Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 2, Section 3, Chapter 3: The Cause of the Irregularity of Feelings

Chapter 3: The Cause of the Irregularity of our Moral Feelings on the outcome of actions

Our irregularity in our moral feelings based on the outcome is caused by Nature trying to preserve our physical well-being without the uneeded psychological troubles

24 Such is the effect of an action's consequences on its doer and on others.

In all ages, the complaint and the great discouragement of virtue is that the world judges by the event and not by the design.

Any action's happy or unhappy effect:


25 Nature implanted the seeds of this irregularity in the human breast.

The Author of nature rendered only the following actions as the proper and approved objects of human punishment and resentment:

Human actions derive their whole merit or demerit from:

These are:

The necessary rule of justice is that people are liable to punishment for their actions only and not for their designs and intentions.


26 This irregularity of sentiments is not useless.

Nature has taught him that he and others cannot be fully satisfied with his conduct, nor applaud it unless he has actually produced them.

The man who has performed no important action is entitled to no very high reward, even if:

Only the most divine benevolence can insist to reward that latent virtue which has been useless only for lack of an opportunity to serve.


27 It is even important that the unintended evil should be regarded as a misfortune to the doer and the sufferer.


28 The finest and most interesting scenes of the ancient and modern drama are about an innocent person's distress.


29 Despite these seeming irregularities of sentiment, if man unfortunately causes those unintended evils, or fail to produce the intended good, Nature has not left:

He then calls to his assistance that just and equitable maxim, that those events which did not depend upon our conduct should not reduce the esteem that is due to us.


Notes for this chapter

To most people, ascribing our natural sense of the demerit of actions to a sympathy with the sufferer's resentment is a degradation of that feeling.

  • Resentment is probably the most odious of all the passions.
  • However, even in mankind's present depraved state, Nature does not seem to have dealt so unkindly with us.
  • Revenge is generally too strong.

    Before I conclude this note, I must mention of a difference between:

    Before we approve of anyone's sentiments as proper and suitable to their objects, we must:

    Thus, upon hearing of my friend's misfortune, I should precisely conceive his concern.

    On the contrary, when I hear of another person receiving benefit and, by bringing his case home to myself, I feel gratitude in my own breast, I necessarily approve of his benefactor's conduct.

    Our sense of merit is often founded on one of those illusive sympathies.

    3. Lata culpa prope dolum est. 4. Culpa levis. 5. Culpa levissima.
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    Next: Chapter 1: Self-Approbation