Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1


by Adam Smith Icon
6 minutes  • 1107 words
Table of contents


1 After the inquiry on the nature of virtue, the next important question in Moral Philosophy is about the principle of approbation.

The principle of approbation is the power of the mind which renders certain characters agreeable or disagreeable to us. It makes us:

  • prefer one tenour of conduct to another,
  • denominate the one right and the other wrong,
  • consider the one kind of conduct as the object of approbation, honour, and reward, and
  • consider the other kind of conduct as the object of blame, censure, and punishment.

2 Three accounts have been given of this principle of approbation.

  1. According to some, we approve and disapprove of actions of ourselves and of others, from self-love only. It is from some view of the tendency of self-love to our own happiness or disadvantage.

  2. According to others, reason enables us to distinguish between what is fit and unfit in actions and affections. Reason is the faculty by which we distinguish between truth and falsehood.

  3. According to others, this distinction is the effect of immediate sentiment and feeling. It arises from our satisfaction or disgust from the view of certain actions or affections.

Therefore, the three sources for the principle of approbation are:

  1. Self-love
  2. Reason
  3. Sentiment

3 The determination of approbation is most important in speculation, but is not important in practice. The question on the nature of virtue has some influence on our notions of right and wrong in many cases. The question on the principle of approbation does not. From what mechanism those notions or sentiments arise is a mere matter of philosophical curiosity.

Systems which Deduce the Principle of Approbation from Self-love

4 Those who say that morality comes from self-love, do not all account for it in the same way.

  • There is much confusion and inaccuracy in their systems.

According to Mr. Hobbes, man takes refuge in society not by any natural love for humans, but because he cannnot live easily without the aid of others.

Society becomes necessary to him. He considers whatever tends to its support and welfare as having a remote tendency to his own interest. He regards whatever is likely to disturb or destroy it, as hurtful to himself. Virtue is the great support of society. Vice is its great disturber.

Therefore, virtue is agreeable and vice is offensive to every man. From virtue, he foresees the prosperity of society. From vice, he foresees its ruin and disorder.

5 When we consider it philosophically:

  • the tendency of virtue to promote society’s order reflects a very great beauty on virtue
  • the tendency of vice to disturb it reflects a very great deformity on vice
  • human society appears like a great, immense machine.

Its regular and harmonious movements produce many agreeable effects. As with any other beautiful and noble machine=

  • whatever renders its movements smoother and easier would be beautiful, and
  • whatever obstructed them would be unpleasant.

Virtue necessarily pleases. It is the fine polish to the wheels of society. Vice is necessarily as offensive. It is like the vile rust which makes them jar and grate on one another. The origin of morality with regard to society’s order comes from the principle which gives beauty to utility, which I explained in Part 4.

This system derives its probability from utility. The reader is charmed with the grandeur of the authors’ views when those authors:

  • describe the many advantages of a refined and social life over a savage and solitary one,
  • elaborate on the need of virtue and good order to maintain social life, and
  • demonstrate how vice and disobedience to the laws bring back the savage life.

The reader sees plainly a new beauty in virtue and a new deformity in vice which he never noticed before. He is commonly so delighted with the discovery. He seldom reflects that this newly discovered political view cannot possibly be the ground of morality which he always uses to consider vice and virtue.

6 Those authors deduced that self-love is the cause for:

  • our interest for society’s welfare and
  • our esteem for virtue

But they do not mean, that when we presently applaud Cato’s virtue and detest Catiline’s villainy, our sentiments are influenced by=

  • the benefit we receive from Cato’s virtue, or
  • any detriment we suffer from Catiline’s villainy.

According to those philosophers, we esteemed Cato and blamed Catiline not because our present happiness or misery was influenced by the prosperity or subversion of those ancient and distant societies. They imagined that our sentiments were=

  • never influenced by the actual benefit or damage which we received from Cato or Catiline, and
  • influenced instead by what benefit or damage we might have received=
  • if we lived in those distant ages and countries, and
  • if we meet a Cato or Catiline in our own times.

In short, those authors were groping about an idea which they were never able to unfold distinctly. This idea was the indirect sympathy we feel with the beneficiary’s gratitude or the sufferer’s resentment. They pointed at this indistinctly when they said that it was not the thought of what we gained or suffered which prompted our applause or indignation, but the conception of what we might gain or suffer if we acted with such associates.

7 However, sympathy cannot be regarded as a selfish principle in any sense. When I sympathize with your sorrow, I might pretend that my feeling is founded in self-love, because it arises from:

  • bringing your case home to myself,
  • putting myself in your situation, and
  • conceiving what I should feel in the like circumstances.

Sympathy arises from an imaginary change of situations with the subject-person. Yet this imaginary change is not supposed to happen to me, but in the person I sympathize with. When I condole with you for the loss of your only son, I do not consider what I would suffer if I had a son who died, in order to enter into your grief. But I consider what I should suffer if I were really you. I change circumstances with you and change persons and characters.

Therefore, my grief is entirely on your account and not on my own. It is not selfish at all.

How can a passion be selfish if it arose from thinking about other people? A man may sympathize with a woman giving birth, even if it is impossible for him to see himself as suffering her pains.

That system which deduces all sentiments from self-love arose from some confused misapprehension of the system of sympathy. It has made so much noise in the world. But as far as I know, it has never yet been fully and distinctly explained.

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