Chapter 3b


by Adam Smith Icon

Notes for this chapter

To most people, ascribing our natural sense of the demerit of actions to a sympathy with the sufferer’s resentment is a degradation of that sense. People will think it impossible that the sense of the demerit of vice is based on resentment.

They prefer that our sense of the merit of good actions is based on a sympathy with the gratitude of the beneficiaries. This is because gratitude, like the other benevolent feelings, is an amiable principle. Gratitude cannot reduce the value of whatever is founded on gratitude.

However, gratitude and resentment are opposites. If our sense of merit arises from a sympathy with the gratitude, then our sense of demerit must proceed from a fellow-feeling with the resentment. Resentment is probably the most odious of all the feelings.

But it is not disapproved of when:

  • properly humbled, and
  • entirely brought down to the level of the spectator’s sympathetic indignation.

We bystanders approve of the sufferer’s feelings when:

  • we our own animosity entirely corresponds with the sufferer’s animosity,
  • the sufferer’s resentment does not go beyond our own resentment,
  • he never aims at inflicting any punishment beyond what we ourselves would want to inflict.

To us, our own feeling in this case justifies his.

Experience teaches us:

  • how most people are incapable of this moderation, and
  • how great an effort must be made to bring down the undisciplined impulse of resentment to this suitable temper.

We admire a sufferer who has so much self-command over his hatred against his offender. But when the sufferer’s hatred exceeds our sympathy for it, we disapprove of it since we cannot enter into it. We even disapprove of it more than we disapprove of an equal excess of feeling from the imagination. We then resent his too-violent resentment instead of sympathizing with it.

This is why, revenge, as the excess of resentment, is the most detestable of all the feelings. A moderate feeling of revenge is commonly found in men. An excessive feeling of revenge is 100 times the strength of this moderate level. We the excessive feeling of revenge as detestable because it is detestable in its most ordinary appearances.

A totally evil principle is something that cannot be the proper object of praise in any way. Even in mankind’s present depraved state, Nature is not so unkind as to endow us with a totally evil principle.

Revenge is generally too strong, but sometimes, it can also be too weak. We sometimes complain that a sufferer shows too little spirit and has too little sense of his injuries. We chastise him for this defect, just as we hate him for excessive revenge. Moralists would not have talked so strongly of God’s wrath if they saw all levels of wrath as evil, even in man.

Nature Uses Our Feelings to Create Morality to Sustain Life

This inquiry is not on a matter of right, but on a matter of fact. We are not examining how God would approve of the punishment of evil. We are examining how or on what principles man, a weak and imperfect creature, actually and factually approves of punishments.

These principles have a very great effect on men’s feelings. Society’s existence requires that unmerited and unprovoked malice should be restrained by proper punishments. Consequently, inflicting those punishments should be regarded as proper and laudable. Man is naturally endowed with a desire of society’s welfare and preservation. Yet the Author of nature has entrusted it to man’s feelings, and not to his reason, to find out the punishments that are proper to attain this end.

Nature’s favourite ends are the important ones. She has constantly endowed mankind with an appetite for those important ends, along with the means to achieve them for their own sakes. This means is seen in the immediate and instinctive approbation that makes up the oeconomy of nature.

Thus, self-preservation and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which Nature proposed for all animals. Mankind is endowed with=

  • a love of life and a dread of dissolution
  • a desire of the species’ continuance and an aversion to its extinction.

But finding the proper means to realize those ends has not been entrusted to our reason’s slow and uncertain determinations. Nature has directed us to the most of these by original and immediate instincts and feelings like hunger, thirst, lust, the love of pleasure and the dread of pain. These prompt us to=

  • apply those means for their own sakes, and
  • without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends intended by the great Director of nature.

There is a difference between=

  • the approbation of propriety and
  • the approbation of merit or beneficence.

Before we approve of anyone’s feelings as proper and suitable to their objects, we must=

  • be affected in the same way as he is, and
  • perceive this harmony and correspondence of sentiments between him and ourselves.

Thus, upon hearing of my friend’s misfortune, I should precisely conceive his concern. But I cannot be said to approve of his feelings until=

  • I know how he behaves, and
  • I perceive the harmony between his emotions and mine.

Therefore, the approbation of propriety requires that we should=

  • entirely sympathize with the person who acts, and
  • perceive this perfect concord between his sentiments and our own.

On the contrary, when I hear of another person receiving benefit and, by bringing his case home to myself, I feel gratitude in my own breast, I necessarily approve of his benefactor’s conduct.

I regard it as meritorious and the proper object of reward. Our feelings with regard to the benefactor’s merit cannot be altered whether his beneficiary feels gratitude or not. No actual correspondence of sentiments is required here. It is enough that if he was grateful, they would correspond. Our sense of merit is often founded on one of those illusive sympathies.

For example, when we bring home to ourselves another’s case, we are often affected in a way in which the person principally concerned is incapable of being affected. There is a similar difference between our disapprobation of demerit, and that of impropriety.


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