Chapter 1

The Principle of Self-approbation Simplified

September 30, 2015 by Adam Smith


1 In Parts 1 and 2, I explained the origin and foundation of our judgments on the feelings and conduct of others. I will now explain the origin of our judgments on our own feelings and conduct.

2 We use sympathy to judge both the conduct of ourselves and that of other people.

  • We judge another man’s conduct according to how we sympathize with his feelings.
  • We judge our own conduct according to how we sympathize with our own feelings from another man’s viewpoint.
    • We judge our own feelings by transfering ourselves away from us and then viewing our own feelings and motives from afar

We can only do this by viewing them with the eyes of other people.

Our judgment always bears some secret reference to what we imagine would be the judgment of others. We examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If we place ourselves in his situation and enter into all his passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation and condemn it.

While Public Morals are based on our sympathy with others, Private Morals are based on the sympathy of the Deity on us, through a natural construct called the conscience or an artificial construct called the impartial spectator which is our projection of our ideal self

3 A human who grew up in some solitary place, without any communication with other humans, could not think of:

  • his own character,
  • the morality of his own feelings and actions, and
  • the beauty or ugliness of his own mind, than that of his own face.

All these are objects he cannot easily see. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with this mirror. This mirror is placed in the face and behaviour of those he lives with. It always shows when they enter into, and disapprove of his sentiments. In this mirror, he first views:

  • his passions’ propriety and impropriety,
  • his mind’s beauty and deformity.

He is provided with no mirror to view them. He naturally does not look at them. A man, who is a stranger to society from birth, would be preoccupied with the external objects of his passions. Those objects would excite passions:

  • desires or aversions, and
  • joys or sorrows.

These passions could never be the objects of his thoughts. Their idea could never interest him enough to call on his attentive consideration. The consideration of his joy could in him excite no new joy. The consideration of his sorrow could not excite any new sorrow in him, even if the consideration of the causes of those passions might often excite both. Bring him into society, and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions.

He will observe that mankind approves of some of them and are disgusted by others. He will be elevated in the one case, and cast down in the other. His desires and aversions will now often become the causes of new desires and new aversions. His joys and sorrows will be the causes of new joys and new sorrows They will now:

  • interest him deeply and
  • often call on his most attentive consideration.

4 Our first ideas of personal beauty are drawn from the appearance of others, not from our own. However, we soon become sensible that others exercise the same criticism on us. We are:

  • pleased when they approve of our figure, and
  • disobliged when they are disgusted.

We become anxious to know how far our appearance deserves their blame or approbation. We examine ourselves limb by limb. We view ourselves through a mirror at the distance with the eyes of others. If we are satisfied with our appearance, we can more easily support the most disadvantageous judgments of others. If we know that we are the natural objects of distaste, their disapprobation mortifies us beyond all measure. A handsome man will allow you to laugh at any little irregularity in him.

But all such jokes are commonly unsupportable to one who is really deformed. We are anxious about our own beauty and deformity, only because of its effect on others. If we had no connection with society, we would be indifferent about either. The Moral Mirror and the Two I’s

5 In the same way, our first moral criticisms are exercised on the characters and conduct of others. We are all very forward to observe how each of these affects us. But we soon learn, that other people are equally frank with regard to our own. We become anxious to know:

  • how far we deserve their censure or applause, and
  • whether we appear as agreeable or disagreeable creatures to them.

We begin to:

  • examine our own passions and conduct, and
  • consider how our passions and conduct appears to them by considering how they would appear to us if in their situation.

We became the spectators of our own behaviour. We try to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce on us. This is the only mirror we can use to scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct from the eyes of other people. We are satisfied if we are pleased with the view in this mirror. In this way, we can:

  • be more indifferent about the applause, and
  • despise the world’s censure.

Because we are secure that we are the natural and proper objects of approbation, however misunderstood or misrepresented we are. On the contrary, if we are doubtful about our view in the mirror, we are often more anxious to gain their approbation. As long as we are not yet infamous, we are distracted at the thoughts of their censure. This strikes us with double severity.

6 I divide myself into two persons when I:

  • examine my own conduct, and
  • pass sentence on it to approve or condemn it.

I as the examiner and judge, is a different character from the I whose conduct is examined and judged. The first I is the spectator and the judge. I enter into his sentiments regarding my own conduct by:

  • placing myself in his situation, and
  • considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that point of view.

The second I is myself, the agent and the person judged. I tried to form some opinion of my conduct, under the spectator’s character. But it is impossible that the judge should be the same with the person judged of, just as it is impossible that the cause should be the same with the effect.

7 The great characters of virtue are:

  • to be amiable or to deserve love, and
  • to be meritorious or to deserve reward.

The great characters of vice are to be odious and punishable. But all these characters have an immediate reference to the sentiments of others. Virtue is not amiable or meritorious not because it is the object of its own love or own gratitude.

It is because it excites love and gratitude in other men. The awareness that virtue is the object of such favourable regards, is the source of that inward tranquillity and self-satisfaction which naturally attends it. On the contrary, the suspicion of unfavourable regards creates the torments of vice. What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?

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