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

CHAP. III. Of the final cause of this irregularity of sentiments.

SUCH is the effect of the good or bad consequences of actions upon the sen|timents both of the person who performs them, and of others; and thus, fortune, which governs the world, has some influ|ence where we should be least willing to allow her any, and directs in some mea|sure Page  238 the sentiments of mankind, with re|gard to the character and conduct both of themselves and others. That the world judges by the event, and not by the design, has been in all ages the complaint, and is the great discouragement of virtue. Every body agrees to the general maxim, that as the event does not depend on the agent, it ought to have no influence upon our sentiments, with regard to the merit or propriety of his conduct. But when we come to particulars, we find that our sen|timents are scarce in any one instance ex|actly conformable to what this equitable maxim would direct. The happy or un|prosperous event of any action, is not on|ly apt to give us a good or bad opinion of the prudence with which it was conduct|ed, but almost always too animates our gratitude or resentment, our sense of the merit or demerit of the design.

Nature, however, when she implanted the seeds of this irregularity in the human breast, seems, as upon all other occasions, to have intended the happiness and perfec|tion of the species. If the hurtfulness of the design, if the malevolence of the affec|tion, were alone the causes which excit|ed Page  239 our resentment, we should feel all the furies of that passion against any person in whose breast we suspected or believed such designs or affections were haboured, though they had never broke out into any action. Sentiments, thoughts, intentions, would become the objects of punishment; and if the indignation of mankind run as high against them as against actions; if the baseness of the thought which had given birth to no action, seemed in the eyes of the world as much to call aloud for vengeance as the baseness of the action, every court of judicature would become a real inquisition. There would be no safety for the most innocent and circum|spect conduct. Bad wishes, bad views, bad designs, might still be suspected; and while these excited the same indignation with bad conduct, while bad intentions were as much resented as bad actions, they would equally expose the person to punish|ment and resentment. Actions therefore which either produce actual evil, or at|tempt to produce it, and thereby put us in the immediate fear of it, are by the au|thor of nature rendered the only proper and approved objects of human punish|ment Page  230 and resentment. Sentiments, designs, affections, though it is from these that ac|cording to cool reason human actions derive their whole merit or demerit, are placed by the great Judge of hearts beyond the li|mits of every human jurisdiction, and are reserved for the cognizance of his own un|erring tribunal. That necessary rule of justice, therefore, that men in this life are liable to punishment for their actions on|ly, not for their designs and intentions, is founded upon this salutary and useful ir|regularity in human sentiments concern|ing merit or demerit, which at first sight appears so absurd and unaccountable. But every part of nature, when attentively surveyed, equally demonstrates the provi|dential care of its author, and we may ad|mire the wisdom and goodness of God even in the weakness and folly of men.

Nor is that irregularity of sentiments altogether without its utility, by which the merit of an unsuccessful attempt to serve, and much more that of meer good inclinations and kind wishes, appears to be imperfect. Man was made for action, and to promote by the exertion of his faculties such changes in the external circumstances Page  241 both of himself and others, as may seem most favourable to the happiness of all. He must not be satisfied with indolent be|nevolence, nor fancy himself the friend of mankind, because in his heart he wishes well to the prosperity of the world. That he may call forth the whole vigour of his soul, and strain every nerve, in order to produce those ends which it is the purpose of his being to advance, nature has taught him, that neither himself nor mankind can be fully satisfied with his conduct, nor be|stow upon it the full measure of applause, unless he has actually produced them. He is made to know, that the praise of good intentions, without the merit of good of|fices, will be but of little avail to excite either the loudest acclamations of the world, or even the highest degree of self-pplause. The man who has performed o single action of importance, but whose whole conversation and deportment express he justest, the noblest, and most generous entiments, can be intitled to demand no ery high reward, even tho' his inutility hould be owing to nothing but the want f an opportunity to serve. We can still efuse it him without blame. We can Page  242 still ask him, What have you done? What actual service can you produce, to intitle you to so great a recompence? We esteem you, and love you; but we owe you no|thing. To reward indeed that latent vir|tue which has been useless only for want of an opportunity to serve, to bestow upon it those honours and preferments which, tho' in some measure it may be said to deserve them, it could not with propriety have in|sisted upon, is the effect of the most divine benevolence. To punish, on the contrary, for the affections of the heart only, where no crime has been committed, is the most insolent and barbarous tyranny. The be|nevolent affections seem to deserve most praise, when they do not wait till it be|comes almost a crime for them not to exert themselves. The malevolent, on the con|trary, can scarce be too tardy, too slow or deliberate.

It is even of use that the evil which is done without design should be regarded as a misfortune to the doer as well as to the sufferer. Man is thereby taught to reve|rence the happiness of his brethren, to tremble lest he should, even unknowingly, do any thing that can hurt them, and to Page  243 dread that animal resentment which he feels is ready to burst out against him, if he should without design be the unhappy ins|trument of their calamity.

Notwithstanding, however, all these seeming irregularities of sentiment, if man should unfortunately either give occasion to those evils which he did not intend, or fail in producing that good which he intended, nature has not left his innocence altogether without consolation, nor his virtue alto|gether without reward. He then calls to his assistance that just and equitable ma|xim, that those events which did not de|pend upon our conduct ought not to di|minish the esteem that is due to us. He summons up his whole magnanimity and firmness of soul, and strives to regard him|self, not in the light in which he at present appears, but in that in which he ought to appear, in which he would have appeared had his generous designs been crowned with success, and in which he would still appear notwithstanding their miscarriage, f the sentiments of mankind were either altogether candid and equitable, or even perfectly consistent with themselves. The more candid and humane part of mankind Page  244 intirely go along with the effort which he thus makes to support himself in his own opinion. They exert their whole genero|sity and greatness of mind, to correct in themselves this irregularity of human na|ture, and endeavour to regard his unfor|tunate magnanimity in the same light in which, had it been successful, they would, without any such generous exertion, have naturally been disposed to consider it.