In this paper, I explain and analyse the concept of sympathy as Adam Smith describes it, then I present relevant research on empathy from the fields of social psychology and behavioural biology in order to compare the two concepts. I argue that this comparison shows that Smith’s theory is consistent with modern scientific research and thus a realistic account of human psychology, which renders his moral theory even more appealing.
First, I introduce Smith by reference to his contemporary sentimentalism and faculty psychology, how stoicism influenced his theory of sentiments and the background of the teachings of Francis Hutcheson. Then I analyse Smith’s concept of sympathy by focusing mostly on his descriptive account of sympathy and analysing his normative project only when relevant to understanding the descriptive account. By illustrating with Smith’s example of a man who is a stranger to society, and how sympathy develops in him when introduced to society, I extract the main features of sympathy in order to compare these to contemporary scientific research. This man I compare to the myth of Narcissus in order to show that Smith has something different in mind with his example. I make use of Maria Carrasco’s analysis of the development of sympathy as well as Christel Fricke’s description of the circular form that the theory of Smith takes. I then comment on the challenge of circularity and propose a way of avoiding it, by focusing on the developing and educating features of moral sympathy and thereby reducing the importance of the objectivity of a static moment of sympathetic judgement of propriety.
From this analysis, I describe sympathy as constructed of an immediate, precognitive kind of sympathy, but also a more developed kind of sympathy that is based on imagination and cognition, and this kind can be automatic as well as deliberate and conscious. Further, noting that sympathy can be both one-way and mutual, I summarise the sympathetic process as starting by the spectator imagining being another person, the agent, while maintaining one’s own perceptive, emotional and cognitive abilities and then judging of the information experienced from the imaginative act, agreeing or disagreeing with how the agent feels and acts. This creates the regulative process of mutual sympathy, aiming for harmonious or perfect sympathy between the spectator and the agent.Turning to contemporary research, I focus on insights given by, most prominently, Damasio, Leary, Ekman, Batson, Preston & De Waal and Hurlbut. Here the main research is concerning theoretical presentation of emotions, the studies of mirror neurons and the behavioural research on emotional contagion, empathy, cognitive empathy as well as the role of self-awareness. By comparing this research with Smith’s theory, I conclude that these are consistent views and that these different aspects of empathy describe the features of the development of sympathy, as I summarised them. I argue finally that this connection to empathy allows for the moral aspects of sympathy to avoid the static circularity by stressing the dynamic features of sympathy and its aim towards objectively judging of propriety.