Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

Examination of Dr Smith’s System

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Abstract

Reproduced here is a selection of Thomas Brown’s Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, first published in Edinburgh in 1820, on Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The selection is representative of numerous criticisms that came forth in the decades following Smith’s death in 1790. Brown says that Smith holds that our moral sentiments “are supposed to flow from sympathy.” Brown, however, objects: “In the number of petty affairs which are hourly before our eyes, what sympathy is felt”? Moreover, sympathy is “one of the most irregular and seemingly capricious of principles.” And even if we were to grant that sympathy were “as universal as [Smith] contends,” the sentiment that is shared must exist as our own sentiment prior to any experience of sympathy, just as a source must produce a sound before that sound can be echoed in a canyon, or as an object must produce an image before that image can be reflected in a mirror. Brown thus charges Smith with circularity. There must be, apart from sympathy, he says, “an independent capacity of moral emotion” based on “moral notions of what is right and wrong.” Moral sentiment, then, is not dependent on sympathy.