The Theory of Moral Sentiments (selection)


Smith, Adam


Book Excerpt


The Scottish moral philosopher and political economist Adam Smith is best known for his book The Wealth of Nations (1776), which virtually created the field of economics. It was, however, an earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that made him famous in his own day for suggesting that our moral sense--our sense of right and wrong--is innate. The passage given here is the first two chapters of that work (Part I, section I, chapters I and II). In this selection, Smith claims that we have a natural, innate sympathy with others that comes from our imagination, so that "by changing places in fancy with the sufferer" we are able to imagine how she feels. But there are limits to this sympathy: for example, Smith claims that we do not feel it for passions such as anger, and that "even our sympathy with the joy or grief of another" rests on our knowing the cause of that joy or grief. Smith's analysis raises questions about the role of sympathy--and its limits--in our civic activity or service work.

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The Civically Engaged Reader, eds. Adam Davis & Elizabeth Lynn (Great Books Foundation, 2006), pages 46-53.




Connection and RelationshipLove and Compassion

Big Questions

What makes it possible for us to connect to others? What gets in the way?Why is connection important? What does it enable? What does it impede?How does a person learn compassion?What prevents us from being compassionate?


Civically Engaged Reader

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. In Smith’s view, how do we relate our feelings to the feelings of others?
  2. How, according to Smith, are imaginative people more compassionate? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  3. How does awareness of someone’s compassion for us alleviate our suffering, according to Smith?
  4. Do you agree with Smith that our disposition and current situation affect our abilities to feel compassion for other people?
  5. What role does compassion play in your own work?
  6. What prevents us from being compassionate?
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