Chap. 3: Corruption of Moral Sentiments

Chap. 3: The corruption of our moral sentiments by this disposition to admire the rich and the great and to despise or neglect the poor


1.3.28. We have a disposition to:

  • admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and
  • neglect or despise persons of poor and mean condition.

Both of these are necessary to establish and maintain:

  • the distinction of ranks and
  • the order of society.


However, it is also the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

  • Moralists in all ages have complained:
    • that wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration due only to wisdom and virtue, and
    • that poverty and weakness is unjustly given the contempt due only to vice and folly.


1.3.29. We desire:

  • to be respectable and
  • to be respected.

We dread to be contemptible and to be condemned.

  • But upon coming into the world, we soon find that:
    • wisdom and virtue are not the sole objects of respect, and
    • vice and folly are not the sole objects of contempt.
  • We frequently see:
    • the world’s respect strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous, and
    • the powerful’s vices and follies much less despised than the innocent’s poverty and weakness.

The great objects of ambition and emulation are to deserve, acquire, and enjoy mankind’s respect and admiration.

  • Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to these objects.
    • The one is by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue.
    • The other is by the acquisition of wealth and greatness.
  • Two different characters are presented to our emulation.
    • The one is of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity.
    • The other is of humble modesty and equitable justice.
  • Two different models or pictures are held out to us, according to how we may fashion our own character and behaviour.
    • The one is more gaudy and glittering in its colouring.
      • It forces itself on every wandering eye.
    • The other is more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline.
      • It attracts the attention of nobody but the most studious and careful observer.
  • The few who are wise and the virtuous chiefly are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue.
    • The great mob of mankind are the disinterested admirers and worshippers of wealth and greatness.


1.3.30. Our respect for wisdom and virtue is different from our respect for wealth and greatness.

  • Despite this difference, those sentiments resemble each another very closely.
  • They are different in some features.
  • But in countenance, they seem very nearly the same.
  • Inattentive observers commonly mistake the one for the other.


1.3.31. In equal degrees of merit, everyone respects the rich and the great more than the poor and the humble.

  • To most, the presumption and vanity of the rich are much more admired than the real and solid merit of the poor.
  • It is not agreeable to good morals, or even to good language, to say that mere wealth and greatness, abstracted from merit and virtue, deserve our respect.
  • However, we must acknowledge that they almost constantly obtain it.
    • In some respects, they may be considered as its natural objects.
  • Those exalted stations might be completely degraded by vice and folly.
    • But the vice and folly must be very great before they can completely degrade it.
    • The profligacy of a man of fashion is seen with much less contempt and aversion, than the profligacy of a man of meaner condition.
      • In the latter, a single intemperance and impropriety is commonly more resented, than the constant and avowed contempt of them in the former.


1.3.32. In the middling and inferior stations of life, the road to virtue and that to reasonable fortune are in most cases happily very nearly the same.

  • In all the middling and inferior professions, real and solid professional abilities, joined to prudent, just, firm, and temperate conduct, can very seldom fail of success.
  • Abilities will even sometimes prevail where the conduct is incorrect.
  • Habitual imprudence, injustice, weakness, or profligacy, will always cloud and sometimes altogether depress the most splendid professional abilities.
  • Besides, people in the middling and inferior stations can never be great enough to be above the law.
    • The law must generally overawe them into some respect for the more important rules of justice.
  • The success of such people, too, almost always depends on the favour and good opinion of their neighbours and equals.
    • Without a tolerably regular conduct, these can very seldom be obtained.
  • In such situations, the good old proverb, That honesty is the best policy, holds almost always perfectly true.
    • Therefore in such situations, we may expect a considerable degree of virtue.
    • Fortunately for society’s good morals, these are the situations of most people.


1.3.33. In the superior stations of life, the case is unhappily not always the same.

  • In the courts of princes, flattery and falsehood too often prevail over merit and abilities.
    • Success and preferment there depend on the fanciful and foolish favour of ignorant, presumptuous, and proud superiors, not on the esteem of intelligent and well-informed equals.

In such societies, the abilities to please are more regarded than the abilities to serve.

  • In peacetime, when the storm is far, the prince or great man, wishes only to be amused.
    • He is even apt to fancy:
      • that he has no need for anybody’s service, or
      • that those who amuse him are sufficiently able to serve him

A ‘man of fashion’ is an impertinent and foolish thing.

  • His external graces and frivolous accomplishments are commonly more admired than the solid and masculine virtues of a warrior, statesman, philosopher, or legislator.
  • All the virtues fit for the council, senate, or the field are held in the utmost contempt and derision by those insolent and insignificant flatterers, who commonly figure the most in such corrupted societies.

The duke of Sully was called on by Lewis XIII for his advice in some great emergency.

  • The duke observed the favourites and courtiers whispering to one another and smiling at his unfashionable appearance.
  • The duke, an old warrior and statesman said ‘Whenever your majesty’s father, consulted me, he ordered the buffoons of the court to retire into the antechamber.’


1.3.34. The rich and the great can set or lead fashion because of our disposition to admire and consequently to imitate them.

  • Their dress is the fashionable dress.
  • Their language of conversation is the fashionable style.
  • Their air and deportment is the fashionable behaviour.
  • Even their vices and follies are fashionable.
  • Most people are proud to imitate and resemble them in the very qualities which dishonour and degrade them.

Vain men often give themselves airs of a fashionable profligacy.

  • In their hearts, they do not approve of it.
  • Perhaps they are really not guilty of it.
  • They want to be praised for what they themselves do not think praise-worthy.
  • They are ashamed of unfashionable virtues:
    • which they sometimes practise in secret, and
    • which they secretly venerate.

There are hypocrites of wealth and greatness, as well as of religion and virtue.

  • A vain man tends to pretend to be what he is not in the one way, as a cunning man is in the other.
  • He assumes the equipage and splendid way of living of his superiors.
    • He does not consider that their praise-worthiness is in their suitableness to that situation and fortune:
      • which require them and
      • which can easily support the expence.
  • Many poor men place their glory in being thought rich.
    • They do not consider that the duties which that reputation imposes on him, must soon:
      • reduce him to beggary, and
      • render his situation more unlike that of the rich.


1.3.35. The candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue to attain this envied situation.

  • Because unhappily, the road which leads to fortune and that which leads to fortune sometimes lie in very opposite directions.
  • But the ambitious man flatters himself that, in the splendid situation to which he advances:
    • he will have so many means of commanding mankind’s respect and admiration, and
    • he will be able to act with such superior propriety and grace.
      • He thinks that the lustre of his future conduct will entirely cover or efface the foulness of the steps he used to arrive at that elevation.

In many governments, the candidates for the highest stations are above the law.

  • If they can attain the object of their ambition, they have no fear of being called to account how they acquired it.
  • Therefore, they often try to supplant and destroy those who oppose or stand in the way of their greatness by:
    • the ordinary and vulgar arts of intrigue and cabal:
      • fraud and falsehood
    • sometimes by the perpetration of the most enormous crimes:
      • murder and assassination, and
      • rebellion and civil war.
  • They more frequently miscarry than succeed.
  • They commonly gain nothing but the disgraceful punishment for their crimes.
  • Even if they are so lucky to attain that wished-for greatness, they are always most miserably disappointed in the happiness they expected to enjoy in.

The ambitious man really pursues honour, though frequently a very misunderstood honour, and not ease or pleasure.

  • But to him and others, the honour of his exalted station appears polluted by the baseness of how he rose to it.
  • He tries to remove this bad memory through:
    • great spending,
    • excessive indulgence in every profligate pleasure,
      • This is the wretched, but usual, resource of ruined characters.
    • the hurry of public business, and
    • the prouder and more dazzling tumult of war.
  • He can erase the remembrance of what he has done from his own memory and from others.
    • But that remembrance always pursues him.
    • In vain, he invokes the dark and dismal powers of forgetfulness and oblivion.
    • He remembers what he has done.
      • That remembrance tells him that other people must likewise remember it.
  • He is still secretly pursued by the avenging furies of shame and remorse:
    • amidst all the gaudy pomp of the most ostentatious greatness,
    • amidst the venal and vile adulation of the great and the learned,
    • amidst the more innocent, though more foolish, acclamations of the common people, and
    • amidst all the pride of conquest and the triumph of a successful war.
  • Glory seems to surround him on all sides.
    • But in his imagination, he sees black and foul infamy fast pursuing him.
    • It is always ready to overtake him from behind.
  • Even the great Caesar could not dismiss his suspicions, even though he had the magnanimity to dismiss his guards.
    • The remembrance of Pharsalia still haunted and pursued him.
    • At the senate’s request, he had the generosity to pardon Marcellus.
      • He told the senate that he was aware of their plot against his life.
      • But as he had lived long enough for nature and glory, he:
        • was contented to die and
        • therefore despised all conspiracies
      • He had, perhaps, lived long enough for nature.
  • But a man has certainly lived too long:
    • for real glory, if he felt himself as the object of such deadly resentment from people whom he still:
      • wished to gain favour, and
      • wished to consider as his friends
    • for all the happiness which he could ever hope to enjoy in the love and esteem of his equals.


Notes for this chapter
  1. The sentiment of approbation is always agreeable.
    • I based it on sympathy.
    • But people have objected that it is inconsistent in my system to admit any disagreeable sympathy.
  • I answer, that in the sentiment of approbation, there are two things to notice:
  1. The observer’s sympathetic passion
  2. The emotion from his observing the perfect coincidence between:
    • this sympathetic passion in himself, and
      • This emotion may be agreeable or disagreeable, according to the nature of the original passion.
        • It must always retain the features of the original passion.
    • the original passion in the person experiencing it.
      • This last emotion is always agreeable and delightful.
      • It is the proper object of the sentiment of approbation.

Words: 1,977

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