By Adam Smith
About The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Written in 1759 by Scottish philosopher and political economist Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments provides much of the foundation for the ideas in his later works, most notably in The Wealth of Nations. Through this initial text, Smith expresses his general system of morals, exploring the propriety of action, reward and punishment, sense of duty, and the effect of numerous factors on moral sentiment. In so doing, Smith devised innovative theories on virtues, conscience, and moral judgment that are still relevant and accessible today. Though somewhat surprising to find a philosopher of Smith's abilities discussing aspects such as luck and sympathy and how they affect self-image or relationships, The Theory of Moral Sentiments never loses its critical excellence in its good-natured understanding of the human exploration for the meaning of being good.
Amartya Sen on New Statesman wrote:
"For many, Adam Smith is still a great inspiration. Even more people have at last heard of Smith’s most famous book, The Wealth of Nations (1776). But that book gives a one-sided view of his position. [...] If people base their position in the free market debate on Adam Smith, they should consider his complete body of thought and not shop around selectively."
"[...] since the ideas presented in The Wealth of Nations have been interpreted largely without reference to the framework already developed in Moral Sentiments (on which Smith draws substantially in the later book), the typical understanding of The Wealth of Nations has been constrained, to the detriment of economics as a subject. The neglect applies, among other issues, to the appreciation of the demands of rationality, the need for recognising the plurality of human motivations, the connections between ethics and economics, and the codependent rather than free-standing role of institutions in general, and free markets in particular, in the functioning of the economy.
Summary of Main Ideas in The Theory of Moral Sentiments
An 8-minute video. Alternatively, or in addtion, you may want to take a look at this short summary of the book by the Adam Smith Institute (a UK free markets think tank).
- Adam Smith's Moral and Political Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Interview with economist and business ethicist Johan Graafland about the book (Moral Markets book interviews)
- "What Would the Impartial Spectator Do?" (short essay on the book by professor of politics Joseph Knippenberg at Law and Liberty, 13 February 2019)
Table of Contents of The Theory of Moral Sentiments
- Part I - Of the Propriety of Action
- Part II - Of Merit and Demerit, or, of the Objects of Reward and Punishment
- Part III - Of the Foundation of Our Judgments Concerning Our Own Sentiments and Conduct, and of the Sense of Duty
- Part IV - Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation
- Part V - Of the Influence of Custom and Fashion upon the Sentiments of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation
- Part VI - Of the Character of Virtue
- Part VII - Of Systems of Moral Philosophy