Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos

Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments

Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_121-1


The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with the following observation which largely sets the tenor of the book. Smith, far from depending on the depersonalized and egocentric “invisible hand” to explain human social and economic action, was fully aware of the more altruistic aspect of human nature in the form sympathy for others:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the...

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Coldwell DAL (2015) Custom and moral sentiment: cross-cultural aspects of postgraduate student perceptions of leadership ethicality. J Bus Ethics. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2951-3. Accessed 23 Nov 2015CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Smith A (1759[1976]) The theory of moral sentiments. Macfie AA and Raphael DD (eds) Oxford, Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Smith A (2007) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. http://www.ibiblio.org/ml/libri/s/SmithA_WealthNations_p.pdf. Accessed 3 June 2016
  4. Szmigin I, Rutherford R (2013) Shared value and the impartial spectator test. J Bus Ethics 114:171–182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Werhane PH (1991) Adam Smith and his legacy for modern capitalism. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Economic and Business SciencesUniversity of WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Coldwell
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa