Empathy, Concern, and Understanding in The Theory of Moral Sentiments

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Adam Smith’s explicit pronouncements about empathy’s role in fostering understanding and concern generate a problem. Smith assigns a double duty to the series of mental operations that issue in empathy, treating it as the source of both our understanding of other people and our non-instrumental concern for them. However, as I demonstrate in this paper, if Smith’s empathetic mechanism does generate an accurate understanding of the other, that understanding will simply not be the right kind of acquaintance to generate concern. Only a seriously confused grasp of the attitudes and passions of the other could give birth to a heretofore absent non-instrumental concern for others. The fulfillment of either one of the empathetic mechanism’s supposed functions requires conditions that will make it impossible for the other function to be fulfilled.

Smith’s official account of empathy is seriously flawed. However, his theory of human sociability also contains within it the seeds of an important improvement upon the official account. Whether or not Smith actually recognizes it, one element of his account actually demands the conclusion that an important form of concern precedes empathy and empathetically-derived understanding. I will aim to make it clear that given Smith’s conception of empathy, he should on pain of inconsistency be committed to a very different conception of concern’s relation to empathy and understanding than the one he more explicitly endorses. 

Last updated on 01/15/2016