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The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations together encompass one behavioral axiom, “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” where the objects of trade […] include not only goods, but also gifts, assistance, and favors out of sympathy […] whether it is goods or favors that are exchanged, they bestow gains from trade that humans seek relentlessly in all social transactions.
As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.
[Our senses] never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are [another man’s] sensations.
Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy.
Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others.
Sympathy, though its meaning was, perhaps, originally the same, may now, however, without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.
If the very appearances of grief and joy inspire us with some degree of the like emotions, it is because they suggest to us the general idea of some good or bad fortune that has befallen the person in whom we observe them: and in these passions this is sufficient to have some little influence upon us.
The effects of grief and joy terminate in the person who feels those emotions, of which the expressions do not, like those of resentment, suggest to us the idea of any other person for whom we are concerned, and whose interests are opposite to his.
Even our sympathy with the grief or joy of another, before we are informed of the cause of either, is always extremely imperfect. General lamentations, which express nothing but the anguish of the sufferer, create rather a curiosity to inquire into his situation, along with some disposition to sympathize with him, than any actual sympathy.
The first question which we ask a sufferer is, “What has befallen you?” Till this be answered, though we are uneasy both from the vague idea of his misfortune, and still more from torturing ourselves with conjectures about what it may be, yet our fellow-feeling is not very considerable.
Sympathy, therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it.
But whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance of the contrary.
Love is an agreeable; resentment, a disagreeable passion; and accordingly we are not half so anxious that our friends should adopt our friendships, as that they should enter into our resentments. We can forgive them [if] they seem to be little affected with the favours which we may have received, but lose all patience if they seem indifferent about the injuries which may have been done to us […]
The agreeable passions of love and joy can satisfy and support the heart without any auxiliary pleasure. The bitter and painful [passions] of grief and resentment […] require the healing of sympathy.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
The “Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “Wealth of Nations” together encompass one single behavioral axiom that, broadly interpreted, is sufficient to characterize a major portion of the human social and cultural enterprise: it explains why human nature appears to be simultaneously self-regarding and other-regarding.
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