteson’s Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life, Chapter 1 (Cambridge 2002)

For Teachers:
Dear Adam Smith: Impatience with Infants | Adam Smith Works
Read The Theory of Moral Sentiments Online at AdamSmithWorks
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