Max Scheler and Adam Smith on Sympathy


THE REVIEW OF POLITICS, Volume 79, Issue 3

Abstract: Recent efforts to theorize the role of emotions in political life have stressed the importance of sympathy, and have often recurred to Adam Smith to articulate their claims. In the early twentieth-century, Max Scheler disputed the salutary character of sympathy, dismissing it as an ultimately perverse foundation for human association. Unlike later critics of sympathy as a political principle, Scheler rejected it for being ill equipped to salvage what, in his opinion, should be the proper basis of morality, namely, moral value. Even if Scheler’s objections against Smith’s project prove to be ultimately mistaken, he had important reasons to call into question its moral purchase in his own time. Where the most dangerous idol is not self-love but illusory self-knowledge, the virtue of self-command will not suffice. Where identification with others threatens the social bond more deeply than faction, “standing alone” in moral matters proves a more urgent task.