Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 7, Section 2, Chapter 4: Licentious Systems

Chapter 4: Licentious Systems

93 All those systems I have given an account of, suppose that there is a real and essential distinction between vice and virtue.


94 It might be true that some of them:

The ancient systems which place virtue in propriety chiefly recommend the virtues of self-government and self-command.


95 On the other hand, the benevolent system very highly fosters all those milder virtues.


96 The benevolent system makes virtue consist only in prudence.


97 Despite these defects, those three systems generally encourage the human mind's best habits.


Dr. Mandeville's System of Vanity

98 Dr. Mandeville's system is another system which totally removes the distinction between vice and virtue.


99 He considers whatever done from a sense of propriety as being done from vanity or from a love of praise and commendation.


100 I shall not presently examine whether the most generous and public-spirited actions proceed from self-love.


101 These three passions are widely different:

  1. The desire of rendering ourselves the proper objects of honour and esteem, or of becoming what is honourable and estimable
  2. The desire of acquiring honour and esteem by really deserving those sentiments
    • These first two are always approved of.
  3. The frivolous desire of praise at any rate
    • This third desire is always despised.

However, there is a certain remote affinity among them which was exaggerated by Dr. Mandeville through his humorous and diverting eloquence.

102 There is an affinity too between:

They resemble one another.

103 Dr. Mandeville is not satisfied with representing vanity as the source of all virtuous actions.

104 His book's great fallacy was to represent every passion as totally vicious in any degree.

  • He bestows such scornful names on such qualities.
  • The real foundation of this licentious system was the popular ascetic doctrines before his time.
  • It was easy for Dr . Mandeville to prove:
    1. That this entire conquest never actually took place among men
      • With this, he seemed to prove that:
        • there was no real virtue
        • what pretended to be virtue was a mere cheat and imposition on mankind
    2. That if it took place universally, it would be harmful to society
      • It would end all industry and commerce and the whole business of human life.
      • With this he seems to prove that private vices were public benefits, since without them, no society could prosper or flourish.
  • 105 Such is Dr. Mandeville's system.

    106 No matter how destructive this system may appear, it could never have imposed on so many people nor have alarmed those who are the friends of better principles, had it not bordered on the truth.

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    Next: Chapter 1: Self-love