Chapter 4

How we judge Relative to Our Ego

by Adam Smith Icon

When can we make moral judgements on others?

30 We may make moral judgments on two occasions.

1. When the cause of such feelings are unrelated to us or the other person

31 In this case, we ascribe goodness to the other person if his feelings correspond to ours. The following are unrelated to the ourselves nor to the other person=

  • the beauty of a plain
  • the greatness of a mountain
  • the ornaments of a building
  • the expression of a picture
  • the conduct of a third person
  • all the subjects of science and taste

He and I both look at them from the same point of view. We have no occasion for sympathy. We may feel differently for such objects because of=

  • the different level of attention which we give to those objects, from our different habits, and
  • the different levels of natural acuteness of our minds

32 When our friend’s feelings easily coincide with our own, we think that he deserves no praise.

  • But he appears deserving of much praise when his feelings=
    • coincide with our own, and
    • lead our own feelings.

This is especially true when=

  • he attends to many things which we had overlooked, and
  • shows uncommon acuteness and comprehensiveness.

Admiration is approval heightened by wonder and surprise. Applause is the natural expression of admiration.

A man must certainly be approved of by all the world if he judges that=

  • beauty is preferable ugliness, or
  • 2 x 2 = 4

But he surely will not be much admired.

Our admiration is deserved by=

  • the acute and delicate discernment of he who can distinguish the minute differences of beauty and ugliness,
  • the comprehensive accuracy of the experienced mathematician who easily unravels the most perplexed proportions, and
  • the great leader in science who directs our own feelings.
    • His wide and superior talents astonish us.

The praise for the intellectual virtues is based on this admiration.

33 The utility of those qualities first recommends those people to us and gives those people a new value. Originally, however, we approve of another man’s judgment, not as something useful, but as something right and agreeable to truth and reality. We approve of another person only because they agree with our own.

In the same way, taste is originally approved of, not as useful, but as being suitable to its object. Its utility comes afterwards as an afterthought.

2. When the cause of such feelings affect us

34 In this case, it is more difficult to preserve this harmony and correspondence. My friend does not naturally look on my misfortune in the same way I do. My misfortunes affect me much more. We do not view them from the same station, as we do a picture, a poem, or a system of philosophy. Therefore, we are affected by them very differently.

But I can much more easily overlook his lack of correspondence with my sentiments about such indifferent objects which concern neither of us, than with objects which interest me so much. You might hate the poem or belief that I admire. But we do not quarrel about it as we both are not much interested in them.

But it is otherwise with objects which affect you or me directly and your judgments are opposite to mine. If I can control my temper, we might be able to talk about it. But if you have no fellow-feeling for my misfortunes, injuries, resentment, or my grief, then we cannot talk about these subjects and we become intolerable to one another.

35 In all such cases, there might be some correspondence of feelings between the observer and the observee. First of all, the observer must put himself in the observee’s situation. He must=

  • bring home to himself every little distress of the observee,
  • adopt the whole case of his friend with all its details, and
  • recreate in his imagination the suffering which his sympathy is founded on.

36 After all this, the observer’s feelings will still fall short of what is felt by the sufferer. Mankind is naturally sympathetic because we can never exactly conceive the feelings in the sufferer. Sympathy is done through that imaginary, but momentary, change of situation.

We always think=

  • of our own safety, and
  • that we ourselves are not the real sufferers.

These thoughts hinder us from having exactly the same feelings. The observee knows this and so he=

  • desires a more complete sympathy.
  • longs for that relief which can only be brought by the entire concord of the observers’ affections

His sole consolation is seeing our hearts beat in time to his own during those disagreeable feelings. He can only hope to obtain this by lowering his feelings to the level allowed by the observers. He must flatten the sharpness of its natural tone, in order harmonize it with the emotions of the observers.

What they feel will always be different from what he feels. Compassion can never be exactly the same with original sorrow because of the secret awareness that the conceived suffering is=

  • only imaginary,
  • lower in degree, and
  • quite different.

The imagination of observer and the voluntary reduction of observee’s passion, may correspond with one another. This correspondence is enough for the harmony of society. Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords. This is all that is required.

37 To produce this concord, nature teaches the observers to assume the circumstances of the observee just as she teaches him to assume the circumstances of the observers.

  • The observers are continually placing themselves in the situation of the observee to conceive similar emotions.
    • They are constantly considering what they themselves would feel if they were the sufferers.
    • The sympathy of the observers makes them look at the sufferer’s misfortune through his eyes.
  • The observee is also constantly placing himself in the situation of the observers.
    • The sufferer is as constantly led to imagine how he would be affected if he was an observer of his own situation.
    • The sufferer’s sympathy makes him look at his suffering through the eyes of the observers.
      • The reflected passion he conceives is much weaker than his own original passion.
      • It necessarily abates the violence of what he felt before he was observed.
      • He begins to view his own situation in this candid and impartial light.


38 Friends restore the mind to some degree of tranquility and sedateness. The breast is calmed and composed the moment our friends come.

  • We immediately remember how they will view our situation.

The effect of sympathy is instantaneous.

  • We expect less sympathy from a common acquaintance than from a friend.
    • We cannot tell to an acquaintance everything that we can tell our friends.
    • We therefore assume more tranquility before an acquaintance.
    • We fix our thoughts on our general situation which he is willing to consider.
    • We compose ourselves more in the presence of a mere acquaintance than that of our friend.
  • We expect still less sympathy from strangers.
    • We therefore, assume still more tranquility before them.
    • We always bring down our passion to what strangers are expected to go along with.
    • We compose ourselves still more in the presence of strangers than that of an acquaintance.

39 Therefore, society and conversation are=

  • the most powerful remedies bringing peace to the, and
  • the best preservatives of that equal and happy temper necessary for self-satisfaction.

Speculators and retired men who sit brooding at home over grief or resentment seldom possess that equality of temper which is so common among men of the world.

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