Chapter 3

The Cause of the Irregularity of our Moral Feelings on the outcome of actions

by Adam Smith Icon

The irregularity in our moral feelings on the outcome is caused by Nature trying to preserve our physical well-being without the uneeded psychological troubles

Superphysics note: This part resembles Socrates’ argument in the Republic

24 Such is the effect of an action’s consequences on its doer and on others.


  • governs the world
  • has some influence where we should be least willing to allow her any
  • directs mankind’s feelings about themselves and others.

In all ages, the complaint and the great discouragement of virtue is that the world judges by the outcome and not by the intention. There is a general maxim that as the outcome does not depend on the doer, the outcome should not influence our feelings, with regard to the morality of the doer’s conduct.

Everyone agrees to this maxim. But when we come to particulars, we find that our feelings do not exactly conform to this equitable maxim. Any action’s happy or unhappy effect:

  • gives us a good or bad opinion of its prudence, and
  • animates:
    • our gratitude or resentment almost always, and
    • our sense of the merit or demerit of its design.

25 Nature implanted the seeds of this irregularity in the human breast. However, as on all other occasions, it did this with the intention of our species’ happiness and perfection.

If terrible planning or malevolent affections alone could trigger our resentment, then we would resent anyone who has such designs or affections even if they were never executed.

Feelings, thoughts, and intentions, then would become the objects of punishment. Every court of justice would become a real inquisition:

  • if the people’s hatred on suspected bad intentions would be the same as their hatred against actual actions, and
  • if a thought’s baseness, which created no action, called aloud for vengeance.

There would be no safety for the most innocent conduct. Bad wishes, bad views, bad designs, might still be suspected and these would lead to people being punished. The Author of nature rendered only the following actions as the proper objects of punishment and resentment:

  • those which produce actual evil, and
  • those which put us in the immediate fear of actual evil.

Human actions derive their whole merit or demerit from feelings and intentions.

These are:

  • placed by the great Judge of hearts beyond the limits of human jurisdiction, and
  • reserved for the cognizance of His own unerring tribunal.

The necessary rule of justice is that people are punished for their actions only, not for their designs or intentions. It is founded on this salutary and useful irregularity in human feelings on merit or demerit.

At first sight, this irregularity appears so absurd and unaccountable. But when attentively surveyed, nature demonstrates the Author’s providential care. We may admire God’s wisdom and goodness even in man’s weakness and folly.

The Purpose of the Irregularity is to Create Action

26 This irregularity of feelings is not useless.

The following appear imperfect:

  • the merit of an unsuccessful attempt to help, and
  • the merit of mere good inclinations and kind wishes.

Man was made:

  • for action, and
  • by the exertion of his faculties, to promote changes in everyone’s external circumstances most favourable to everyone’s happiness.

He must not:

  • be satisfied with indolent benevolence, nor
  • fancy himself as the friend of mankind just because he wishes well.

Nature has taught him that other people cannot be fully satisfied with his conduct unless he has actually produced them. In this way, he might use his soul’s whole vigour and strain every nerve to produce those ends his being was meant to advance.

He is made to know, that the praise of good intentions, without the merit of good offices, will not the excite world’s acclamations nor even the highest self-applause. The man who has performed no important action is entitled to no very high reward, even if:

  • his whole conversation and deportment express the justest, noblest, and most generous sentiments, and
  • his uselessness was only due to the lack of an opportunity to serve.

We can still refuse it him without blame. We can still ask him:

  • What have you done?
  • What actual service can you do to entitle you to so great a recompense?

We esteem and love you, but we owe you nothing. Only the most divine benevolence can insist to reward that latent virtue which has been useless only for the lack of an opportunity to help. We cannot bestow on it those honours and preferments, even if it deserves them. On the contrary, only the most barbarous tyranny would punish a person for having criminal feelings without committing any crime.

The benevolent feelings deserve the most praise when they exert themselves without waiting. On the contrary, the malevolent feelings that never exert themselves into a crime deserves praise.

27 It is even important that the unintended evil be regarded as a misfortune to the doer and the sufferer. Man is thereby taught to=

  • revere his brethren’s happiness,
  • tremble lest he should, even unknowingly, do anything that can hurt them, and
  • dread that animal resentment which, he feels, is ready to burst out against him, if he should innocently be the unhappy cause of their calamity.

In the ancient heathen religion, holy ground should only be trod upon on solemn and necessary occasions. The man who ignorantly violated it incurred the vengeance of that powerful and invisible being to whom it had been set apart, until proper atonement has been made. So by the Nature’s wisdom, the happiness of every innocent man is rendered holy and hedged round against the approach of every other man. It is not to be wantonly trod on, nor ignorantly and involuntarily violated, without requiring some apology or atonement proportional to the greatness of such undesigned violation.

A man of humanity, who accidentally has killed another man, feels himself requiring atonement, but not guilty. During his whole life, he considers this accident as one of his greatest misfortunes.

If the family of the slain is poor and he himself is not poor, he immediately:

  • takes them under his protection, and
  • without any other merit, thinks them entitled to every favour and kindness.

If they are in better circumstances, he tries to render them every good office which he can devise or they accept of:

  • by every submission, and
  • by every expression of sorrow,
  • in order to:
    • atone for what has happened, and
    • propitiate their, natural but most unjust resentment, for his great but involuntary offence.

28 The finest and most interesting scenes of the ancient and modern drama are about an innocent person’s distress. He had been led to do something which he did not know would expose him to the deepest reproach. This fallacious sense of guilt constitutes the distress of:

  • Oedipus and Jocasta on the Greek theatre, and
  • Monimia and Isabella on the English theatre.

All of them need the most atonement, but not one of them are guilty.

29 Despite these seeming irregularities of sentiment, if man unfortunately causes those unintended evils, or fail to produce the intended good, Nature has not left:

  • his innocence without consolation, nor
  • his virtue without reward.

He then calls to his assistance that just and equitable maxim, that those events which did not depend upon our conduct should not reduce the esteem that is due to us. He summons up his whole magnanimity and firmness of soul.

He strives to regard himself, not as how he appears now, but as how he should appear:

  • had his generous designs been successful, and
  • if the men’s sentiments were:
    • candid and equitable, or
    • even perfectly consistent with themselves.

Mankind’s more candid and humane part entirely goes along with his effort to support himself in his own opinion. They exert their whole generosity and greatness of mind to correct in themselves this irregularity of human nature. They try to regard his unfortunate magnanimity as if it been successful.