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.
Chance governs the world.
It has some influence where we should be least willing to allow her any.
It directs mankind's feelings about themselves and 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.
There is a general maxim that as the event does not depend on the agent, the event should not influence our feelings, with regard to the merit or propriety or the agent's conduct.
Everyone agrees to this maxim
But when we come to particulars, we find that our sentiments do not exactly conform to this equitable maxim.
Any action's happy or unhappy effect:
gives us a good or bad opinion of its prudence, and
our gratitude or resentment almost always, and
our sense of the merit or demerit of its design.
25 Nature implanted the seeds of this irregularity in the human breast.
However, it seems, as on all other occasions, to have intended the species' happiness and perfection.
If the design's hurtfulness or the affection's malevolence alone caused our resentment, we would resent anyone who harbours such designs or affections, even if they had never done anything.
Feelings, thoughts, and intentions, would become the objects of punishment.
Every court of justice would become a real inquisition:
if mankind's indignation runs as high against suspicions as against actions, and
if the thought's baseness, which created no action, called aloud for vengeance as the baseness.
There would be no safety for the most innocent and circumspect conduct.
Bad wishes, bad views, bad designs, might still be suspected.
They would equally expose the person to punishment and resentment:
while these excited the same indignation with bad conduct, and
while bad intentions were as much resented as bad actions.
The Author of nature rendered only the following actions as the proper and approved objects of human punishment and resentment:
those which produce actual evil or attempt it, and
those which put us in the immediate fear of actual evil.
Human actions derive their whole merit or demerit from:
placed by the great Judge of hearts beyond the limits of every human jurisdiction, and
reserved for the cognizance of his own unerring tribunal.
The necessary rule of justice is that people are liable to punishment for their actions only and not for their designs and intentions.
It is founded on this salutary and useful irregularity in human sentiments on merit or demerit.
At first sight, this irregularity appears so absurd and unaccountable.
But when attentively surveyed, every part of nature equally demonstrates the Author's providential care.
We may admire God's wisdom and goodness even in man's weakness and folly.
26 This irregularity of sentiments is not useless.
The following appear imperfect:
the merit of an unsuccessful attempt to serve, and
the merit of mere good inclinations and kind wishes.
Man was made:
for action, and
by the exertion of his faculties, to promote such changes in the external circumstances of himself and others that may seem most favourable to everyone's happiness.
He must not:
be satisfied with indolent benevolence, nor
fancy himself as the friend of mankind just because he wishes well to the world's prosperity.
Nature has taught him that he and others cannot be fully satisfied with his conduct, nor applaud it unless he has actually produced them.
So that in this way, he might use his soul's whole vigour and strain every nerve to produce those ends which it is the purpose of his being to advance.
He is made to know, that the praise of good intentions, without the merit of good offices, will not the excite world's acclamations nor even the highest self-applause.
The man who has performed no important action is entitled to no very high reward, even if:
his whole conversation and deportment express the justest, noblest, and most generous sentiments, and
his uselessness was only due to the lack of an opportunity to serve.
We can still refuse it him without blame.
We can still ask him:
What have you done?
What actual service can you produce to entitle you to so great a recompense?
We esteem and love you, but we owe you nothing.
Only the most divine benevolence can insist to reward that latent virtue which has been useless only for lack of an opportunity to serve.
We cannot bestow on it those honours and preferments, even if it deserves them.
On the contrary, only the most insolent and barbarous tyranny would punish a person for having affections, when no crime has been committed.
The benevolent affections seem to deserve most praise when they do not wait until it becomes almost a crime for them not to exert themselves.
On the contrary, the malevolent cannot be too slow or deliberate.
27 It is even important that the unintended evil should be regarded as a misfortune to the doer and the sufferer.
Man is thereby taught to:
revere his brethren's happiness,
tremble lest he should, even unknowingly, do anything that can hurt them, and
dread that animal resentment which, he feels, is ready to burst out against him, if he should innocently be the unhappy cause of their calamity.
In the ancient heathen religion, holy ground should only be trod upon on solemn and necessary occasions.
The man who ignorantly violated it incurred the vengeance of that powerful and invisible being to whom it had been set apart, until proper atonement has been made.
So by the Nature's wisdom, the happiness of every innocent man is rendered holy and hedged round against the approach of every other man.
It is not to be wantonly trod on, nor ignorantly and involuntarily violated, without requiring some apology or atonement proportional to the greatness of such undesigned violation.
A man of humanity, who accidentally has killed another man, feels himself requiring atonement, but not guilty.
During his whole life, he considers this accident as one of his greatest misfortunes.
If the family of the slain is poor and he himself is not poor, he immediately:
takes them under his protection, and
without any other merit, thinks them entitled to every favour and kindness.
If they are in better circumstances, he tries to render them every good office which he can devise or they accept of:
by every submission, and
by every expression of sorrow,
in order to:
atone for what has happened, and
propitiate their, natural but most unjust resentment, for his great but involuntary offence.
28 The finest and most interesting scenes of the ancient and modern drama are about an innocent person's distress.
He had been led to do something which he did not know would expose him to the deepest reproach.
This fallacious sense of guilt constitutes the distress of:
Oedipus and Jocasta on the Greek theatre, and
Monimia and Isabella on the English theatre.
All of them need the most atonement, but not one of them are guilty.
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:
his innocence without consolation, nor
his virtue without reward.
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.
He summons up his whole magnanimity and firmness of soul.
He strives to regard himself, not as how he appears now, but as how he should appear:
had his generous designs been successful, and
if the men's sentiments were:
candid and equitable, or
even perfectly consistent with themselves.
Mankind's more candid and humane part entirely goes along with his effort to support himself in his own opinion.
They exert their whole generosity and greatness of mind to correct in themselves this irregularity of human nature.
They try to regard his unfortunate magnanimity as if it been successful.
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.
People will think it impossible that the sense of the demerit of vice, should be founded on resentment.
They might be more willing to admit that our sense of the merit of good actions is founded on a sympathy with the gratitude of the persons who receive their benefit.
This is because gratitude, and the other benevolent feelings, is regarded as an amiable principle.
It cannot reduce the value of whatever is founded on it.
However, gratitude and resentment are opposites.
If our sense of merit arises from a sympathy with the one, our sense of demerit must proceed from a fellow-feeling with the other.
Resentment is probably the most odious of all the passions.
But it is not disapproved of when:
properly humbled, and
entirely brought down to the level of the spectator's sympathetic indignation.
We bystanders must entirely approve of the sufferer's sentiments when:
we feel that our own animosity entirely corresponds with the sufferer's animosity,
the sufferer's resentment does not go beyond our own resentment,
no word, no gesture, escapes him that denotes an emotion more violent than what we can keep time to, and
he never aims at inflicting any punishment beyond what:
we should rejoice to see inflicted, or
we ourselves would even desire to be the instruments of inflicting.
In our eyes, our own emotion in this case must undoubtedly justify his.
Experience teaches us:
how much most of mankind are incapable of this moderation, and
how great an effort must be made to bring down the rude and undisciplined impulse of resentment to this suitable temper.
We cannot avoid admiring someone who appears capable of exerting so much self-command over one of the most ungovernable passions of his nature.
When the sufferer's animosity exceeds what we can go along with, we necessarily disapprove of it, since we cannot enter into it.
We even disapprove of it more than we should of an equal excess of almost any other passion derived from the imagination.
This too violent resentment becomes the object of our resentment and indignation, instead of carrying us along with it.
We enter into the opposite resentment of the person who is the object of this unjust emotion, and who is in danger of suffering from it.
Therefore, revenge, the excess of resentment, appears to be the most detestable of all the passions.
It is the object of everyone's horror and indignation.
And as in the way in which revenge commonly discovers itself among mankind, it is excessive a hundred times for once that it is moderate.
We consider it as altogether odious and detestable, because in its most ordinary appearances it is so.
However, even in mankind's present depraved state, Nature does not seem to have dealt so unkindly with us.
It did not endow us with any totally evil principle.
A totally evil principle is something that cannot be the proper object of praise and approbation in any way.
Revenge is generally too strong.
But sometimes, we may see that it can also be too weak.
We sometimes complain that a person shows too little spirit and has too little sense of the injuries that have been done to him.
We are as ready to despise him for the defect, as to hate him for excessive revenge.
The inspired writers would not surely have talked so frequently or strongly of God's wrath and anger if they had regarded their every degree as vicious and evil, even in so weak and imperfect a creature as man.
The present inquiry is not on a matter of right, but on a matter of fact.
We are not presently examining on what principles a perfect being would approve of the punishment of bad actions.
We are examining what principles man, a weak and imperfect a creature, actually and in fact approves of it.
The principles which I have just mentioned have a very great effect on his sentiments.
It seems wisely ordered that it should be so.
Society's very existence requires that unmerited and unprovoked malice should be restrained by proper punishments.
Consequently, that to inflict those punishments should be regarded as a proper and laudable action.
Man is naturally endowed with a desire of society's welfare and preservation.
Yet the Author of nature has not entrusted it to his reason to find out that a certain application of punishments is the proper means of attaining this end;
Instead, the Author has endowed man with an immediate and instinctive approbation of that very application which is most proper to attain it.
The oeconomy of nature is in this respect exactly of a piece with what it is upon many other occasions.
Nature's favourite ends are those with peculiar importance.
She has constantly endowed mankind with an appetite for:
the end she proposes.
the means by which this end alone can be brought about:
for their own sakes, and
independent of their tendency to produce it.
Thus self-preservation and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which Nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals
Mankind is endowed with:
a desire of those ends
an aversion to the contrary
a love of life
a dread of dissolution
a desire of the species' continuance and perpetuity
an aversion to the thoughts of its entire extinction.
We are endowed with a very strong desire of those ends.
But finding the proper means to realize those ends has not been entrusted to our reason's slow and uncertain determinations.
Nature has directed us to the most of these by original and immediate instincts.
Hunger, thirst, lust, the love of pleasure and the dread of pain, prompt us to:
apply those means for their own sakes, and
without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends intended by the great Director of nature.
Before I conclude this note, I must mention of a difference between:
the approbation of propriety and
the approbation of merit or beneficence.
Before we approve of anyone's sentiments as proper and suitable to their objects, we must:
be affected in the same way as he is, and
perceive this harmony and correspondence of sentiments between him and ourselves.
Thus, upon hearing of my friend's misfortune, I should precisely conceive his concern.
But I cannot be said to approve of his sentiments until:
I know how he behaves, and
I perceive the harmony between his emotions and mine.
Therefore, the approbation of propriety requires that we should:
entirely sympathize with the person who acts, and
perceive this perfect concord between his sentiments and our own.
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.
I regard it as meritorious and the proper object of reward.
Our sentiments with regard to the benefactor's merit cannot be altered whether his beneficiary feels gratitude or not.
No actual correspondence of sentiments is required here.
It is enough that if he was grateful, they would correspond.
Our sense of merit is often founded on one of those illusive sympathies.
For example, when we bring home to ourselves another's case, we are often affected in a way in which the person principally concerned is incapable of being affected.
There is a similar difference between our disapprobation of demerit, and that of impropriety.