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Adam Smith’s concept of sympathy

Page history last edited by Victoria Yupangco 16 years ago

Adam Smith’s concept of sympathy


In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), Adam Smith defines sympathy as the effect that is produced when we imagine that another person’s circumstances are our own circumstances, and find their reaction to the circumstances to be reasonable. In so doing, we respond by experiencing a smaller-scale version of their feelings, even though we do not share the circumstances that incited their reponse. Smith refers to this also as ‘fellow-feeling'. He asserts that sympathy is part of human nature, and thus is not an expression of virtue, but is rather a passion that is exhibited by humanity.


Smith suggests that sympathy arises under two different conditions: first, when we are aware of another person’s circumstances, and imagine our response; second, when we see another person’s response, and are able to imagine their circumstances. In both instances, in order for sympathy to manifest, we must imagine that the person experiencing the passion is responding sensibly. By this, Smith means that we must imagine that we would experience a similar response to certain circumstances, or certain circumstances would elicit from us a similar response. In this way, we establish norms based on our own responses to circumstances, or what we imagine our responses would be. Smith claims that the only way we have to assess another person is by assessing them in comparison to ourselves, whom we know best: “Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another”.


However, Smith proposes that when we sympathize, we are not responding to the emotional cues that represent someone’s passion, such as crying or smiling. That is to say, it is not the physical expression of crying or smiling in and of itself which elicits sympathy, but rather what we conceive of as the motivating circumstances for the crying or the smile. To put it another way, our SYMPATHY is responding to our imagination by conceiving of a situation in which we might respond as the other person is responding, which will be any situation in which we feel the other person’s response would be sensible. Without attributing sensible motivating circumstances, we are unable to sympathize. Smith offers the example of perceiving an angry man without knowing the cause of his rage: we are more likely to sympathize with the people he is raging against, because their circumstances for being afraid or upset are more obvious to us (namely, the man’s anger) than the angry man’s circumstances which caused him to be angry.


The concept of sympathy necessarily involves sociality by engaging one’s own standards with another person’s circumstances or response. Smith proposes that we derive pleasure from this sociality and, further, derive the most pleasure when the level of mutuality extends to feeling as though others sympathize with us. In contrast, we are most upset when others do not sympathize with us. Smith asserts that a positive response to a positive feeling will increase the positivity that we feel, but when our grief is not mirrored back to us–when others make light of our pain–this worsens our grief. Further, when someone sympathizes with our grief, this functions as though we are sharing the grief, and are thus relieved of part of the burden. Thus, Smith claims that sympathy “enlivens joy and alleviates grief”.



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- Paige Monck-Whipp, University of Toronto


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