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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sentiment, Passive and Active, and Liberalism

The governmentalization of social affairs throws us into the passive position. That is what liberalism understands.

Though not made explicitly, a distinction emerges in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments between passive moral sentiments, aptly called emotions, and active moral sentiments aptly called passions.

A Taxonomy of Other-Directed Moral Sentiments

An active sentiment, or passion, is one that motivates. The other-directed passions most central to Smith’s analysis are gratitude and resentment. Gratitude is a positive passion, motivating recompense. Resentment is a negative passion, motivating punishment or retaliation.

A passive sentiment, or emotion, is more about one’s disposition and emotional reaction upon receiving information or thoughts about the person liked or disliked, and doesn’t necessarily motivate action that affects that person. The other-directed passive sentiments, emotions, most central in the book are, on the positive side, liking and love, and, on the negative side, disliking and hatred.


M O R A L   S E N T I M E N T S


Sentiments not necessarily prompting to action (more passive)

Sentiments necessarily tending to prompt to action, motivational (more active)





Passions tend to be repaying, returning, reciprocating.

More specifically:


liking, love


recompensing, remunerating, reward


disliking, hatred


retaliating, redressing, rectifying

The Passivity of Rooting for Your Team, Voting, and Being Governed

I see party politics as more about passive sentiments, emotion, rather than active sentiment or passion. That is, partisanship is more about liking and disliking.

As Paul Simon put it in the profound “Mrs. Robinson”:

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon

Going to the candidates’ debate

Laugh about it, shout about it

When you’ve got to choose

Every way you look at this you lose

Two Thought Experiments

Adam Smith posed two pinky-earthquake thought experiments – the bracketed words in boldface are my insertions:

[Thought experiment 1: passive:] Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. [Thought experiment 2: active:] To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. [Questions about the two thought experiments:] But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? (TMS, 136-7)

The two thought experiments draw the contrast between passive and active. Our passive sentiments are “almost always so sordid and so selfish,” whereas our active sentiments are more often “so generous and so noble.” Thus, in the passive thought experiment, the pinky looms larger, whereas in the active the earthquake looms larger.

What Liberalism Understands

The governmentalization of social affairs throws us into the passive position. That is what liberalism understands.


Smith, Adam. 1982 [1790]. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm). At GMU he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation and editor of Econ Journal Watch.