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rope. In the former of these papers, he points out some defects in Dr. Johnson's plan, which he censures as not sufficiently grammatical. “ The different significations of a word,” he observes, “ are indeed collected; but they are seldom digested into general classes, or ranged under the meaning which the word principally expresses : And susficient care is not taken to distinguish the words apparently synonymous.” To illustrate this criticism, he copies from Dr. Johnson the articles but and humour, and opposes to them the same articles digested agreeably to his own idea. The various significations of the word but are very nicely and happily discriminated. The other article does not seem to have been executed with equal care.
The observations on the state of learning in Europe are written with ingenuity and elegance; but are chiefly interesting, as they show the attention which the author had given to the philosophy and literature of the Continent, at a period when they were not much studied in this island.
In the same volume with the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Mr. Smith published a Dissertation “on the Origin of Languages, and on the different Genius of those which are original and compounded." The remarks I have to offer on these two discourses, I shall, for the sake of distinctness, make the subject of a separate section.
Of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the Dissertation on the
Origin of Languages.
THE science of Ethics has been divided by modern writers into two parts; the one comprehending the theory of Morals, and the other its practical doctrines. The questions about which the former is employed, are chiefly the two following: 1. By what principle of our constitution are we led to form the notion of moral distinctions ;-whether by that faculty which perceives the distinction between truth and falsehood; or by a peculiar power of perception, which is pleased with one set of qualities, and displeased with another? 2. What is the proper object of moral approbation; or, in other words, What is the common quality or qualities belonging to all the different modes of virtue ? Is it benevolence; or a rational self-love; or a disposition to act suitably to the different relations in which we are placed? These two questions seem to exhaust the whole theory of Morals. The scope of the one is to ascertain the origin of our moral ideas; that of the other, to refer the phenomena of moral perception to their most simple and general laws.
The practical doctrines of morality comprehend all those rules of conduct which profess to point out the proper ends of human pursuit, and the most effectual means of attaining them; to which we may add all those literary compositions, whatever be their particular form, which have for their aim to fortify and animate our good dispositions, by delineations of the beauty, of the dignity, or of the utility of Virtue.
I shall not inquire at present into the justness of this division. I shall only observe, that the words theory and practice are not, in this instance, employed in their usual acceptations. The theory of Morals does not bear, for example, the same relation to the practice of Morals, that the theory of geometry bears to practical geometry. In this last science, all the practical rules are founded on theoretical principles previously established: But in the former science, the practical rules are obvious to the capacities of all mankind; the theoretical principles form one of the most difficult subjects of discussion that have ever exercised the ingenuity of metaphysicians.
In illustrating the doctrines of practical morality, (if we make allowance for some unfortunate prejudices produced or encouraged by violent and oppressive systems of policy,) the ancients seem to have availed themselves of every light furnished by nature to human reason; and indeed those writers who, in later times, have treated the subject with the greatest success, are
they who have followed mosť closely the footsteps of the Greek and the Roman philosophers. The theoreti. cal question, tou, concerning the essence of virtue, or the proper object of moral approbation, was a favorite topic of discussion in the ancient schools. The question concerning the principle of moral approbation, though not entirely of modern origin, has been chiefly agitated since the writings of Dr. Cudworth, in opposition to those of Mr. Hobbes; and it is this question accordingly, (recommended at once by its novelty and difficulty to the curiosity of speculative men,) that has produced most of the theories which characterize and distinguish from each other the later systems of moral philosophy.
It was the opinion of Dr. Cudworth, and also of Dr. Clarke, that moral distinctions are perceived by that power of the mind which distinguishes truth from falsehood. This system it was one great object of Dr. Hutcheson's philosophy to refute, and in opposition to it, to show that the words right and wrong express certain agreeable and disagreeable qualities in actions, which it is not the province of reason but of feeling to perceive; and to that power of perception which renders us susceptible of pleasure or of pain from the view of virtue or of vice, he gave the name of the Moral Sense. His reasonings upon this subject are in the main acquiesced in, both by Mr. Hume and Mr. Smith; but they differ from him in one important particular,— Dr. Hutcheson plainly supposing, that the moral sense is a simple principle of our constitution, of which no account can be given ; whereas the other two philosophers have both attempted to analyze it into other principles more general. Their systems, however, with respect to it are very different from each other. According to Mr. Hume, all the qualities which are denominated virtuous, are useful either to ourselves or to others, and the pleasure which we derive from a view of them is the pleasure of utility. Mr. Smith, without rejecting entirely Mr. Hume's doctrine, proposes another of his own, far more comprehensive; a doctrine with which he thinks all the most celebrated theo
ries of morality invented by his predecessors coincide in part, and from some partial view of which he apprehends that they have all proceeded.
Of this very ingenious and original theory, I shall endeavour to give a short abstract. To those who are familiarly acquainted with it as it is stated by its author, I am aware that the attempt may appear superfluous ;but I flatter myself that it will not be wholly useless to such as have not been much conversant in these abstract disquisitions, by presenting to them the leading principles of the system in one connected view, without those interruptions of the attention which necessarily arise from the author's various and happy illustrations, and from the many eloquent digressions which animate and adorn his composition.
The fundamental principle of Mr. Smith's theory is, that the primary objects of our moral perceptions are the actions of other men; and that our moral judgments with respect to our own conduct are only applications to ourselves of decisions which we have already passed on the conduct of our neighbour. His work accordingly consists of two parts. In the former, he explains in what manner we learn to judge of the conduct of our neighbour; in the latter, in what manner, by applying these judgments to ourselves, we acquire a sense of duty.
Our moral judgments both with respect to our own conduct and that of others, include two distinct perceptions: 1. A perception of conduct as right or wrong: and 2. A perception of the merit or demerit of the agent. To that quality of conduct which moralists, in general, express by the word rectitude, Mr. Smith gives the name of propriety; and he begins his theory with inquiring in what it consists, and how we are led to form the idea of it. The leading principles of his doctrine on this subject are comprehended in the following propositions:
1. It is from our own experience alone, that we can form any idea of what passes in the mind of another person on any particular occasion; and the only way in which we can form this idea, is by supposing ourselves in the same circumstances with him, and conceiving how
we should be affected if we were so situated. It is impossible for us, however, to conceive ourselves placed in any situation, whether agreeable or otherwise, without feeling an effect of the same kind with what would be produced by the situation itself; and of consequence the attention we give at any time to the circumstances of our neighbour, must affect us somewhat in the same manner, although by no means in the same degree, as if these circumstances were our own.
That this imaginary change of place with other men, is the real source of the interest we take in their fortunes, Mr. Smith attempts to prove by various instances. “When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer. The mob when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies, as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do if in his situation.” The same thing takes place, according to Mr. Smith, in every case in which our attention is turned to the condition of our neighbour. “Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator. In every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible, the emotions of the by-stander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer.”
To this principle of our nature which leads us to enter into the situations of other men, and to partake with them in the passions which these situations have a tendency to excite, Mr. Smith gives the name of sympathy or fellow-feeling, which two words he employs as synonymous. Upon some occasions, he acknowledges, that sympathy arises merely from the view of a certain emotion in another person; but in general it arises, not so much from the view of the emotion, as from that of the situation which excites it.