Chapter 3

How we judge the feelings of others

by Adam Smith Icon

Our own feelings is the measure or decider of our sympathy or non-sympathy with the feelings of others

20 When the feelings of the observee perfectly concords with the observer’s sympathies, they appear suitable to the observer.

  • On the contrary, when the observer finds that the observee’s feelings do not match his, they appear improper to him.

Therefore, approving another’s feelings is the same thing as entirely sympathizing with them.

  • Not approving of those feelings is the same thing as not entirely sympathizing with them.

The man who resents the injuries done to me will observe that I also resent them as he does.

  • He necessarily approves of my resentment.

The man who sympathizes with my grief, admits the reasonableness of my sorrow.

On all occasions, his own feelings are the standards and measures by which he judges of mine.

21 To approve of another man’s opinions is to adopt those opinions.

  • To adopt them is to approve of them.

If the same arguments which convince you also convince me, I necessarily approve of your conviction.

  • If they do not, I necessarily disapprove of it.

Therefore, to approve or disapprove of the opinions of others means to agree or disagree with our own. This is the same with our approval or disapproval of the feelings of others.

22 In some cases, we approve without any correspondence of feelings. The feeling of approval is different from the perception of this correspondence. However, our approval is ultimately founded on this kind of correspondence.

For example, from experience, we know what kind of pleasantry can make us laugh. We hear a joke and see most people laugh. We approve of their laughter, even if we do not laugh ourselves [have no correspondence], because we know that that laugh has pleasant causes [feeling of approval].

23 The same thing often happens with all the other passions.

A very sad stranger passes by on the street. We are told that he has just heard of his father’s death. We do not know him nor his father so we might not have sympathy [no correspondence]. However, we know from experience, that death naturally excites sorrow so we approve of his sorrow.

Our previous experiences of what feelings are proper and improper lead to general moral rules which correct our lack of sympathy.

The morality of an action depends on that action’s cause (proper/improper) and effect (merit/demerit)

24 The morality of a feeling has two relations*=

  • In relation to its cause or motive that creates the feeling
  • In relation to its end or effect which the feeling tends to produce

*Translator’s note= This is from Hume’s double relation of impressions and ideas

25 An action’s propriety or impropriety depends on the suitableness or unsuitableness of the feeling that caused it.

26 An action’s merit or demerit depends on the feeling’s beneficial or harmful aims.

  • A beneficial aim deserves reward
  • A harmful aim deserves punishment

27 Philosophers give little attention to the relation of the causes of the affections. In common life, however, we constantly judge any person’s conduct and motives under both cause and effect. When we blame another man’s excess of love, grief, or resentment, we consider=

  • its ruinous effects and
  • the little reason for it.

We say that=

  • his misfortune is not so dreadful to justify such a violent passion, and
  • we would approve of his violent emotion if the cause were proportional to it.

28 We use our own feelings to determine whether his feeling is proportional to its cause, .

  • We approve of them if we find them to be suitable
  • If otherwise, we disapprove of them

29 Each man measures the faculty of others according to his own faculty. I judge of=

  • your sight by my sight,
  • your ear by my ear,
  • your reason by my reason,
  • your resentment by my resentment, and
  • your love by my love.

I do this because I have no other way of judging your faculties.