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The Importance of Cultivating Sympathy in Modern Democracies

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Democracy is a highly contest term and is constantly redefined by modern contexts. However, the success of a democracy always relied on its ability to ensure political equality and liberty. Yet the struggles in modern democracies such as US and UK highlight the difficulties in achieving these goals. Ronald Reagan (1982) once proposed that to foster the infrastructure of a democracy, there must be a system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means. To achieve this, modern democracies must cultivate a sentiment called sympathy which was proposed by Adam Smith in the ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (TMS). Smith explains that sympathy is the ability for one to make moral judgement through the process of imagination, reasoning and feeling. By engaging in the emotions of the fellow people, individuals can then form understanding and establish commonality. However, sympathetic sentiments are not without its risks and is capable to divide as it is to unify. This essay shall explore whether there is a need for modern democracies such as the US to cultivate sympathetic sentiment through 3 points of discussion. Firstly, the concept of sympathy propose by Adam Smith will be carefully examined and highlight its importance in the modern era due to the rise of multicultural societies. Secondly, the method of cultivating sympathy is discussed and contend that sympathy proposed by Smith is hard to cultivate in a modern democracy. Lastly, the effects of sympathy will be explored in a contemporary setting and contend sympathy has directly linked to the rise of populist and may create further divisiveness rather than unity. These three discussions will conclude and contend that whilst sympathy needs to be cultivated, the intention and conduct to cultivate sympathy must change as current practices erodes democratic norm.

Adam Smith’s concept of sympathy rejected the Hobbesian view of human nature and introduced an innate ability for people to form understanding and establish commonality. Hobbes saw human nature as pure self-interest. Where man has no regard for others and only operate under its own gains. Smith dismisses such notion and writes, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of other, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (Smith, 1759, p.1). Although Smith too, acknowledges that man can be selfish and motivated by its own desires. He also contends that man naturally holds regards for the happiness of others. Sympathy is a key part of Smith’s moral philosophy and as Choi (1990) has observed, it is the process where moral judgement is made. This process of moral judgement requires imagination, which is a spontaneous projection of our self onto others. Smith highlights we who have no immediate experience of what other men feel and cannot form an idea of the way they are affected. Only through our imagination, we than can form an understanding of their feeling and motives. Through this ability to gauge the emotions of individuals, Smith (1759) then suggests the idea of an impartial spectator, where the individual must step outside of itself and judge their actions and conduct from the vantage of a disinterested figure. This is crucial to Smith’s moral philosophy as unbiased judgement and social interactions establishes the idea of propriety. Not the rules of the sovereign as Hobbes have suggest controlling man from chaos, but the natural desire of man to earn approbation from those unlike as well as those like us. According to Smith, man is fundamentally motivated by the feeling of acknowledgement and the compassion from its fellow citizens. The fear of losing social acceptance and recognition prevents people to act out of socially acknowledged rules that are intrinsic to a society (Kelly, 2009).

As modern democracies in the 21st century has undergone major changes. No longer does it faces the same societal pressures as it were in the 18th century yet new social problems continue to arise. One of the biggest changes is the shift from homogenous societies to multicultural societies due to global interconnectivity. A multicultural society brings forth new challenges such as conflicting social values and beliefs. An example of so is the increasing notion around democracies to implement burka ban. The conservative Muslim culture which requires women to wear a burka has not been welcomed by many western democracies. France and Belgium are amongst others who has initiated a ban. Australia although has not legalized the ban, there has been on-going debate. Australian senator Pauline Hanson claim that wearing the burka is un-Australian and should not be allowed as it promotes Islam fundamentalism (Kelly, 2018). Whilst other who oppose protest the ban under religious freedom and civil liberties. This thereby reflects the difficulty in the accommodation of different societal values. Therefore, modern democracies must go forth and establish method to cultivate sympathy. Either it is through social movement or public discussions. Smith contend “the ‘delightful harmony’ or ‘certain correspondence of sentiments and opinions’ can therefore only occur when ‘there is a free communication’ between them based on ‘frankness and openness’” (Smith, 1976, VII. iv. 28: 337 as cited in Kelly, 2009, p.540). Clark (1992) in his analysis of conversation and the moderation of virtue contends that conversation moderates our passions and our virtues and teaches us to reconcile the interest of other with our own. Only through public discussion and the attempt to redefine propriety, can multicultural societies ensure political liberty and equality for all through the process of mutual understanding.

The cultivation of sympathy is always grounded in social interaction however due to the advancement in communication, the cultivation of sympathy as proposed by Smith may be difficult to achieve. Kelly (2009, p.541) in her commentary regarding the TMS observe judgements about sympathy that are grounded in propriety are always to some degree undertaken in public. However due to technological advancements, private interactions through direct messaging or online forums dominates modern communication. Smith (1970, p.159) argues that “our continual observations upon the conduct of others, insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided”. Whilst this is achievable through mainstream media and public interactions, in the digital age of anonymity, this becomes hard to inform. Within the online medium, anonymity is a privilege that is available for all who can access the Internet. Unlike face-to-face interactions, where if one act out of the social norm, public condemnation is identified to an individual and the shame that arises out of social discord is powerful force that prevents actions of impropriety. However online, the ability to remain anonymous, to adopt an unknown identity eliminates the fear of identification enables which certain individuals to act out of social norms. Whilst their feelings of shame may still arise out of disagreements, the feelings would be arguably significantly less as he is not humiliated in the public realm.

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Furthermore, the access to online communication and forums discredits Smith’s concept of establishing propriety through the conduct of others. In theory, if one acts out of propriety, their actions are unable to generate sympathy. This in turn will not persuade and it is always mortifying not to be believed, and it is doubly so when we are supposed to be unworthy of belief (Smith, 1976, VII. iv. 25–26: 336 as cited in Kelly, 2009, p.540). By following this logic, individuals who are unable to find others who share their own ideals are then prompted to reconsider its beliefs. However, through the power of the Internet, global interconnectivity has enabled individuals of all ideals to locate one another with relative ease. The recent rise in anti-vaccination groups and white supremacist movement act as evidence. For these individuals who hold racist and anti-vaccine beliefs, the daily shame they experience in the public realm is alleviated online where they can reconsolidate their beliefs with others who can actively provide sympathy and compassion. These interactions reinforce their dangerous ideals and provide them with a sense of legitimacy as their once condemned beliefs become applauded by a community. Whilst it’s recognized, that online platforms are also capable in producing a positive cultivation of sympathy in areas such as climate change movements and civil movements promoting LGBT rights. The dangerous unchecked cultivation of sympathy approving of malicious intents is a salient concern that must be addressed.

Current day sympathy has transformed in a way that warrants greater levels of concern rather than reassurance. Instead of unity, the rise of populists and Brexit movement has all pointed to the erosion of democratic norms. Smith’s concept of sympathy is experiential rather than logical. Therefore, if the imagination of the people become distorted, corrupted, then our capacity for sympathy might be misdirected, particularly if we are deluded (Kelly, 2009). Smith has pointed out that sympathy may not always be accurate. In fact, man can go become self-delusional, where they are unable to accurately assess their action from the eyes of others. Thereby unable to identify what action are good or bad. Trump’s rise to power redefined how sympathy is defined. Instead of finding common grounds and similarities, trump turns away from conventional political character and creates an authentic image by disregarding democratic norms. Muirhead (Rubenstein, 2018) in his analysis proposed the popularity of trump lies in the trend where broad coalitions are unable to respond adequately to the diverse demands of voters. Middle class white Americans serve as a good example for his argument. Due to the inability of Washington elites to adequately propose policies that benefit their community (Rubenstein, 2018), facilitated a preference for Trump. Trump unlike other politicians refuses to adopt political correctness but focuses on facilitating an us vs them political climate. He appeals to its audience by validifying their anger and their resentment towards immigrants and the Washington elite through his xenophobic and racist undertone which reinforces the pure people vs the elites. Followed by how he sells America as an exclusive club whose greatness is achieved by keeping others out (Dovi, 2018), appealing to the feeling of superiority that brings satisfaction to those such as middle-class white American who believes they have been disenfranchised. Furthermore, Trump’s ability to express citizens’ frustration and anger with the status quo is crucial to his success. The way he can represent the frustration and rage of those who are who are disgruntled, alienated, and fed up with the politics as usual could not be emulated by another politician. These elements all made Trump attractive. However, the most important element to Trump’s attraction was his ability to provide compassion and affirmation to those who share socially unattractive views. Smith articulated that man learn what is right or wrong through social interaction yet that does not mean man is not stubborn. Act and beliefs against social norms may be condemned but that does not mean one can just abandon it. When their anti-democratic values suddenly become acceptable, this reinstalls confidence and reassurance for the values who were disregarded to be brought back into society.

Trump was able to cultivate the feeling of sympathy as a weapon for his own political gain by dividing the American population. Yet this process has undermined democratic principles of liberty and equality. This brings forth the question whether sympathy should be cultivated, and the answer is yes. However, the sympathy we must cultivate birth from liberal ideals such as peace and collaboration. To resolve a period of malicious sympathy, one must cultivate sympathy not through condemnation but through understanding and the introduction of new emotional satisfaction.

Whilst it is important for modern democracies to ensure political equality and liberty, it must also recognize the importance of cultivating sympathy. Sympathy is a moral concept introduced by Adam Smith which details the process of an individual attempting to understand the emotion of another through imagination. By doing so, individuals can judge a moral action against an immoral one. Sympathy needs to be cultivated in a modern democracy as it is necessary to integrate multicultural societies. However, the process of cultivating sympathy may be difficult and dangerous due to the usage of online communication. Lastly, the effects of sympathy may serve to divide rather than unify as shown in the case of Trump. However, despite the dangers, sympathy must be cultivated and in a way that can promote rather than erode democratic norms.


  1. Clark, H.C., 1992. Conversation and Moderate Virtue in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Review of Politics, 54(2), pp.185-210.
  2. Kelly, D., 2009. Time for Sympathy: Some Thoughts on the 250th Anniversary of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. New Political Economy, 14(4), pp.535-543.
  3. Kellly, J. (2019). Pauline Hanson Labels Feminists ‘Pathetic’ on Burka Ban. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Sep. 2019].
  4. Reagan Library, 2016, President Reagan’s Address to British Parliament, June 8, 1982 [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019 ]
  5. Rubenstein, J., Dovi, S., Pineda, E.R., Woodly, D., Kirshner, A.S., El Amine, L. and Muirhead, R., 2018. Political and Ethical Action in the Age of Trump. Contemporary Political Theory, 17(3), pp.331-362.
  6. Smith, A. (2019). The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith 1759. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019].

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