1. Of the Propriety of Action
Man, like all creatures, exists as individuals. We perceive the world in relation to our selves and seek to survive and prosper as individuals. But however selfish a man may be, there are "evidently some principles in his nature" that interest him in the fortune of others of his species.
A man tends to be pleased at witnessing the good fortune of others, though he personally derives no functional benefit from their success. He also tends to be displeased at witnessing the misfortune of others, though their piteous state has no direct impact upon himself. These sentiments are too commonplace to require any complex proof, but must be accepted as aspects of human nature.
There is no collective consciousness or perception, and there is no way we can feel what another person feels. And as such, the way in which we consider the suffering of others is through imagination: primarily, we imagine what we ourselves should feel like in their situation, based upon our perception and experiences. The emotions that we feel are thus different to those of others whose situations we perceive.
(EN: This is backed by neuroscience, exactly thus. The activity in the mind of a person who witnesses the suffering of others is similar to the pattern of a person who is actually suffering. But "similar" is not exactly the same - our response is to what we imagine their situation to be like, based on our experience - but our sentiment is not exactly what the other person's experience actually is - though the latter tends to be our assumption.)
Imagination is thus the source of our feelings when we witness the fortune or misfortune of others - a flight of fancy in which we take the place of the other party and fantasize about how we would feel in his situation.
We can notice the sympathetic physical responses people have to witnessing pain: when we see another person injured our hand moves to protect the very same part of our own bodies. We do so even in anticipation of injury, and have a general uneasy sensation. We may even express a tingling or itching sensation in the very same parts.
We are also sympathetic to psychological experiences, as can readily be witnessed in entertainment: we feel sympathy toward the protagonist and have an emotional experience that follows what we imagine the character's to be. We feel victorious when the hero wins, relief when the victim is saved, gratitude toward those who lend support, anger at the villain, etc.
(EN: The same happens in real life, and its worth noting that people seem to be inclined to seek situations that will arouse their emotions largely for entertainment purposes: a person who volunteers for charity is seeking to experience the range of emotions, in effect feeding on those of the beneficiaries to experience a simulacrum of despair, hope, and ultimately relief.)
Our sympathies can also be aroused merely by witnessing the emotions of others without being aware of their causes. The phenomenon of mass panic is largely due to people who experience panic at the distress of others though they may be unaware of the cause. We have merely witnessed signals that suggest a person is experiencing emotion, interpret what that emotion might be, and possibly experience some reflection of it in ourselves - though this is less pronounced.
Our ability to be moved by the emotional expressions of others is largely a learned and cultural behavior. Most people have some level of ability to do this, but it is also prone to being highly inaccurate. (EN: Charles Darwin made an extensive investigation into this in "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals" and has very much the same observation about accuracy of interpretation.)
Our sympathies to the emotions of others are not entirely automatic, but largely depend on more advanced thinking. The level to which we are grieved by witnessing the suffering of others depends greatly on our assessment of the sufferer. The more we admire someone, the more we will sympathize with their pain - and should we revile someone, it is even possible we may take pleasure in seeing them distressed. This does not require deliberate thought or assessment, but involves greater cognitive interpretation than a mere reflex action. It is also subject to greater inaccuracy.
A further example of the subjective nature of sympathy can be experienced when we mistake the emotional signals of another person:
- We imagine a person to be pained or sad when they are merely tired. Our initial emotional reaction to their condition reflects our interpretation of their state, which is not their actual state
- We have sympathy for the emotional expressions of the insane - those who have lost their rational capacity and may laugh or cry with no connection to their condition can also arouse sympathy in observers (until they recognize the individual's reactions as irrational).
- Any parent feels distress at the wailing of an infant, though they do not immediately know what is causing the distress (although over time they develop the ability to associate the infant's behaviors to specific causes of distress). It can also be observed that a parent may become inured to cries of distress.
And to go a step further, sympathetic emotions can be aroused in the absence of another person. The example of drama was previously mentioned, but we have the same reaction to factional accounts - such that a story in a newspaper can arouse an emotional reaction about events we have not witnessed first-hand.
Neither does our sympathy involve concern for the welfare of others: we feel emotions even toward people who are dead, and whose condition cannot be improved by any action we might wish to undertake to help them. We have compassion for the pain they suffered prior to death, and even experience a sense of horror at the thought of being confined in a coffin beneath the cold earth.
Though it may seem ironic, our sympathy for others is an entirely selfish emotion: aroused by our imagination, deluded by our interpretation, subject to our biases, and serving no social purpose. We may or may not be moved by our sympathies to act on behalf of others, but sympathy in itself is entirely self-contained and self-serving.
(EN: Even to suggest that the actions we take that benefit others are social in nature is not entirely accurate - the functional benefit of charity to others is less motivating than the emotional and psychological benefit to oneself. That others have been helped is coincidental - which is evident enough in the pleasure people take in misguided action that renders no real benefit to others, but enables the patron to experience pleasant emotions.)
Of the Pleasure of Mutual Sympathy
By "mutual sympathy" Smith means that the perceived emotions of other people match our own emotions. We feel safety and confidence when we perceive that other people are having the same emotional reaction as ourselves. We likewise feel awkward and unsafe when our emotional reactions are not the same as those we perceive in others.
From a functional perspective, the matching of emotional reactions creates a sense of security - others are able to accurately interpret our distress and are therefore expected to be motivated to render assistance, and are expected to do so in an appropriate and effective manner. Because we understand one another, we can trust in one another, which is a fundamental requirement to forming a group or a society.
It's also mentioned that people are more inclined to communicate to others about disagreeable than agreeable emotions. And this is largely functional. We need no assistance from others when we are feeling good, but may require their support or assistance when we are feeling poorly. But there is also an emotional component in that we do take some pleasure in finding that others are sympathetic to our plight, which validates our emotional response and provides a reassurance that they may be willing to render assistance when it is necessary.
(EN: My sense is that emotional mismatch may also have some value in these instances. While Darwin asserts that this creates awkwardness and displeasure, a lack of emotional response in others may give us pause to consider whether our emotions are valid, to become more objectively analytical and adjust our emotional response. That is, we feel better because we realize our situation is not so dire, as prompted by the mismatching emotional response of others.)
On an individual level, shared emotional responses are the basis for friendship and love between two people. Once friendship has been established, it can withstand some mismatches so long as the bond that was formed by shared emotions is stronger than our discontent at a later incident. The same can be said of enmity between men - that the disliking that is established biases us toward continuing to dislike them even when emotional responses coincide.
Mutual sympathy is bilateral: not only do we feel good when others match our emotional states, but we feel good when we are able to match the emotional states of others. When we are emotionally synchronized with outers, we are more inclined to congratulate them on their successes and express condolences for their failures. It feels as good, or better, to love someone than to be loved by them because the sensation is more personal, albeit more removed from the source. And again, the reverse is true in instances of enmity. We take displeasure in seeing a person whom we dislike enjoying success and pleasure in seeing their failure.
There is also the matter of the degree of emotion: to see someone happy with their success pleases us, but if their happiness seems disproportionate to their success, we again sense a mismatch in emotions and become uncomfortable. Consider your reaction when someone laughs louder or longer at a joke than you think it deserves - it begins very quickly to feel like mockery.
Assessing the Emotions of Others
When we are aware of the cause of an emotional reaction in another person, we make a subjective assessment: if they react in the way and degree we imagine that we would, then we assess their reaction to be proper and acceptable - or improper, if there is a mismatch.
Here our assessment becomes even less accurate, as the way in which we imagine that we would react in an emotionally intense situation is very often idealized, and is not in fact the way we would react, but the way in which we assume we ought to react.
Smith suggests the same to be true in matters of intellect as well: if two people find the same argument to be convincing, then surely they must be alike in their opinions. (EN: I do not entirely agree here, but concede that is likely the case in most instances - but two people may reach the same conclusion through different premises, and are often rather shocked to find that they have radically different beliefs than a person with whom they often agree.)
There are instances in which we approve without experiencing a sympathetic emotional reaction - such as when we do not have within our personal history an experience similar enough for us to imagine what the proper emotional reaction might be, and therefore can only assess whether the other party's reaction seems reasonable. We may also recognize the influence of mood - to find it acceptable that others might laugh at something when we ourselves do not because of the influence of other factors on our overall demeanor - though we expect that if it were not for our present mood we might join in the laughter.
He mentions that philosophers of "late years" (EN: by which I am unsure whether he means recent philosophies or elderly philosophers) have attempted to separate emotion from the events that cause it - but love, grief, resentment, and the like are not things unto themselves, but are attributed to a cause. We cannot judge an emotion, even a negative one, to be wholly wrong in all circumstances, as there are many in which a negative reaction is entirely justified.
There can likely be no objective and impersonal method of assessing emotions, because emotions are subjective and personal. We can only judge the feelings of others in their similarity and difference to our own.
Differences in Emotion
Where we interpret a person's emotional response to be similar to what our own would be in character and degree, "we ascribe to hum the qualities of taste and good judgment." We feel a sense of companionship with that person and are comfortable in his company.
When we have developed a sense of respect and admiration for a person, we may even find that his sentiments direct our own because we presume his reactions to be legitimate and are taken as a reliable standard for our own. This is true of personal acquaintances, but also of renowned "authorities" on various subjects.
There is also a brief mention of an individual's tendency to respect or disrespect the opinions of others in general. Those who have a general admiration of their fellow man and presume them to be intelligent and honest will be more inclined to place credit in their emotional reactions, much as they do in their rational ideas. Those who hold their fellow man in low esteem and presume them to be stupid and dishonest tend to place little credit and much suspicion in their reactions and ideas.
We also have a clear sense that emotional reactions are based on experience and perception, and understand other people do not perceive or interpret events differently because they have different information about the incident and different inclinations due to their personal experience. This can impact our judgment of others, but does not necessarily do so if we are aware of the differences that lead them to have a different emotional reaction to ourselves.
We are likewise aware of the difference in reactions between spectators of an incident and those who are directly impacted by it. Spectators can only assume the effects of the incident, and may underestimate or overestimate its gravity - though they do tend to be accurate as to its basic nature.
The psychology of groups is particularly complex. Each person experiences his own emotional responses and those of others, is constantly assessing one against the other and having a separate response that mitigates his initial reaction and adds other reactions to the mix. Then, we respond to the way others respond to us, while they are responding to the way we respond to them.
The whole thing is a terrible mess and we do not generally invest much conscious thought into sorting it out. We cannot possibly do this in real time. Even when we reflect upon events later, our memory is imperfect and we distort perception to suit our preconceptions. And yet we must, and the net result is that we bumble through social encounters, somehow managing to handle them well much of the time, which is deeply amazing considering their complexity.
Amiable and Respectable Virtues
It should be clear that emotion is very often the basis of morality. When we assess the practical outcome of a prospective action, this is considered to be outside the realm of ethics - but when we consider the emotional impact of the action or any of its consequences (intentional or otherwise), it becomes an argument of morality.
Smith draws some distinction between minor and seemingly inconsequential impacts of certain virtues in which we consider transgression to be of little interest, and those impacts we consider to be significant or important enough to pass judgment on others. A person need not be considered "nice" to be respected.
(EN: He speaks for a time about the behaviors that were found to be acceptable in his society and time, many of which persevere to the present day - but much of it seems like random notions rather than a structured argument so I'm not taking many notes.)
Much of morality comes down to very primitive and binary assessment of good and bad.
- People are assessed to be good or bad
- Actions are assessed to be good or bad
- Actions that help a good person are assessed as good
- Actions that harm a good person are assessed as bad
- Actions that help a bad person are assessed as bad
- Actions that harm a bad person are assessed as good
There is no neutral territory, though there are instances in which we are unable to assess a person or an action as good or bad that leave us puzzled or indifferent - though we may form an attitude that any "unknown" is good or bad for superficial reasons.
There is also some difference between virtue and propriety -which largely deals with the knowledge of the actor. A person who acts because they consider the consequences is assessed as virtuous. A person who follows a pattern of behavior out of ritual, unthinking, may be acting in a proper manner, but is not assessed as virtuous.
Correspondingly, there is also the degree to which we are inclined to hold others responsible for undertaking the effort to weigh their consequences - some actions can be performed thoughtlessly, others merit careful consideration. The difference is generally due to the potential to cause unintentional harm implicit in the action or its consequences.
A person who does harm while attending to matters of propriety is still regarded with some contempt, but it is mitigated by the recognition that it was not his intention to do harm. He is not blameless, and is blamed for failure to think things through - but it is not generally assumed he did harm intentionally, merely negligently.
This is different to a more technical evaluation of the consequences of action, which pertain more to the ability of the actor. When a critic judges a painting to be "bad" it is not necessarily a moral evaluation, but an evaluation of the capabilities of the painter - though there are instances in which the "message" of a piece of art is morally reprehensible, this is different to the technical analysis that focuses entirely on the skill of execution.
The Proper Degrees of Different Emotions
We experience emotions with differing degrees of intensity, according to the intensity of the cause and the degree to which we are inclined to react. People within a culture tend to agree and form an expectation of what a normal emotional reaction would be, but there is greater argument of the degree to which the emotions should become excited.
Smith notes that too low a level of passion means the emotion hardly registers at all - but too high a level of passion also renders the subject unable to feel the emotion itself, but merely a sense of shock such as when sudden news of grave misfortune leaves a person stunned.
This pertains to the personal sensation of emotion, but another concern is the degree to which people are culturally trained to experience emotions. We may judge the way others ought to react and compare it to their level of passion, but we also consider the level of passion we should permit ourselves to feel and attempt to constrain our emotions within the proper degrees.
In terms of our relationships to others, we have the greatest liking and sympathy for those who express the proper level of the proper emotion in a given situation, and may even have contempt for those whose level or nature of emotion we deem to be improper. And conforming to propriety of degree is a method of expressing or obeying cultural norms.
Emotions Originating from the Body
In general, it is considered improper for a person to express a strong degree of emotions that arise from sensations that arise within our own bodies, which is likely because these cannot be observed by others and they cannot understand the source of the emotional reaction.
For example, it is considered "ill manners" to display hunger and to eat at a moderate pace no matter how strongly we feel the need for food. We can understand the pangs of hunger in extreme situations of starvation, but even though we may be forgiving we nonetheless consider it base and vulgar for even a starving man to set upon a meal with too much enthusiasm. At the same time, a companion who refrains from eating at all in the company of those who are eating is also considered to be ill-mannered and unsociable.
Sexual appetite is also of great interest to society, and the expression of sexual desire in the presence of others is considered to be among the most contemptible violations of social norms. But at the same time we feel that there must be some distinctions based on gender, and that it is improper for a man to speak to a woman in the same manner in which he would speak to another man. (EN: This has likely changed, to a great degree, since the author's time as the sexes in the present day are more egalitarian and some distinctions once considered to be "good manners" presently give offense.)
To some degree we have the same type of aversion to the expression of any bodily appetite or need. The term "temperance" generally applies to controlling bodily appetites - to bear the discomfort of neglect, to be moderate in the amount and manner of consumption, and in general to pretend that these appetites do not exist at all or are of little interest or consequence is the standard of society in the author's place and time.
Smith also mentions that we can be quite subjective in our attitude toward bodily appetites: consider the ritual of clearing the table immediately after a meal - as the food that was desirable to us when we felt hunger is no longer desirable, and may be loathsome, as soon as our appetite has been sated.
There is a slightly different attitude toward pain, though it is also moderated. To cry out with bodily pain is considered unmanly, though it is more tolerated in the weaker members of society (children, women, and the elderly) - but even in them, a disproportionate expression of pain is loathsome and, except in instances of extreme injury that requires functional assistance, we are expected to conceal our suffering from others - particularly when there are no outward signs of discomfort.
It is also remarked that there are occasions in which the perception of another's misfortune arouses sympathy so strong that there is a physical reaction to it. One may feel distressed or even faint at the sight of a surgical operation and to retch at the sound or smell of someone else's vomiting. This does tend to be mitigated by experience: a medical student may pass out on sight of an amputation, but when he has seen and performed the procedure multiple times he has no such reaction and becomes inured to the sensations.
Smith reckons that the lack of sympathy for pain in his culture was attributed to the social norm of patiently enduring all forms of discomfort - those who can endure great pain without reacting are admired, and those who react dramatically to mild discomfort are viewed with contempt. It is a sentiment that is reflected in Western literature, secular and non-secular, for centuries.
Emotions Originating from the Imagination
In the authors time, there was also a great deal more tolerance for emotions of a person that originate from imagination: a business failure, a disappointment in love, etc. are expressed in sadness and melancholy that arises from a person who imagines that as a result they will lose their dignity, be cast off from friends, and fall into dependence. People sympathize much more readily with this than they do with bodily sensations.
He also mentions that we sympathize with the sensitivity of those who have experienced pain or loss - understanding that their past experience has made them more acutely sensitive and more likely to fret and worry themselves, to react with disproportionate sorrow or take anger at anything that suggests a similar misfortune to the one they had experienced.
Of course, the degree to which a man can be sympathetic to the imaginary misfortunes of others reflects the degree to which he has experienced or can imagine himself in their situation. One who has never taken a loss in business or been betrayed by a friend cannot conceive of the emotional distress it causes to those who have.
An enlightened person also recognizes that the imagination is highly individualistic, and tends to be tolerant even in situations when he cannot conceive the reason another person should be experiencing pain or pleasure. Love, in particular, is recognized as being highly idiosyncratic and we may tolerate an excess of emotion in a friend who is "in love" even though we would not react in the same way. Grief is also an emotion that is individual and idiosyncratic in its expression, and behavior that seems bizarre is tolerated when it is caused by grief.
Love, however, is complex because it is not a singular emotion, but a situation in which multiple emotions are occurring. It entails a broad array of sensations of both hope and fear - though he vacillates a bit between which is the "primary" and which the "secondary" emotions. We understand that we lose control of ourselves in such an emotional state, and expect that others will as well, acting in ways that seem irrational. And therefore, irrationality is the reaction that is prescribed by cultural norms.
From a perspective of the social norms of Smith's time, there is a sense of propriety in determining what information you disclose about yourself and to whom it is disclosed - largely based on their need to know and the interest they might take. You might speak about your academic studies to others who are interested in the same subject, but to a lesser degree with close friends who have no interest but will tolerate some disclosure, to a much lesser degree to strangers, and not at all to those whom you know to be wholly disinterested or even offended by the subjects that fascinate you.
Said another way: a philosopher may be a philosopher only in the company of other philosophers. At home with his wife, he is merely a man and the subject of his fascination is of no interest to her.
Hatred and resentment are emotions that may be entirely righteous and even rightful in certain situations, but we recognize the need to control them rather than allow them to express themselves in their full degree, and we place the same expectation upon others.
We do, however, relish these emotions and the flights of fantasy that arise as we imagine vengeance or justice upon our tormentors. Western literature is replete with both heroes and villains for whom hatred is the core of their motivation to act, and we fancy ourselves noble and purposeful when we engage in the same activates.
Culture also regards as weak the individual who tamely sits still and submits to the insults and injuries inflicted on him by others without any attempt to repel or revenge them. And nothing stirs the ire of the public more than to see injury done upon a hapless victim who is unable to defend or revenge himself.
(EN: He does not seem to mention that to bear suffering without retaliation is a religious principle, particularly pronounced in western Catholicism, though Protestantism does much to reverse this or at least apply it selectively - to expect forgiveness from others while demanding vengeance for oneself.)
At the same time, we also acknowledge these emotions to be unsocial - that an exchange of insults and retaliations between two individuals escalates and often drags their friends and well-wishers into allegiance in a broad and ongoing feud between larger groups of people, all arising from some negligible offense.
Broaden this to the political institutions of the courts and prisons, and an entire legal system that is arranged to inflict suffering upon those who have caused others to suffer. Society at large demands punishment for wrongdoing, and even those who are not personally affected by a crime petition for the punishment of those who have done harm to others in a way that makes it socially acceptable to bear hatred toward the offender for his actions.
The penal system also reaches beyond vengeance for doing harm to others, to punish those whose behaviors are harmless but of which the majority of society does not approve. Those whose appetite for alcohol or sex exceeds the norms of society are likewise imprisoned even in instances in which they have harmed none but themselves.
Hatred further divides society in alliances: we approve of others who hate the same things we hate, and disapprove of those who do not, or who hate things we do not hate. Few emotions are as polarizing as hatred - as we do not see joy, grief, admiration, devotion, or any other emotions as being so quick to result in alliance and enmity.
(EN: I do not think this is strictly as, as people who admire the same things generally become friends and form a clique that is closed to outsiders who do not. However, there is greater tolerance for outsiders - we do not seek to take action to punish those who do not share our interests, but merely shun their company and regard them as unsophisticated. The function is entirely similar, though the effects less dramatic than with negative emotions.)
"Hatred and anger are the greatest poison to the happiness of a good mind," Smith writes. Negative emotions are felt more intensely, and are more likely than positive emotions to push every other thing out of the mind and demand the complete focuses of an individual. A pleasant evening can be utterly ruined by a single event that arouses our anger, but an angry person is seldom distracted from his mood by something mildly pleasant, and scarce takes notice of it.
And again, there is some mitigation prescribed by social norms, that a man should neglect to react to small offenses - though there is some debate to be made as to which offenses qualify as being too negligible to merit any reaction. This is an expectation we place upon others and to which we are expected to conform.
There was also in the author's time a pronounced sense of propriety in the selection of objects of hatred. A gentleman offended by the remark of a peasant is not expected to react, but to regard the latter with no more contempt than he is normally due for his brutishness and low station. He is also expected by society to tolerate some level of abuse from his social superiors. But when the same offense is tendered by a person of equal social status, hatred is the appropriate response and vengeance is proper.
(EN: This follows the etiquette of dueling, which is only done among people of equal rank in society. A gentleman affronted by a peasant would not challenge him, but merely beat him with a cane or have one of his servants issue discipline. The same etiquette applied to being challenged - it was not cowardice, but propriety, to refuse the challenge of an inferior. No idea if that's particularly germane, but it came to mind.)
(EN: The management of anger and hostility in society has changed much over time, and is the subject of great deliberation. My sense is that Smith is accurate in his description of the arousal of emotion and the reaction to it, but much of the granular details above are relevant to his own culture and his own time period.)
By "social passions" smith means the emotions that make people agreeable to others. Thought it has been said that people whose emotional responses coincide are agreeable to one another, there are various emotions that make a person agreeable to others regardless of their reciprocation and inclined to generosity and kindness.
"Happiness" itself is not such an emotion, as a person experiences this personally and is not necessarily inclined to be sociable as a result. Happiness can also be an incentive to show generosity to others, but is acting upon a "feeling" of generosity that causes happiness and not the other way around.
It is generally positive emotions such as admiration, friendship, belonging, safety, and love that causes a person to take a proactive interest in others. As a result, a person who feels such emotions is prompted to take action to maintain or improve the welfare of others.
(EN: this seems a very shaky distinction as to whether having the emotion is the cause or result of acting in the interest of others. Do we favor a friend because we feel friendship, or do we expect to feel friendship as a result of their accepting a favor? That seems arguable.)
The primary model of these sorts of emotions is the bond between parent and child, in which the parent sees to the well-being of the child. The same may exist among other family members, and even among friends and lovers. It is particularly observable in the phenomenon of unrequired love, where the emotion we feel prompts us to favor a person even though there is no expectation of reciprocation or even appreciation on the part of the other party.
He suggests that the social passions are "never regarded with aversion" even when they are practiced to extreme. That is, we may question whether a person is too loving or too kind to another - but it is a rational evaluation, rather than a sense of contempt or hatred, that a person is too giving of himself and too unconcerned with his own welfare.
We may wonder if the recipients of such affection are worthy or appreciative, and if any contempt arises it is for one who takes advantage of the love of another person - but this is a reaction to the second party rather than the first.
Besides those sets of emotions that are detrimental or beneficial to others, there remain emotions that are of no consequence to any party besides the one who experiences them. Grief and joy are the primary examples of these emotions - they are experienced, but do not result in the inclination to take any action in regards to other persons.
We do assess the grief and joy shown by others, and consider whether it is appropriate to the cause that elicited the emotion. We are most disposed to sympathize with small joys and great sorrows - as the individual who is too joyful seems simple-minded, and everyone bears small sorrows as a matter of course.
There can also be displeasure in witnessing the joy of others, which takes the form of envy - which itself is more of a rational evaluation of whether the other party deserves to benefit from such a positive emotion. Envy can be a knee-jerk reaction if we have prejudged the other party to be unworthy of any happiness.
But, again, the way we feel when witnessing someone who is experiencing grief or joy is a separate matter to the experience itself.
The Effects of Prosperity and Adversity
Sympathy with sorrow is "more taken notice of" than sympathy with joy - to the extent that it seems odd to use word "sympathy" when we share another's positive emotions.
Sympathy with sorrow is more universal, as we feel sympathy with the sorrows of a person we do not know but seldom feel sympathy with the happiness of strangers. Pain is a "more pungent sensation" and more long-lived and remembered than bliss, and one to which we are more attentive - hence our tendency to sympathize with negative emotions is stronger than our tendency to sympathize with positive ones.
There is also the matter of envy, which taints our ability to be truly sympathetic to the prosperity of others - witnessing someone else's success makes us wish we had such success ourselves, and to feel a pang of jealousy that prevents us from being fully sympathetic. We have no such envy of the suffering of others.
We are also attracted to the opportunity to experience positive emotions, and find it more agreeable to sympathize with joy. It is painful to "go along with grief" and we enter into this with reluctance and struggle to control the degree to which we allow another person's sorrow to become our own.
We are more ashamed to weep than to laugh in the presence of others, and it is more socially acceptable to relate pleasant experiences than unpleasant ones. And while the cultural norm is to be moderate in our emotional expression, people are more amiable toward a person who is characterized as being upbeat in general.
People announce joyous occasions broadly and celebrate marriage, the birth of a child, a graduation, or other successes to everyone they know. But they are hushed about tragic events in their lives, even to their closest of friends, and do not care to converse about such matters.
There is also social reward in sympathizing with sorrow - and we regard as noble the person who extends their sympathy toward others who are in distress. There is no such reward for showing sympathy to positive emotions - that you laugh along with another person is of no consequence. The ability to overcome envy to congratulate someone on their success is an expectation, not a mark of distinction.
While it seems contrary to our survival needs, we withdraw from others and others shrink from us when we are experiencing difficulties with which they might be inclined to provide help or support. But consider sympathy does not necessarily lend itself to the intention to render help: we may feel sympathy toward a leper but do not wish to touch him or render any practical assistance.
In that sense, groups of people have inertia in regard to the expression of sympathy and take their cues from one another as to how far they may move from their default "neutral" setting. However, compassion is contagious. While we often are reluctant to express sympathy toward someone, we quickly join in when others express sympathy. In both instances we are taking cues from others as to what response is socially acceptable.
(EN: Experiments in "bystander apathy" confirm this - that a person alone will react quickly to investigate smoke from a trash can, but when there are more people in the room they will wait for someone else to act first - and because everyone is expecting someone else to do something, no-one does.)
Public executions are in that way more than a mere spectacle - as the consent of the crowd underscores the sense that the execution is just. Whether they stand silently or express contempt of the criminal, it validates the judgment of authority that society shows no objection.
(EN: It occurs to me that "silent consent" is very much leveraged in this way by tyrants. If the people fail to riot, then the tyrant's will is validated by their non-participation. It may also be the reason that tyrants seek to squelch any opposition, for fear that if one person has the courage to speak out, it will encourage others to do the same - because they had the same sentiments but were reluctant to express them without another to take the risk and prove that opposition is socially acceptable.)
The Origin of Ambition and Distinction
Our economic situation is highly visible, and men are wont to parade their riches and conceal their poverty - and in the author's culture, nothing was considered so mortifying as to have other people witness financial distress. (EN: This is a decidedly British and Protestant perspective on wealth, which I expect to perpetuate throughout Smith's discussion of this topic.)
Social esteem is often what drives men to pursue riches - to demonstrate their success and belonging to the better social classes by means of their wealth, power, and possessions. The wages of the meanest laborer can adequately supply the necessities of life, but the behavior of most people is to seek more than they need, in both the number and quality of their possessions. Man sleeps no sounder in a mansion than in a cottage.
This vanity of mankind is in response to the emotions his conditions will arouse in others. He wishes to be admired and avoid being pitied, hence seeks to demonstrate that he fits within a given social class and has the capability to tend to his own welfare. The poor are largely invisible because they seek to be unnoticed, ashamed of their condition and attempt to avoid drawing unwanted attention - and any attention is unwanted.
(EN: Smith overlooks those who present their poverty, or even pretend to be impoverished, to gain sympathy and assistance from those who pity them. This psychology is likely abnormal, though it is more commonplace in the present day than in the author's time.)
Our regard for the economic condition of others also diverges from the general principle of sympathy - to mirror the emotions of others - as it is often tainted by other emotions. One may be glad of another's success, but not without a touch of envy. One may be saddened at another's failure, but not without a sense of justice - that they must have done something to deserve the misery they have earned.
There are various strata of society from the richest to the poorest man, and a general sense of deference to the classes superior to ourselves. This is, in various proportions, in response to our admiration of their situation, our hope that we might personally benefit from ingratiating ourselves to them, and our aspiration to be accepted among better company.
(EN: it's also interesting to observe in regard to aspirations that we figure on its feasibility ... the upper-middle classes put on airs in the presence of the lower-upper classes in a vulgar and obvious charade, but the poor put on no airs in the presence of the upper class, as they have no hope of joining that class in the near term. To pose as being better than you are is a common phenomenon in western culture.)
On other occasions the lower classes, particularly those who feel bereft of hope at bettering their own situation, are entirely envious and contemptuous of their betters - perceiving them as having achieved their wealth illicitly or at least through unfair advantages, often without being aware of the actual source of their wealth.
These are second-order emotions, filtered through a primitive sort of reason, as we assess whether a person's economic situation is just. Whether a man regards his betters with admiration or condemnation reflects his views about himself and his own capabilities. The less he can imagine himself achieving a similar rank in society, the greater his contempt for those who have.
Smith dwells a bit on the phenomenon of posing - suggesting that those who present themselves as being better than they are have earned "a double share of contempt" for their folly and presumption, and for being deceitful and superficial in general. Modesty most befits a man, and his ability to accept himself as he is and present himself honestly to others is much admired. If his aim is to be accepted, it will be more effective and sustainable if he seeks to be accepted such as he is than by pretending to be something he is not.
Wealth is not the only means of gaining the approval of others, as people are impressed by nobility and strength of character regardless of class. A peasant soldier may earn glory as a war hero, and even in everyday behavior a person who demonstrates admirable virtues and qualities of character is positively regarded without reference to his social class.
He presents an argument that ambition is stronger than love, suggesting that the opportunity to improve one's financial situation can lead a person to neglect or betray his friends - and that in any case the desire to elevate oneself socially often requires leaving the company of one's present friends to seek acceptance within a group of people who are presently strangers and, once that station has been achieved, to neglect new friends for the group on the next rung of the social ladder.
(EN: This seems entirely sensible, but at the same time it is not a universal preference. Some eschew ambition altogether and are happy to be a member of their existing class - fame and fortune are not appealing to them. Others limit their ambitions, as they want to be admired within their class but to remain within it - to be the richest man in a poor neighborhood is sufficient. I submit that the degree to which ambition is valued over love is a cultural characteristic and a personal choice rather than a universal tendency.)
He remarks that success and popularity go hand-in-hand. A person who has been successful finds himself surrounded by supporters, admirers, and sycophants whereas one who has fails finds very little company. However, this is a matter of degrees: "It is often more mortifying to appear in public under small disasters, than under great misfortunes," Smith writes.
A great misfortune draws a swell of sympathy from others - the victim of a misfortune is regarded as a "good person" who has befallen bad times and there is great sympathy for his temporary plight. Meanwhile an individual who has a series of small failures that have been equally damaging, but over a more extended period of time, is regarded as flawed and his failure is presumed to be the result of bad character, for which he is shunned.
Smith also suggests the notion that a sudden and dramatic failure is also taken as a sign of an individual who took on an ambitious goal at great risk, and there is some admiration for his enterprising spirit in spite of the fact that he did not succeed - he is admired for trying.
Wealth as The Corruption of Moral Sentiments
Smith suggests that the tendency to admire the wealthy and despise the poor drives individuals to seek to attain personal success and pursue achievement, which in aggregate is of benefit to a nation. However, it is at the same time "the greatest and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments" and the love of wealth has been discouraged by both secular and nonsecular systems of morality.
People desire to be respectable and dread to be contemptible, but remain puzzled and misdirected as to what would cause others to regard us with respect or contempt. Not all who are wealthy are respected, though having wealth does seem to make others more inclined to forgive vices and to generally accept that anyone who is wealthy will be at least moderately perverse.
We admire, or claim to admire, the virtues and qualities of character of those who do not have wealth, but those who are admired for being wise and virtuous are "but a small party" and the number of their admirers tends to be rather few. The great majority of mankind are worshippers of wealth and fame who admire and covet the trappings of financial success.
The respect we feel for wisdom and virtue is different to that which we feel for wealth, and also more difficult to substantiate. Wealth is easily witnessed at a glance, whereas wisdom requires our close attention to appreciate.
Those who least understand wealth are likely to have the strongest sentiments regarding it. He who does not know how a fortune might be amassed has little reason to temper his emotions and tends to admire or despise wealth greatly. (EN: I have the sense that this is broadly true of anything - substitute "science" for wealth in the previous passage. Emotion substitutes for intellect - and when there is little knowledge there is much emotion.)
Further evidence of money-worship is evident in the degree to which the wealthiest members of a society are in command of the rest of the culture. The lower ranks of mankind imitate the dress, language, style, manners, and even the vices of the wealthy. It is particularly visible when vanity drives a man to adopt behaviors with which he is uncomfortable, but undertakes to support a charade of being a better person - they are invariably the behaviors of the wealthy class. And we can readily see how those ambitious members of the middle class fall deeply into debt attempting to imitate the splendor of their superiors and reduce themselves to poverty by this pursuit.
Covetousness leads men to engage in a broad array of crimes and immoral activities, for the pursuit of money. They more frequently fail than succeed and their desire to be admired is entirely reversed when their schemes are uncovered. There is great admiration for wealth that is rightly earned - but for those who do not understand or feel themselves capable of the right way of gaining wealth, it is merely wealth that becomes the object of their ambition.
There is also among these schemers to assume that others are also scheming. An honest man trusts in the honesty of others, a dishonest man fears the dishonesty of others - and this comes to taint his entire moral character. But it also discloses his moral character to others: the distrusting are untrustworthy.