Making sense of Smith on sympathy and approbation: other-oriented sympathy as a psychological and normative achievement

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Two problems seem to plague Adam Smith’s account of sympathy and approbation in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). First, Smith’s account of sympathy at the beginning of TMS appears to be inconsistent with the account of sympathy at the end of TMS. In particular, it seems that Smith did not appreciate the distinction between ‘self-oriented sympathy’ and ‘other-oriented sympathy’, that is, between imagining being oneself in the actor’s situation and imagining being the actor in the actor’s situation. Second, Smith’s account of approbation, according to which a sentiment of approval arises when there is recognition of concordance between the spectator’s sympathetic passion and the actor’s original passion, seems to face the following problem: since the spectator attains both his own sympathetic passion and the actor’s original passion by sympathizing with the actor, the sympathetic passion of the spectator and the original passion of the actor will necessarily be identical. Therefore, Smith’s account of approbation requires that the spectator utilize both self-oriented and other-oriented sympathy (‘the double-sympathy model of approbation’). I offer a novel developmental account of sympathy in TMS that renders Smith’s account of sympathy consistent and allows for the utilization of the double-sympathy model of approbation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Philosophy
StateAccepted/In press - Jan 1 2019



  • Adam Smith
  • approbation and disapprobation
  • impartial spectator
  • moral judgement
  • self-oriented and other-oriented sympathy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy

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