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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2014

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord*
Philosophy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


David Hume and Adam Smith are usually, and understandably, seen as developing very similar sentimentalist accounts of moral thought and practice. As similar as Hume's and Smith's accounts of moral thought are, they differ in telling ways. This essay is an attempt primarily to get clear on the important differences. They are worth identifying and exploring, in part, because of the great extent to which Hume and Smith share not just an overall approach to moral theory but also a conception of what the key components of an adequate account of moral thought will be. In the process, I hope to bring out the extent to which they both worked to make sense of the fact that we do not merely have affective reactions but also, importantly, make moral judgments.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2013 

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This essay has benefited considerably from discussion at the Sympathy Workshop organized by Eric Schliesser at the University of Richmond, and at the Adam Smith Society session at the Central Division Meetings of the American Philosophical Association Meeting in New Orleans. I am especially grateful for detailed comments from Houston Smit, John McHugh, and helpful conversations with Remy Debes and Michael Gill.


1 In what follows, in-text citations are to Hume, 's A Treatise of Human Nature, ed., Selby-Bigge, L. A. and Nidditch, P. H. (1739–40; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)Google Scholar, referenced as Treatise; Hume, 's Enquiries Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed., Selby-Bigge, L. A. and Nidditch, P. H. (1751; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975)Google Scholar, referenced as Enquiry; and Smith, 's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed., Raphael, D. D. and Macfie, A. L. (1759: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976)Google Scholar, referenced as TMS.

2 An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed., Campbell, R. H. and Skinner, A. S., (1776; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981)Google Scholar.

3 Hume argues extensively for the importance of sentiment in understanding moral thought; Smith does so much more briefly, but on the basis of the same general considerations. See Treatise, 456–76 and TMS, 318–21.

4 They were also aware of the many ways that moral judgment can reify differences, generate conflicts, and often wreck havoc, though they were generally optimistic, it seems, concerning the contributions of moral thought.

5 “Neither is it those circumstances only, which create pain or sorrow, that call forth our fellow-feeling. Whatever is the passion that arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator” (TMS, 10).

6 TMS, 10.

7 There is an important difference between sympathy—which transforms an idea into an impression—and merely being caused, by an idea, to have an impression. No sympathy is at work when the thought that someone is angry leads to the thought that he will be difficult to deal with and then in turn to a headache or anxiety; yet the idea of someone's anger is causing a pain. No part of that effect involves putting oneself in another's place.

8 “Resemblance and contiguity are relations not to be neglected … For besides the relation of cause and effect, by which we are convinc'd of the reality of the passion, with which we sympathize; beside this, I say, we must be assisted by the relations of resemblance and contiguity, in order to feel the sympathy in its full perfection” (Treatise, 320).

9 Hume does sometimes write as if the effect of sympathy is the creation of “the very passion itself” of which one has formed the idea (Treatise, 317). Yet no part of his accounts of approbation and moral judgment depend on this.

10 Movies seem especially effective in inducing sympathetic feeling and they seem to do so, often at least, by managing to make vivid our ideas of the experiences of others.

11 Needless to say, these examples of sympathy differ significantly from the standard cases of feeling as someone else does because she feels that way, since, in the examples, the person sympathized with most decidedly does not feel the same way.

12 One of the real pleasures of Smith's discussion of sympathy is his perceptive description of the peculiarities of sympathy. He notes, for instance, the asymmetric impact of positive and negative feelings and the ways in which we are able to sympathize more readily with emotional pains (which are more accessible to the imagination) than with physical pains. He appeals to the latter to explain why tragedies consistently revolve around emotional, rather than physical loss (TMS, 29).

13 “That cause, which excites the passion, is related to the object, which nature has attributed to the passion; the sensation, which the cause separately produces, is related to the sensation of the passion: From this double relation of ideas and impressions, the passion is deriv'd” (Treatise, 286).

14 Comparison too might come into play, so that even a home that is not beautiful and would not give rise to pleasure in others, might nonetheless be a source of pleasure, and so pride, when the owner realizes it is not nearly so bad as others.

15 Hume's focus on traits of character, in his account of moral approbation, plays a role in his accommodating the difference between the various effects a person might have which are properly seen as that person's doing, and for which the person is properly seen as responsible, and other effects that the person might have but that are not properly seen as being that person's doing.

16 For moral approval and disapproval alike, what is in play is an attitude directed at a person (the object), for his or her character (the subject), because of its impact (the subject's qualities).

17 It may well be, for instance, that some people do not approve of benevolence because, for instance, they think its effects, contrary to popular opinion, are not beneficial.

18 Smith's account of sympathy may well be one according to which we might sympathize with others without having an idea of their pleasures and pains, simply by successfully putting ourselves in their situation and finding ourselves feeling a certain way.

19 TMS, 46. This is in response to a worry pressed by Hume that Smith could not hold both that sympathy is always agreeable and yet that we can sympathize with unpleasant sentiments. Hume's concern was that sympathizing with unpleasant sentiments must be unpleasant. Smith's reasonable response is to distinguish the unpleasant sympathetic feelings from the pleasant feeling of observing the agreement in feeling.

20 As Smith emphasizes, whether we will sympathize with someone's gratitude or resentment is sensitive to whether we see the actions of those to whom they are grateful or resentful as proper (TMS, 71–73).

21 Smith uses this phenomenon to explain an important difference between the unsocial passions (“hatred and resentment and all their modifications” [TMS, 34]) and the social passions (“Generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem, all the social and benevolent affections”). The former, he argues, “must always be brought down to a pitch much lower than that to which undisciplined nature would raise them” in order to secure the sympathy of others, while the latter are such that we “have always … the strongest disposition to sympathize with the benevolent affections” (TMS, 39).

22 Hume is explicit about the model for judgments of color and about extending it to his account of moral judgment. He makes clear as well that he thinks the general model extends to a range of other judgments that have their origin in our perceptions, including judgments concerning not merely “secondary” but also “primary” qualities. See, for instance, Enquiry, 227–28.

23 In other places, thinking of the same restriction, Hume talks of those who have “a connexion” with the person judged (Treatise, 591 and 602) rather than of those in the “narrow circle.”

24 So, for instance, “When the interests of one country interfere with those of another, we estimate the merits of a statesman by the good or ill, which results to his own country from his measures and councils, without regard to the prejudice which he brings on its enemies and rivals” (Enquiry, 225). Keeping this in mind is important for seeing how and why Hume does not evaluate character traits by appeal to their contribution to overall utility, taking everyone into account.

25 For a more detailed discussion of Hume's account of moral judgment and the “General Point of View,” see my On Why Hume's ‘General Point of View’ Isn't Ideal—and Shouldn't Be,” in Social Philosophy and Policy 11, no. 1 (1994): 202228CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 “We are pleased to think that we have rendered ourselves the natural objects of approbation,” Smith observes, “though no approbation should ever actually be bestowed upon us: and we are mortified to reflect that we have justly merited the blame of those we live with, though that sentiment should never actually be exerted against us” (TMS, 115–16).

27 In turning our attention to the reactions of an impartial spectator, when we make judgment concerning what is approvable, “habit and experience have taught us to do this so easily and so readily, that we are scarce sensible that we do it; and it requires, on this case too, some degree of reflection, and even of philosophy, to convince us …” (TMS, 135–36).

28 For a more detailed discussion of Smith's account of moral judgment and the impartial spectator, see my Sentiments and Spectators: Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Judgment,” in The Philosophy of Adam Smith, ed., Brown, Vivienne and Fleischacker, Samuel (Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2010), 124–44Google Scholar.

29 This marks an important difference between the standard of moral judgment and the standards for other judgments, say of color or size. In the case of the latter, the standards themselves, and the judgments we make using them, are not within the scope of those standards (such standards and judgments have no color or size) nor need the standards be morally good, appropriate, or justified in order to be the right standards for these nonmoral judgments.

30 Stressing the analogy between moral judgments and judgments of taste or size, Hutcheson's view is that a person cannot “apply moral Attributes to the very Faculty of perceiving moral Qualities; or call his moral Sense morally Good or Evil, any more than he calls the Power of Tasting, sweet, or bitter; or of Seeing, strait or crooked, white or black.An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense, by Francis Hutcheson, ed., Aaron Garrett (1742; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2002), 149Google Scholar.

31 Smith draws a sharp distinction between his view and one that gives priority to utility. Both views, he supposes, offer a measure of when various sentiments and affections are felt to the appropriate degree. The difference is that the one he rejects “makes utility, and not sympathy, or the correspondent affection of the spectator, the natural and original measure of this proper degree” (TMS, 306). And an appeal to our judgments of when sentiments and affections are proper or not, Smith holds, reveals that utility is not the natural and original measure, while “the correspondent affection of the [impartial] spectator” is.

32 See, for instance, his famous discussion of how a well structured economy will promote the public interest even though those within in it are acting only with the intention of promoting their own interests. See Smith, 's An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. I, ed. Campbell, R. H. and Skinner, A. S., vol. II of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (1776; Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981), p. 456Google Scholar.