Chapter 2b

The Useful Virtues

by Adam Smith Icon

20 Humanity, justice, generosity, and public spirit, are the qualities most useful to others.

I have shown how much our approbation of humanity and justice depended on the concord between the affections of the agent and the spectators.

21 The propriety of generosity and public spirit is founded on the same principle with the propriety of justice.

Generosity is different from humanity.

Those two qualities at first sight seem so nearly allied. They do not always belong to the same person.

  • Humanity is the virtue of a woman.
  • Generosity is the virtue of a man.

Women have commonly much more tenderness than men. Women seldom have so much generosity. The civil law observes that women rarely make considerable donations, *9

Humanity consists merely in the exquisite fellow-feeling of the spectator with the sentiments of the persons principally concerned.

It leads him to:

  • grieve for their sufferings,
  • resent their injuries, and
  • rejoice at their good fortune.

The most humane actions require no self-denial, no self-command, no great exertion of the sense of propriety. They consist only in doing what this exquisite sympathy would naturally prompt us to do. But it is otherwise with generosity.

We generous only when we=

  • prefer some other person to ourselves, and
  • sacrifice some of our great and important interest to an equal interest of a friend or superior.

The following men do not act from humanity:

  • The man who gives up an office, that was the great object of his ambition, because he imagines that other men are better entitled to it.
  • The man who exposes his life to defend his friend’s life, which he judges to be more important.

Such men do not do such things because they more exquisitely feel for that other person.

  • They both consider how those opposite interests appear to others, not how they naturally appear to themselves.

The success or preservation of the other person may justly be more interesting to every third person but not to themselves.

When they sacrifice their own interests, therefore, they accommodate themselves to the spectators’ sentiments.

By an effort of magnanimity, they act according to how any third person must naturally feel. The soldier who throws away his life to defend his officer’s life might be little affected by that officer’s death if it was not his fault.

But he feels, that to everyone else, his own life is a trifle compared with his officer’s life when he tries to act to=

  • deserve applause, and
  • make the impartial spectator enter into the principles of his conduct.

That when he sacrifices his life, he acts properly and agreeably to the natural apprehensions of every impartial bystander.

22 It is the same case with the greater exertions of public spirit.

When a young officer exposes his life to extend his sovereign’s dominions, it is not because the new territory is more desirable than his own life.

When the officer compares his life with the territory, he views them as they appear to his nation, not as how they naturally appear to himself. To his nation, the war’s success is most important. A private person’s life is of no consequence. When he puts himself in their situation, he feels that he cannot be too prodigal of his blood, if he can promote such a valuable purpose by shedding it.

Thus, his heroism is in thwarting the strongest of all natural propensities, from a sense of duty and propriety. Many honest Englishmen would be privately more seriously disturbed by the loss of a guinea than by the national loss of Minorca. Yet, the officer would rather sacrifice his life a thousand times to defend that fortress than to let it fall into the enemy through his fault.

Brutus’ sons conspired against Rome.

He led his own sons to a capital punishment. He sacrificed the love for his sons, a stronger affection, to the love of his country, a weaker affection.

He naturally should have felt much more for the death of his own sons than for all that Rome might have suffered from lacking so great an example. But he viewed them with the eyes of a Roman citizen than with the eyes of a father. He entered so thoroughly into the citizen’s sentiments that he paid no regard to his fatherly ties.

To a Roman citizen, even the sons of Brutus seemed contemptible when balanced with Rome’s smallest interest. In such cases, our admiration is founded on the unexpected, great, noble, and exalted propriety of such actions, and not so much on their utility.

When we view this utility, it undoubtedly gives a new beauty on them. On that account, it further recommends them to our approbation. However, this beauty is chiefly perceived by men of reflection and speculation. It is not the quality which first recommends such actions to mankind’s natural sentiments.

23 So far as the sentiment of approbation arises from the beauty of utility, it has no reference to the feelings of others.

If a person grew up outside of society, his own actions might be agreeable to him from their tendency to his happiness.

He might perceive a beauty of this kind in prudence, temperance, and good conduct. He might view this with the same satisfaction as we have for a well-contrived machine. He might perceive a deformity in the opposite behaviour. He might view this with the same distaste as we have for a very clumsy contrivance.

However, these perceptions are merely a matter of taste. They have all the feebleness and delicacy of taste. They would probably not be much attended to by someone in this solitary and miserable condition. They would not have the same effect as after he was connected with society.

He would not be cast down with inward shame at the thought of this deformity. He would not be elevated with secret triumph of mind from the consciousness of beauty. He would not exult from the notion of deserving reward in the one case, nor tremble from the suspicion of meriting punishment in the other.

All such sentiments suppose the idea of some other being who is the natural judge of the person that feels them. Only by sympathy with the decisions of this arbiter of his conduct, can he conceive the triumph of self-applause or the shame of self-condemnation.


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