The theory of moral sentiments: By Adam Smith, ...
Smith, Adam, 1723-1790.

CHAP. III. Of the utility of this constitution of na|ture.

IT is thus that man, who can subsist on|ly in society, was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made. All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are like|wise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally af|forded from love, from gratitude, from friendship and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy. All the different members of it are bound together by the agreeable bands of love and affection, and are, as it were, drawn to one common centre of mu|tual good offices.

But tho' the necessary assistance should not be afforded from such generous and dis|interested Page  189 motives, tho' among the different members of the society there should be no mutual love and affection, the society, tho' less happy and agreeable, will not necessa|rily be dissolved. Society may subsist among different men, as among different mer|chants, from a sense of its utility, with|out any mutual love or affection; and tho' no one man in it should owe any obliga|tion, or be bound in gratitude to any other, it may still be upheld by a mercenary ex|change of good offices according to an agreed valuation.

Society, however, cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another. The moment that in|jury begins, the moment that mutual re|sentment and animosity take place, all the bands of it are broke asunder, and the dif|ferent members of which it consisted are, as it were, dissipated and scattered abroad by the violence and opposition of their dis|cordant affections. If there is any society among robbers and murderers, they must at least, according to the trite observation, abstain from robbing and murdering one another. Beneficence, therefore, is less essential to the existence of society than Page  190 justice. Society may subsist, tho' not in the most comfortable state, without benefi|cence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it.

Tho' nature, therefore, exhorts mankind to acts of beneficence, by the pleasing con|sciousness of deserved reward, she has not thought it necessary to guard and enforce the practice of it by the terrors of merited punishment in case it should be neglected. It is the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the build|ing, and which it was, therefore, sufficient to recommend, but by no means necessary to impose. Justice, on the contrary, is the main pillar that upholds the whole edi|fice. If it is removed, the great, the im|mense fabric of human society, that fabric which to raise and to support seems in this world, if I may say so, to have been the peculiar and darling care of nature, must in a moment crumble into atoms. To en|force the observation of justice, therefore, nature has implanted in the human breast that consciousness of ill-desert, those ter|rors of merited punishment which attend upon its violation, as the great safe-guards of the association of mankind, to protect Page  191 the weak, to curb the violent, and to chas|tize the guilty. Men, tho' naturally sym|pathetic, feel so little for another, with whom they have no particular connection, in comparison of what they feel for them|selves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow-creature, is of so little impor|tance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own; they have it so much in their power to hurt him, and may have so many temptations to do so, that if this principle did not stand up within them in his defence, and overawe them into a respect for his innocence, they would, like wild beasts, be at all times ready to fly up|on him; and a man would enter an assem|bly of men as he enters a den of lions.

In every part of the universe we observe means adjusted with the nicest artifice to the ends which they are intended to pro|duce; and in the mechanism of a plant, or animal body, admire how every thing is contrived for advancing the two great pur|poses of nature, the support of the indivi|dual, and the propogation of the species. But in these, and in all such objects, we still distinguish the efficient from the final cause of their several motions and organi|zations. Page  192 The digestion of the food, the circulation of the blood, and the secretion of the several juices which are drawn from it, are operations all of them necessary for the great purposes of animal life. Yet we never endeavour to account for them from those purposes as from their efficient causes, nor imagine that the blood circulates, or that the food digests of its own accord, and with a view or intention to the pur|poses of circulation or digestion. The wheels of the watch are all admirably ad|justed to the end for which it was made, the pointing of the hour. All their vari|ous motions conspire in the nicest manner to produce this effect. If they were endow|ed with a desire and intention to produce it, they could not do it better. Yet we ne|ver ascribe any such desire or intention to them, but to the watch-maker, and we know that they are put into motion by a spring, which intends the effect it produces as little as they do. But tho', in account|ing for the operations of bodies, we never fail to distinguish in this manner the effi|cient from the final cause, in accounting for those of the mind we are very apt to confound these two different things with Page  193 one another. When by natural principles we are led to advance those ends, which a refined and enlightened reason would re|commend to us, we are very apt to impute to that reason, as to their efficient cause, the sentiments and actions by which we advance those ends, and to imagine that to be the wisdom of man, which in reality is the wisdom of God. Upon a superficial view this cause seems sufficient to produce the effects which are ascribed to it; and the system of human nature seems to be more simple and agreeable when all its different operations are in this manner deduced from a single principle.

As society cannot subsist unless the laws of justice are tolerably observed, as no so|cial intercourse can take place among men who do not generally abstain from injuring one another; the consideration of this ne|cessity, it has been thought, was the ground upon which we approved of the enforce|ment of the laws of justice by the punish|ment of those who violated them. Man, it has been said, has a natural love for so|ciety, and desires that the union of mankind should be preserved for its own sake, and tho' he himself was to derive no benefit from Page  194 it. The orderly and flourishing state of society is agreeable to him, and he takes delight in contemplating it. It's disorder and confusion, on the contrary, is the ob|ject of his aversion, and he is chagrined at whatever tends to produce it. He is sensible too that his own interest is con|nected with the prosperity of society, and that the happiness, perhaps the preserva|tion of his existence, depends upon its pre|servation. Upon every account, therefore, he has an abhorrence at whatever can tend to destroy society, and is willing to make use of every means, which can hinder so hated, and so dreadful an event. Injustice necessarily tends to destroy it. Every ap|pearance of injustice, therefore, alarms him, and he runs, if I may say so, to stop the progress of what, if allowed to go on, would quickly put an end to every thing that is dear to him. If he cannot restrain it by gentle and fair means, he must beat it down by force and violence, and at any rate must put a stop to its further progress. Hence it is, they say, that he often ap|proves of the enforcement of the laws of justice even by the capital punishment of those who violae them. The disturber of Page  195 the public peace is hereby removed out of the world, and others are terrified by his fate from imitating his example.

Such is the account commonly given of our approbation of the punishment of in|justice. And so far this account is un|doubtedly true that we frequently have oc|casion to confirm our natural sense of the propriety and fitness of punishment by re|flecting how necessary it is for preserving the order of society. When the guilty is about to suffer that just retaliation, which the natural indignation of mankind tells them is due to his crimes; when the inso|lence of his injustice is broken and hum|bled by the terror of his approaching pu|nishment; when he ceases to be an object of fear, with the generous and humane he begins to be an object of pity. The thought of what he is about to suffer extinguishes their resentment for the sufferings of others to which he has given occasion. They are disposed to pardon and forgive him, and to save him from that punishment which in all their cool hours they had considered as the retribution due to such crimes. Here, therefore, they have occasion to call to their assistance the consideration of the Page  196 general interest of society. They counter|balance the impulse of this weak and par|tial humanity, by the dictates of a hu|manity that is more generous and com|prehensive. They reflect that mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent, and oppose to the emotions of compassion which they feel for a particular person, a more enlarged compassion, which they feel for mankind.

Sometimes too we have occasion to de|fend the propriety of observing the general rules of justice by the consideration of their necessity to the support of society. We frequently hear the young and the licenti|ous ridiculing the most sacred rules of mo|rality, and professing, sometimes from the corruption, but more frequently from the vanity of their hearts, the most abomi|nable maxims of conduct. Our indigna|tion rouses, and we are eager to refute and expose such detestable principles. But tho' it is their intrinsic hatefulness and detest|ableness, which originally inflames us against them, we are unwilling to assign this as the sole reason why we condemn them, or to pretend that it is merely be|cause we ourselves hate and detest them. Page  197 The reason, we think, would not appear to be conclusive. Yet why should it not; if we hate and detest them because they are the natural and proper objects of ha|tred and detestation? But when we are asked why we should not act in such or such a manner, the very question seems to sup|pose that, to those who ask it, this manner of acting does not appear to be for its own sake the natural and proper object of those sentiments. We must show them, there|fore, that it ought to be so for the sake of something else. Upon this account we ge|nerally cast about for other arguments, and the consideration which first occurs to us is the disorder and confusion of society which would result from the universal prevalence of such practices. We seldom fail, there|fore, to insist upon this topic.

But tho' it commonly requires no great discernment to see the destructive tendency of all licentious practices to the welfare of society, it is seldom this consideration which first animates us against them. All men, even the most stupid and unthink|ing, abhor fraud, perfidy, and injustice, and delight to see them punished. But few men have reflected upon the necessity Page  198 of justice to the existence of society, how obvious soever that necessity may appear to be.

That it is not a regard to the preserva|tion of society, which originally interests us in the punishment of crimes committed against individuals, may be demonstrated by many obvious considerations. The con|cern which we take in the fortune and hap|piness of individuals does not, in common cases, arise from that which we take in the fortune and happiness of society. We are no more concerned for the destruction or loss of a single man, because this man is a member or part of society, and because we should be concerned for the destruction of society, than we are concerned for the loss of a single guinea, because this guinea is a part of a thousand guineas, and be|cause we should be concerned for the loss of the whole sum. In neither case does our regard for the individuals arise from our regard for the multitude; but in both cases our regard for the multitude is com|pounded and made up of the particular regards which we feel for the different in|dividuals of which it is composed. As when a small sum is unjustly taken from Page  199 us we do not so much prosecute the injury from a regard to the preservation of our whole fortune, as from a regard to that particular sum which we have lost; so when a single man is injured or destroyed we demand the punishment of the wrong that has been done to him, not so much from a concern for the general interest of society, as from a concern for that very in|dividual who has been injured. It is to be observed, however, that this concern does not necessarily include in it any de|gree of those exquisite sentiments which are commonly called love, esteem and af|fection, and by which we distinguish our particular friends and acquaintance. The concern which is requisite for this is no more than the general fellow-feeling which we have with every man merely because he is our fellow-creature. We enter into the resentment even of an odious person, when he is injured by those to whom he has given no provocation. Our disapprobation of his ordinary character and conduct does not in this case altogether prevent our fel|low-feeling with his natural indignation; tho' with those who are not either extreme|ly candid, or who have not been accus|tomed Page  200 to correct and regulate their natu|ral sentiments by general rules, it is very apt to damp it.

Upon some occasions, indeed, we both punish and approve of punishment, mere|ly from a view to the general interest of society, which, we imagine, cannot other|wise be secured. Of this kind are all the punishments inflicted for breaches of what is called either civil police, or military dis|cipline. Such crimes do not immediately or directly hurt any particular person; but their remote consequences, it is supposed, do produce, or might produce, either a considerable inconveniency, or a great dis|order in the society. A centinel, for ex|ample, who falls asleep upon his watch, suffers death by the laws of war, because such carelessness might endanger the whole army. This severity may, upon many oc|casions, appear necessary, and, for that reason, just and proper. When the pre|servation of an individual is inconsistent with the safety of a multitude, nothing can be more just than that the many should be preferred to the one. Yet this punishment, how necessary soever, always appears to be excessively severe. The natural atrocity of Page  201 the crime seems to be so little, and the punishment so great, that it is with diffi|culty that our heart can reconcile itself to it. Though such carelessness appears very blameable, yet the thought of this crime does not naturally excite any such resent|ment, as would prompt us to take such dreadful revenge. A man of humanity must recollect himself, must make an ef|fort, and exert his whole firmness and re|solution, before he can bring himself either to inflict it, or to go along with it when it is inflicted by others. It is not, how|ever, in this manner, that he looks upon the just punishment of an ungrateful mur|derer or parricide. His heart, in this case, applauds with ardour, and even with trans|port, the just retaliation which seems due to such detestable crimes, and which, if, by any accident, they should happen to escape, he would be highly enraged and disappointed. The very different senti|ments with which the spectator views those different punishments, is a proof that his approbation of the one is far from being founded upon the same principles with that of the other. He looks upon the centinel as an unfortunate victim, who, indeed, Page  202 must, and ought to be, devoted to the safety of numbers, but whom still, in his heart, he would be glad to save; and he is only sorry, that the interest of the many should oppose it. But if the murderer should escape from punishment, it would excite his highest indignation, and he would call upon God to avenge, in an|other world, that crime which the injus|tice of mankind had neglected to chastise upon earth.

For it well deserves to be taken notice of, that we are so far from imagining that injustice ought to be punished in this life, merely on account of the order of society, which cannot otherwise be maintained, that nature teaches us to hope, and reli|gion authorises us to expect, that it will be punished, even in a life to come. Our sense of its ill desert pursues it, if I may say so, even beyond the grave, though the example of its punishment there cannot serve to deter the rest of mankind, who see it not, who know it not, from being guil|ty of the like practices here. The justice of God, however, we think, still requires, that he should hereafter avenge the inju|ries Page  203 of the widow and the fatherless, who are here so often insulted with impunity.

That the Deity loves virtue and hates vice, as a voluptuous man loves riches and hates poverty, not for their own sakes, but for the effects which they tend to pro|duce; that he loves the one, only because it promotes the happiness of society, which his benevolence prompts him to desire; and that he hates the other, only because it oc|casions the misery of mankind, which the same divine quality renders the object of his aversion; is not the doctrine of nature, but of an artificial, though ingenious, re|finement of philosophy. All our natural sentiments prompt us to believe, that as perfect virtue is supposed necessarily to ap|pear to the Deity, as it does to us, for its own sake, and without any further view, the natural and proper object of love and reward, so must vice, of hatred and pu|nishment. That the gods neither resent nor hurt, was the general maxim of all the different sects of the ancient philoso|phy: and if, by resenting, be understood, that violent and disorderly perturbation, which often distracts and confounds the human breast; or if, by hurting, be un|derstood, Page  204 the doing mischief wantonly, and without regard to propriety or justice, such weakness is undoubtedly unworthy of the divine perfection. But if it be meant, that vice does not appear to the Deity to be, for its own sake, the object of abhor|rence and aversion, and what, for its own sake, it is fit and right should be punished, the truth of this maxim can, by no means, be so easily admitted. If we consult our natural sentiments, we are apt to fear, lest before the holiness of God, vice should appear to be more worthy of punishment than the weakness and imperfection of hu|man virtue can ever seem to be of reward. Man, when about to appear before a be|ing of infinite perfection, can feel but little confidence in his own merit, or in the im|perfect propriety of his own conduct. In the presence of his fellow-creatures, he may often justly elevate himself, and may of|ten have reason to think highly of his own character and conduct, compared to the still greater imperfection of theirs. But the case is quite different when about to appear before his infinite Creator. To such a being, he can scarce imagine, that his littleness and weakness should ever seem Page  205 to be the proper object, either of esteem or of reward. But he can easily conceive▪ how the numberless violations of duty, of which he has been guilty, should render him the proper object of aversion and pu|nishment; neither can he see any reason why the divine indignation should not be let loose without any restraint, upon so vile an insect, as he is sensible that he himself must appear to be. If he would still hope for happiness, he is conscious that he can|not demand it from the justice, but that he must entreat it from the mercy of God. Repentance, sorrow, humiliation, contri|tion at the thought of his past conduct, are, upon this account, the sentiments which become him, and seem to be the only means which he has left for appeasing that wrath which, he knows, he has just|ly provoked. He even distrusts the effi|cacy of all these, and naturally fears, lest the wisdom of God should not, like the weakness of man, be prevailed upon to spare the crime, by the most importunate lamentations of the criminal. Some other intercession, some other sacrifice, some other atonement, he imagines, must be made for him, beyond what he himself is ca|pable Page  206 of making, before the purity of the divine justice can be reconciled to his ma|nifold offences. The doctrines of revela|tion coincide, in every respect, with those original anticipations of nature; and, as they teach us how little we can depend upon the imperfection of our own virtue, so they show us, at the same time, that the most powerful intercession has been made, and that the most dreadful atone|ment has been paid for our manifold trans|gressions and iniquities.