What did Adam Smith think of emotions

Summary of Theory of Ethical Feelings

The History of Ethics from Antiquity to Smith

Ethics as a philosophical discipline is as old as philosophy itself. The term is derived from the Greek word "ethos", which means something like habit, custom or custom. Ethics is a "should science": It takes care of the guidelines on which human action is based. It usually has a normative character.

For the ancient philosophers Socrates and Plato, the model validity of the responsible life was in the foreground: for them virtue was a viable ideal. However, the virtuous person must first recognize the good and then realize it for his own sake, even if it brings disadvantages for him. Plato's four cardinal virtues are: wisdom, bravery, prudence and justice. Aristotle was considerably more practical: he derived his ethics from the manners and customs of the people, he established, so to speak, an "ethics from below". The Greek philosopher Epictetus and the Roman Seneca were among the representatives of the Stoa, who emphasized the powerlessness of man in the face of the laws of nature. Because of his limited capacity to act, instead of striving for power, for example, people should kill off all passions and calmly, "stoically" lead their lives. The scholastics of the Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas, placed ethics at the service of Christian doctrine and tried to interpret moral action as following Jesus Christ.

In modern times, ethics was again separated from Christian doctrine and from then on referred to a timeless natural law. The Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries placed ethics at the service of reason in order to keep the primitive sides of man in check, especially with Thomas Hobbes. The ethicists of conscience or feeling, among them David Hume and Adam Smith, were more emotional.


Similar to parts of the later published Wealth of Nations, Smith's main moral-philosophical work Theory of Ethical Emotions goes back to his lectures at the University of Glasgow. In 1751 he was appointed professor of logic there, but the position of his former teacher Francis Hutcheson, whom he greatly appreciated, seemed far more interesting to him. In 1752, Smith actually became a professor of moral philosophy. His lectures consisted of four parts: natural theology, ethics in the strict sense, law and economics. The latter was processed in the wealth of nations, the second complex of issues in the theory of ethical feelings. Smith drew on the thoughts of his teacher Hutcheson, but also on the works of John Locke and his friend David Hume. Influences of the ancient philosophers, especially the Stoics, can also be proven. The theory of ethical feelings appeared in London in 1759. Smith used the public criticism and his own insights to edit the book over and over again. Several new editions appeared in the years 1761-1789. The sixth edition was particularly thoroughly revised by Smith. He lived to see it appear before he died in July 1790.

Impact history

Smith's first major work became something of a bestseller. The initial edition was sold within a few weeks. David Hume praised the book and reported in a humorous letter to the author which lords, bishops and dukes had purchased the work. The future Chancellor Charles Townshend was so delighted that he would have liked to hire Smith as a teacher to his stepson, the Duke of Buccleuch - which actually happened four years later. The philosopher Edmund Burke praised Smith in the Annual Register, and a favorable review also appeared in the Monthly Review. The reviewer concluded with the sentence: "In a word - without partiality to the author - he is one of the most elegant and attractive writers in the field of ethics that we know."

The first French translation came out in 1764, and it also earned the applause of the educated classes. Many readers of the original edition loved the book so much that they insisted on trying to translate it themselves. By the end of the 18th century, three of them had appeared in France. The history of the impact in Germany was also more than favorable. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing knew the book and Immanuel Kant was also inspired by it. Even if the research disagrees, parts of Kant's critical writings seem to go back to the theory of ethical sentiments. In particular, the "categorical imperative" borrows significantly from Smith's "impartial viewer", it is said. A letter from a former pupil to Kant mentions that "the Englishman Smith" is Kant's favorite. This reference is from a year when The Wealth of Nations was not yet published, so it probably relates to the theory. The far-reaching influence of the later work then also led to Smith's first work largely disappearing into oblivion. After all, The Wealth of Nations was the beginning of a new development, while the theory represented the preliminary climax of a centuries-old discourse.