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The virtue of TMS 1759


Our conference is intended to commemorate the publication of the first edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 (Smith 1976, TMS). I have therefore focused my contribution mainly on that edition. To speak of the virtue of TMS 1759 is, in a way, paradoxical, for the most

substantial change that Adam Smith made in the sixth edition was to add a new Part VI on ‘The Character of Virtue’. Earlier editions include a distinction between ‘amiable and respectable virtues’, an extensive discussion of two particular virtues, justice and beneficence, and an historical survey of philosophical theories about the nature of virtue in general; but there is no detailed account of Smith’s own view of the general concept of virtue. That comes only in the sixth edition. The first edition has a further defect, concerning sympathy. Smith deals

with this in a long note added to the second edition, answering critical queries posed by David Hume and Sir Gilbert Elliot. Their queries are not so closely related as Smith seems to think. Hume’s point is that Smith’s theory depends on the false supposition that sympathy is always pleasant; Elliot’s concern is that basing moral judgment on social attitudes does not allow for conscientious dissent from majority opinion. Hume’s criticism is given in a letter dated 28 July 1759, asking Smith to deal with it in his projected second edition (Smith 1987, Corr. Letter 36). Elliot’s criticism was given in a letter that has not survived, but the gist of it can be inferred from Smith’s reply, dated 10 October 1759, which is accompanied by a copy of the statement that he had sent to Hume (Corr. Letter 40). That statement, with some minor adjustment, also formed the note added to the second edition of the book, published in 1761. When Smith reports Hume’s criticism in the second edition, he purports to

defend his original view, but his defence includes an addition that goes beyond the original view. The original view described two elements in moral approval: (1) sympathy with the feeling of the person affected by an action, and (2) a consequential feeling of approval or disapproval of the action. (In some places Smith says, confusingly, that the apparent two elements are simply different descriptions of a single element.) The defence in the note of the second edition speaks of three elements: (1) sympathy with the feeling of

the person affected, a sympathy that can be pleasurable or painful, depending on the character of the feeling shared; (2) awareness of that sympathy; and (3) a feeling of approval or disapproval, which includes the pleasure of knowing it is a shared feeling. Since the first edition contains two serious defects, why am I ready to speak of its virtue? Because of two commendable qualities. One is the character of its language, relatively simple and at times strikingly vivid, so that the book is a pleasure to read and can be easily understood. The other commendable quality is that the role given to sympathy is distinctly original and quite persuasive. These are the things that made the book popular among the literary public at its first appearance. I have in the past suggested that Smith wrote the new Part VI because

he realized that he had failed to live up to his statement, in the final Part, that there are two main topics for moral philosophy, the nature of virtue and the nature of moral judgment (Raphael 1992: 103, 109; 2007: 10-11). In the original version of his book he deals at length with the second topic but says comparatively little about the first topic. He distinguishes virtue from propriety, classifies virtues into the amiable and the respectable, and gives careful consideration to the leading virtues of justice and beneficence; but he does not produce a theory about the concept of virtue as such, comparable with his elaborate theory about the origin and character of moral judgment. Professor Samuel Fleischacker has expressed dissent from my suggest-

ion that Smith wrote the new Part VI to repair an omission which he recognized late in the day (Fleischacker 2006: 249). Fleischacker queries this because the final Part of the Moral Sentiments, in the early editions as well as in the sixth, gives far more space to the topic of virtue than to the topic of moral judgment. Fleischacker says there are 50 pages on virtue and 13 on moral judgment. His figures presumably relate to the pages of the modern Glasgow Edition (Part VII, Sections ii and iii). In the actual first edition of 1759 (Part VI, Sections 2 and 3) there are 74 pages on virtue and 31 pages on moral judgment. The apparently greater difference in the modern edition (roughly 4:1 as against 2.5:1 in the first edition) is due to some long editorial notes, but that does not affect the nub of Fleischacker’s case. What needs to be said, however, is that the final Part of the Moral

Sentiments surveys the history of the philosophic treatment of the two topics. It is not written as a statement of Adam Smith’s views. In the sixth edition Smith allies himself with the propriety theory of virtue and claims to improve on predecessors in giving a measure for judging the propriety of feeling, namely ‘the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and well-informed spectator’ (TMS VII.ii.1.49). But he also, in all editions, regards the propriety theory as inadequate because virtue is often more than propriety and commands greater esteem than propriety taken alone (TMS VII.ii.1.50). A little later in the final Part Smith refers to the difference between his theory of virtue

and Hume’s theory, which, he says, ‘coincides’ with the propriety theory. He writes:

According to this [ie. Hume’s] system … virtue consists not in any one affection, but in the proper degree of all the affections. The only difference between it and that which I have been endeavouring to establish, is, that it makes utility, and not sympathy, or the correspondent affection of the spectator, the natural and original measure of this proper degree.