On this we need only to remark that it is an interesting and valuable contribution to the history and the criticism of the Ethical systems.
The Ethical theory of Adam Smith may be thus summed up:—
I.—The Ethical Standard is the judgment of an impartial spectator or critic; and our own judgments are derived by reference to what this spectator would approve or disapprove.
Probably to no one has this ever appeared a sufficient account of Right and Wrong. It provides against one defect, the self-partiality of the agent; but gives no account whatever of the grounds of the critic’s own judgment, and makes no provision against his fallibility. It may be very well on points where men’s moral sentiments are tolerably unanimous, but it is valueless in all questions where there are fundamental differences of view.
II.—In the Psychology of Ethics, Smith would consider the moral Faculty as identical with the power of Sympathy, which he treats as the foundation of Benevolence. A man is a moral being in proportion as he can enter into, and realize, the feelings, sentiments, and opinions of others.
Now, as morality would never have existed but for the necessity of protecting one human being against another, the power of the mind that adopts other people’s interests and views must always be of vital moment as a spring of moral conduct; and Adam Smith has done great service in developing the workings of the sympathetic impulse.
He does not discuss Free-will. On the question of Disinterested Conduct, he gives no clear opinion. While denying that our sympathetic impulses are a refinement of self-love, he would seem to admit that they bring their own pleasure with them; so that, after all, they do not detract from our happiness. In other places, he recognizes self-sacrifice, but gives no analysis of the motives that lead to it; and seems to think, with many other moralists, that it requires a compensation in the next world.
III.—His theory of the constituents of Happiness is simple, primitive, and crude, but is given with earnest conviction. Ambition he laughs to scorn. ’What, he asks, can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?’ Again, ’the chief part of happiness consists in the consciousness of being beloved, hence, sudden changes of fortune seldom contribute to happiness.’ But what he dwells upon most persistently, as the prime condition of happiness, is Contentment, and Tranquillity.
IV.—On the Moral Code, he has nothing peculiar. As to the means and inducements to morality, he does not avail himself of the fertility of his own principle of Sympathy. Appeals to sympathy, and the cultivation of the power of entering into the feelings of others, could easily be shown to play a high part in efficacious moral suasion.