Adam Smith, Selfishness, and Sympathy

Adam Smith

Found in Theory of Moral Sentiments and Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1869)

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

Smith begins The Theory of Moral Sentiments with this famous opening paragraph:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. (I.i.1.1)

Those who are unfamiliar with Adam Smith’s first book and think of him only as the father of economics and the defence of self-serving market action may be surprised to read these lines. The apparent contradiction between Smith’s work in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the impression that people hold of Smith as someone who promotes self-interest over concern for others is sometimes called the “Adam Smith Problem.”

Many familiar with both works see this passage as quintessentially Smithian. And everyone reading these lines may be struck by how long standing is the concern that people are essentially selfish.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments builds on this observation. The book details Smith’s moral sentimentalism, which roots his theories of morality and moral psychology in observations of the emotions that people experience as members of society.

For Smith, people learn to be moral through the development of a moral sense. Beginning in childhood and through repeated experience, we develop rules for how to behave based on our reactions to each other. Over time, these rules form guidelines for proper conduct and morality. This is in sharp contrast to the idea that people are inherently selfish, and builds on the theories of his friend David Hume and his teacher Francis Hutchenson.