Chapter 2 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments Simplified

The Morality from Utility Icon

January 28, 2022

12 The following can promote or disturb individual and societal happiness=

  • the characters of people
  • contrivances of art
  • the institutions of government.

The prudent, equitable, active, resolute, and sober character promises prosperity and satisfaction to:

  • the person himself, and
  • everyone connected with him.

This has all the beauty as the most perfect machine invented for that purpose.

On the contrary, the rash, insolent, slothful, effeminate, and voluptuous brings=

  • ruin to the individual, and
  • misfortune to all who have anything to do with him.

What institution of government could promote mankind’s happiness as the prevalence of wisdom and virtue?

Government is just an imperfect remedy for the deficiency of these. Therefore, the beauty of government from its utility must belong more to wisdom and virtue.

On the contrary, vices are the most ruinous and destructive civil policy. Governments are fatal if they cannot guard against the mischiefs from human wickedness.

13 This beauty of characters from their usefulness strikes those who philosophically consider mankind’s conduct.

When a philosopher examines why humanity is approved of, or why cruelty is condemned, he does not always clearly conceive any action of cruelty or humanity.

  • He is commonly contented with the vague and indeterminate idea suggested to him by those qualities.

But the morality of actions is obvious and discernible only in particular instances which allow us to distinctly perceive=

  • the concord or disagreement between our own affections and those of the agent, or
  • either a social gratitude or a sympathetic resentment towards him.

When we consider virtue and vice in an abstract and general manner=

  • their qualities, which excite these sentiments, seem to disappear, and
  • the feelings themselves become less obvious and discernible.

On the contrary, the happy effects of virtue and the fatal consequences of vice seem then to=

  • rise up to the view, and
  • distinguish themselves from all the other qualities of either.

14 David Hume has been so struck with this view of things. He resolves our whole approbation of virtue into a perception of this kind of beauty from utility. He observes that:

  • only the qualities of the mind which are useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others, are approved of as virtuous.
  • only the qualities which are not useful or agreeable are are disapproved of as vicious

Nature seems to have so happily adjusted our sentiments of approbation and disapprobation to the convenience of the individual and the society.

After the strictest examination, I believe that this is universally the case.

But still I affirm, that it is not the view of this utility which is the principal source of our approbation. These feelings are no doubt enlivened by the beauty from this utility.

But they are still originally and essentially different from this perception.

15 It seems impossible:

  • that we should approve of virtue with the same feeling that we use to approve of a well-contrived building, or that our reason for praising a man should be the same reason for commending a chest of drawers.

Emotional Quotient

16 The usefulness of a mind is seldom the first ground of our approbation.

The feeling of approbation always involves a sense of propriety distinct from the perception of utility. This is seen in all the virtuous qualities.

The qualities that are useful to ourselves are 17 Superior reason and understanding. These allow us to:

  • discern the remote consequences of all our actions, and
  • foresee the advantage or detriment likely to result from them.

The qualities which are useful to others are catagorized under self-command. These let us endure present pain or abstain from present pleasure in order to obtain a greater pleasure or avoid a greater future pain.

The virtue of prudence is in the union of superior reason and self-command. It is the most useful virtue to the individual.

18 Superior reason and understanding are originally approved of as just, right, and accurate, and not merely as useful or advantageous.

The greatest and most admired exertions of human reason have been displayed in the obscurer sciences, particularly in the higher parts of mathematics.

But the utility of those sciences to the individual or the public is not very obvious. A complicated discussion is needed to prove it.

Therefore, it was not their utility which first recommended them to the public admiration.

This quality was little insisted on until it became necessary to reply to the reproaches of people who tried to render them useless. Those people had no taste for such sublime discoveries.

19 In the same way, our self-command is approved of as much under propriety as under utility.

When we act in this way, the sentiments which influence our conduct seem to coincide exactly with the spectator’s feelings.

The spectator does not feel the solicitations of our present appetites. To him, the pleasure which we are to enjoy a week or a year hence, is just as interesting as the pleasure we are to enjoy now.

When we sacrifice the future for the sake of the present, our conduct appears absurd and most extravagant to him.

He cannot enter into the principles which influence it.

On the contrary, he cannot fail to approve of our behaviour when we=

  • abstain from present pleasure to secure greater pleasure to come
  • act as if the remote object interested us as much as that which immediately presses on the senses, as our affections exactly correspond with his own

He knows from experience, how few are capable of this self-command. He looks on our conduct with a considerable degree of wonder and admiration. Hence arises that natural eminent esteem of all men for a steady perseverance in frugality, industry, and application, even if directed only to acquire fortune.

Our approbation is commanded by the person’s resolute firmness to=

  • obtain a great but remote advantage,
  • give up all present pleasures, and
  • endure the greatest labour of mind and body.

That view of his interest and happiness which regulate his conduct, exactly tallies with our natural idea of it.

There is the most perfect correspondence between his sentiments and our own. At the same time, it is a correspondence which we could not reasonably have expected, from our experience of the common weakness of human nature. We approve and in some measure admire his conduct. We think it worthy of a considerable degree of applause. It is the consciousness of this merited approbation and esteem which alone is capable of supporting him. The pleasure which we are to enjoy 10 years hence interests us so little compared to that which we may enjoy today The passion of future pleasure is naturally so weak compared to that violent emotion which present pleasure is apt to create.

Future pleasure could never balance present pleasure unless it was supported by:

  • the sense of propriety
  • the consciousness that we:
    • merited the esteem and approbation of everybody by acting with regard to future pleasure
    • became the proper objects of their contempt and derision by behaving with regard to present pleasure.