The Theory of Moral Sentiments

In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith devoted two chapters on the topic of sympathy. In the first chapter simply entitled Of Sympathy, Smith discusses its general characteristics. In the second chapter called Of the Pleasure of Mutual Sympathy, he delves into the satisfaction derived from sympathy shared between two parties. In the first chapter, Smith begins by giving a general statement. He states that despite the selfish nature of humanity, it still possesses the inherent capacity to derive happiness from the happiness of others (Smith, 1790).

Just the same, pity and compassion allow people to share in other people’s sorrow. Smith asserts that one need not be “virtuous” to feel such emotions towards other people; even those considered as society’s evils feel it too (Smith, 1790, I. I. 1). Smith upholds that other people’s experiences cannot affect us directly. However, when we place ourselves on their shoes, we can really measure for ourselves the extent of the other person’s suffering (Smith, 1790). It is imagination that helps us achieve this endeavor.

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This is because it is only when we imagine ourselves in their place can we experience what they feel, even if it is in a lesser degree (Smith, 1790). Indeed, it is through imagination where people can place themselves in the situations of others, making them feel their emotions. Smith refers to the capacity to feel other people’s emotions as “fellow-feeling,” since it exposes another person to the passions of a fellow (Smith, 1790, I. I. 3). Smith enumerates several instances when we unconsciously put ourselves in the position of others, and in the process, feel what their feeling.

As an example, he used the concept of a mother with a crying infant. The former does not really know what is causing the latter such sorrow, but then she puts herself in a similar situation and causes her own agony (Smith, 1790). Another example would be our view of death. Smith believes we contemplate on the condition of the dead, and in the process, situate our living selves in their dead bodies (Smith, 1790). In the end, it causes us grief. In addition, it is this “fellow-feeling” that best explains our behavior towards the tragic and romantic heroes.

We feel love for the friends of these heroes, but we have nothing but hatred for their enemies. This is because through our imagination, we are capable of relating to the suffering and joys of these heroes (Smith, 1790). Smith distinguishes between certain kinds of “fellow-feeling. ” The “fellow-feelings” towards the sorrow of others are pity and compassion, while the “fellow-feelings” towards any other passion is known as sympathy (Smith, 1790). In some instances, sympathy can be easily derived because the person’s emotions are already clearly evident.

A person who smiles is obviously happy, just as a sad person reveals his emotion through his face. However, the sympathy to be derived from grief and joy are “imperfect” (Smith, 1790, I. I. 9). According to Smith, upon one person’s expression of grief, it is curiosity, not sympathy, that comes first (Smith, 1790). This is because it is only when our curiosity is satisfied about the details of the other person’s sorrows can we truly be sympathetic (Smith, 1790). Anger, on the other hand, does not derive sympathy the same way as grief and joy (Smith, 1790).

Anger does not evoke sympathy, unlike grief and joy whose expression can easily do so. This is because when one person sees another full of anger, instead of being angry to the latter’s enemies, the former just develops a disliking to the other person’s own anger (Smith, 1790). Moreover, anger is not as relatable as grief or joy. Smith believes that grief and joy gives the “spectator” an idea that either something good or bad happened to the “sufferer” (Smith, 1790, I. I. 4; I. I. 8). Everyone can relate to either a good or bad experience, enabling anybody to sympathize on both accounts.

In contrast, anger does not encourage sympathy, especially those who have been in the receiving end of another’s anger (Smith, 1790). In the beginning of the second chapter, Smith asserts that regardless of the reason for sympathy, there is nothing more pleasurable than mutual sympathy (Smith, 1790). A person derives happiness upon seeing other people respond to his happiness. Likewise, a person can derive dissatisfaction in situations where other people cannot respond to his feelings (Smith, 1790). Smith relates that in general, people prefer to express their grievances than their happiness to friends.

This is because the sympathy evoked by grief and resentment present greater satisfaction than that of love and joy (Smith, 1790). This explains why in the name of friendship, it is much forgivable to be unaffected by joy than grief. Smith’s given example shows that it is acceptable if your friends are not your other friends’ acquaintances, but your enemies should be their enemies as well (Smith, 1790). Smith also upholds that while sympathy for joy intensifies the joy, sympathy for grief lessens the grief (Smith, 1790). However, before there could be sympathy, there is the reawakening of the grief.

When a grieving person conveys their grief to another, the sad memories come back, bringing the pain along. Despite this, a person who sympathizes with the grieving person reduces the grief, because that is what sympathy is capable of doing (Smith, 1790). Smith also points out the dilemmas of not being able to grieve. We find pleasure in sympathizing with others (Smith, 1790). It is easy to bask in other people’s triumphs and successes. On the contrary, if we cannot offer sympathy to those who are in grief, we are troubled and displeased.

Rather than being content in feeling no pain from the other, we are bothered by having no such feeling. It is offensive when one is not serious in the midst of one’s misery; it is disconcerting to not feel one’s misery. In terms of joy, when a person laughs harder at a joke we do not think is that funny, we merely consider it as “folly” (Smith, 1790, I. I. 19). If we cannot relate to one’s grief, we simply consider it as a weakness. These considerations are due to the fact that we cannot share in their emotions (Smith, 1790).

The first two chapters of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments reveal how sympathy arises from imagination by situating oneself in another’s place. It also shows that people prefer to have mutual sympathy since it is more pleasurable. In the end, regardless of the kind of person one is, anyone can offer sympathy and everyone wants it as well.


Smith, A. (1790). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved March 11, 2008, from http://www. econlib. org/Smith/smMS. html