Chapter 2

The Extent of the Influence of Outcome

by Adam Smith Icon

14 When an action, coming from good intentions:

  • fails to achieve its expected outcome, our sense of its merit is also reduced
  • exceeds its expected outcome, our sense of its merit is increased

When an action, coming from bad intentions=

  • fails to achieve its expected outcome, our sense of its demerit is also reduced.
  • exceeds its expected outcome, our sense of its demerit is increased.

15 A friend is someone whom we can ask for favors. He seems deserves our love and affection. A patron or benefactor is someone who provides a favor us when we ask for it. He is entitled to our respect and gratitude.

People can have sympathy with our friendhip even if we think that we are on a level with our friend. But people cannot have sympathy with our gratitude if we do not feel inferior to our benefactor.

When a person tries to help us but fails, people commonly say that we should be grateful both to=

  • the man who has tried to help us
  • the man who actually helped us.

Like all fine speeches, this must be understood with a grain of allowance. A generous man may often have the same affection for=

  • the friend who fails and
  • the friend who succeeds.

The more generous he is, the more those two affections match.

It gives more pleasure to be esteemed by esteemed people. Accordingly, with all things equal, we will have more favour with our friend who succeeds than our friend who fails. Mankind is so unjust in this respect that people think that we should have more gratitude to some benefactors than others.

Let us say that a benefector has the best intentions to help. Yet he could actually do no more than to help so little, relative to others. People say that we are not obliged to be grateful to him since, had it not been for the help of others, his own effort to help would be fruitless. People imagine that this should reduce the debt they owe to him, even in the eyes of the impartial spectator.

The person who has unsuccessfully tried to help does not have:

  • the same dependence on the gratitude of the man he was trying to help
  • the same merit that would have been gained if he actually helped

16 If an accident hinders the successful outcome of an endeavor, the merit of the talents and abilities that created that endeavor seems imperfect even to those who know of such talent.

If a general is hindered by his ministers’ envy from winning a battle against his country’s enemies, the general will forever regret the lost opportunity.

He regrets that he was hindered from doing something which would have added a new lustre to his character. His plan was never executed, and so it does not matter whether:

  • the plan was totally dependent on him
  • execution was more important than the planning
  • he could execute it
  • success was guaranteed.

He might deserve the approbation due to his great design. But he still lacks the actual merit of having deployed it. It is an injustice to take away the management of public affairs from the man who has almost succeeded in it. We think that he should earn the complete merit since he has already done so much.

Lucullus was not permitted by Pompey to finish Lucullus’ conquest. Pompey was thought to come in on Lucullus’ victories and gather those laurels due to Lucullus’ fortune and valour. Lucullus’ conduct and courage had allowed almost anyone else to finish the conquest.

It mortifies an architect when his plans are=

  • not executed at all or
  • so far altered as to spoil the building’s effect

The plan, however, all depends on the architect. His genius is, to good judges, as completely discovered in his plan as in the actual execution. But a plan does not give the same pleasure as a magnificent building, even to the most intelligent. The beauty of the plan never approaches to the wonder and admiration excited by the building. We may believe that=

  • the talents of many men are superior to those of Caesar and Alexander
  • those other men would perform greater actions in the same situations

However, we do not admire them as we admire Caesar and Alexander. We might admire them more upon calm reflection. But they lack the splendour of great actions to dazzle our mind. The superiority of virtues and talents has not the same effect with the superiority of achievements, even on those who acknowledge that superiority.


17 In the eyes of ungrateful mankind, failure reduces:

  • the merit of an unsuccessful attempt to do good
  • the demerit of an unsuccessful attempt to do evil

The design to commit a crime, no matter how clearly proven, is never punished as severely as the actual crime. Treason is perhaps the only exception as it immediately affects the government itself. The government is naturally most jealous of it.

  • In the punishment of treason, the sovereign resents the injuries immediately done to himself.
  • In the punishment of other crimes, the sovereign resents the injuries done to others.

Therefore in treason, he judges in his own cause. He is often more violent in his punishments than the impartial spectator can approve of. His resentment too rises here on smaller occasions. It does not need to even wait for crime. In many countries, a treasonable plan or conversation, which does nothing, is punished as the actual treason. But with other crimes, the mere design is seldom punished at all.

A criminal design and a criminal action do not necessarily suppose the same degree of depravity. Therefore, they should not be subjected to the same punishment. We can think of doing many things which we eventually do not perform.

The man who fires a pistol at his enemy but misses, is rarely punished with death by the laws of any country. By the old law of Scotland, an assassin is not liable to be executed if his victim does not die within a certain time. Nevertheless, mankind’s resentment runs so high against this crime that its mere attempt should be capital in all countries.

The attempt to commit smaller crimes is=

  • almost always punished very lightly, or
  • sometimes is not punished at all.

The thief is only punished with ignominy if his hand has been caught in his neighbour’s pocket before taking anything. If he took away a handkerchief, he would have been put to death. The house-breaker is not given capital punishment if he has been found setting a ladder to his neighbour’s window but had not gotten inside.

The attempt to ravish is not punished as a rape. The attempt to seduce a married woman is not punished at all, though seduction is punished severely. Our resentment against the man who only tried to do wrong is not as strong as our resentment if he actually did wrong.

  • In the former, the joy of avoiding wrong alleviates our sense of his intention’s atrocity
  • In the latter, the grief of misfortune increases it

However, his real demerit is the same in both cases, since his intentions were equally criminal. In this respect therefore, there is=

  • an irregularity in everyone’s feelings, and
  • a consequent relaxation of discipline in the laws of all nations, whether civilized or barbarous.

The humanity of a civilized people disposes them to mitigate punishments whenever the crime fails to materialize. Barbarians, on the other hand, are not very inquisitive on the motives of crimes that never really take place.

18 A person might resolve to commit a crime from passion or from bad influences. But if an accident prevents him from doing so and if he has a conscience, he regards the failure as a great deliverance for the rest of his life. He thanks Heaven for=

  • saving him from the guilt he was just ready to plunge himself in
  • hindering him from living the rest of his life in horror, remorse, and repentance

His hands might be innocent, but his heart is guilty for wanting to do the crime. The non-execution of this crime, however, greatly eases his conscience. He still considers himself as less deserving of punishment. This good outcome reduces or removes all sense of guilt. Remembering how determined he was to commit the crime makes him regard his escape as more miraculous.

19 The second effect of this influence of outcome is to increase our sense of:

  • the merit of actions when they cause extraordinary pleasure
  • the demerit of actions when they cause extraordinary pain

An action’s good consequences often throw a shadow of merit on its actor, even if his intention did not deserve praise. An action’s bad consequences often throw a shadow of merit on its actor, even if his intention did not deserve blame.

Thus, even the messenger of bad news is disagreeable to us. On the contrary, we are grateful to the man who brings us good tidings. We look onto them as the authors of our fortune. We see them as if they had caused the events they reported. The messenger who gives us joy is naturally the object of our transitory gratitude. We would be glad to reward him for his service. By the custom of all courts, the officer who brings the news of a victory is entitled to considerable preferments. The general always chooses one of his favourites for such an errand.

On the contrary, the messenger who brings us sorrow is the object of our transitory resentment. We can scarce avoid looking on him with chagrin and uneasiness. The rude and brutal often vent on him that spleen which his intelligence gives occasion to.

Tigranes was the king of Armenia. He executed anyone who brought him the first account of the approach of a formidable enemy. To punish the bringer of bad tidings in this way seems barbarous and inhuman. Yet, to reward the messenger of good news, is not disagreeable to us.

Why do we make this difference? Why is the messenger either great or at fault for bringing the news?

It is because any reason is enough to authorize the exertion of the social and benevolent affections. But the most substantial reason is needed to make us sympathize with the unsocial and malevolent affections.

Intentional Negligence Deserves Rebuke

20 Generally, we are averse to enter into the unsocial and malevolent affections. When one man’s negligence unintentionally damages another person, we generally enter into the sufferer’s resentment. We approve of him punishing the offender much beyond what the offence deserved.

21 A level of negligence deserves rebuke even if it causes no damage to anybody. A man is rebuked if he throws a large stone onto a public street without warning those passing by and without regarding where it would fall. A very accurate police would punish it even if it did no mischief because the man is guilty of real injustice by not having a sense for the happiness and safety of others.

This sense is the basis of justice and society. Therefore to the law, gross negligence is almost equal to malicious intent.*3 When bad consequences arise from such carelessness, the guilty person is often punished as if he had really intended those consequences. It is considered as atrocious and as liable to the severest punishment.

If he accidentally kills a man by throwing that large stone, then he is liable to capital punishment in the laws of many countries, particularly by the old law of Scotland. This is excessively severe, but is consistent with our natural feelings. Our just indignation against his folly and inhumanity is exasperated by our sympathy with the deceased man. However, our natural sense of equity would be shocked to have such a careless stone-thrower executed.

The severity of the laws of almost all nations against such negligent crimes proves how much the indignation, even of the spectator, is animated by the action’s outcome.

Unintentional Negligence Deserves Blame

22 Unintentional negligence does not involve any injustice. A person who is not so careful as he should be deserves some blame but no punishment. Yet by the laws of all countries, if his carelessness causes some damage to another person then he must compensate it.

This is a real punishment which could only exist from bad luck leading to such damage. Yet this is approved by mankind’s natural feelings. We think that:

  • it is most just that one man should not suffer by another’s carelessness, and
  • the damage caused by blamable negligence should be made up by the guilty person.

Negligence from Fear Also Deserves Blame

23 Negligence from fear consists merely in timidity and the lack of circumspection. The lack of this painful attention, when no bad consequences follow from it, is not as blamable. But it is blamable if it produces bad consequences.

That timid circumspection, which is afraid of everything, is never regarded as a virtue but as a quality which incapacitates us for action and business.

Yet if a person damages another from a lack of this excessive care, he is often obliged to compensate it by the law. According to the Aquilian law, if a man is not able to manage his horse which becomes accidentally frightened and rides down his neighbour’s slave, he must compensate the damage.


  • think that he should not to have ridden such a horse, and
  • regard his attempt as an unpardonable levity.

Without this accident we would:

  • not have made such a reflection
  • regard his refusal to control his horse as the effect of=
    • fearful weakness, and
    • a useless anxiety of possible events.

The person who accidentally hurts another naturally runs to the sufferer to express his concern. If he has any sensibility, he would want to compensate the damage and do everything to appease that animal resentment which he knows will arise in the sufferer’s breast. It is the highest brutality to make no apology nor atonement. Yet why should he apologize when he is equally innocent? Not even the impartial spectator would feel for the unjust resentment of that other person.


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