Theory of Moral Sentiments - Adam Smith, defender of empathyLet's assume that we have a moral duty to help others from time to time, at least when it is not too costly for us to do so. That's what I really believe. Now, is such a moral duty enforceable? Is it OK to use coercion to make someone do good for others? Not usually, I believe. And Adam Smith's moral theory tells us why.

According to Smith, you know an act is right when an impartial spectator would sympathize (or empathize) with the emotions motivating your act. Smith says that an impartial spectator will always empathize with both the kindness of someone who acts to benefit others and with the gratitude of the recipients of that kindness. So, as Smith sees it, acts of beneficence are always right.

A simple example is that of a friend who usually brings you coffee in the morning. If he fails to bring you coffee one morning, are you justified in resenting him? Has he acted immorally?

There is a clear answer here using Smith’s logic. An impartial spectator wouldn’t empathize with your resentment against someone who merely failed to be generous one morning. And an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind.

Smith believed that we do have duties to be beneficent toward others, but they’re not duties we should enforce. To go further, duties of beneficence are what philosophers call imperfect duties, that is, they are not owed to specific people in specific circumstances. We have a duty to live beneficent lives, helping others freely and cheerfully, but we don’t have a duty to perform specific beneficent acts to specific people, like bringing coffee to my friend on a specific morning.

By contrast, if you’d given money to a friend to buy coffee, and he pocketed the money and didn’t get the coffee, then it would be okay to resent him! That’s a violation of a duty of justice – it’s stealing. Duties of justice are always perfect duties: they’re the minimum requirements we must satisfy to avoid deserving punishment.

Now, there are more complicated examples where a duty of justice to help others might seem more plausible. To learn about these, read on at