Adam Smith morality

April 6, 2016
Notable & Quotable: Adam Smith

Mueller begins a series of posts about Adam Smith’s ethical system as laid out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

What sort of ethics suit a free society? Should they be based upon consequences, fundamental rights, or natural law? Should they be utilitarian? Should they be axiomatic? These are tough questions over which many intelligent and well-meaning people disagree. And the disagreement is not limited to the left-right political divide. It is sometimes starkest among libertarians. Some libertarians advocate natural rights arguments as propounded by Rand or Rothbard. Other libertarians follow the consequentialist arguments of Hayek and Friedman. Or still others fall in line with the scholastic natural law tradition.

I want to throw another ethical system into the mix, one promulgated by Adam Smith and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. According to Deirdre McCloskey, Smith’s system is a type of virtue ethics involving moral sympathy and approval. His system requires people to weigh moral virtues against social norms in the context of time and place. Taste, aesthetics, and moral sensibility are necessary for making good judgments on ethical questions.

Adam Smith held the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow for about a decade before leaving for Europe to tutor the Duke of Buccleuch. It was during his time in Glasgow that he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The book purported to study how people actually made moral judgments. It also discussed the nature of morality. Although Smith has been accused of advocating moral relativism when he suggests that moral authority comes from the judgment of a particular impartial spectator who can vary by time and place, I will argue that Smith believed in clear enduring moral virtues that would be manifested differently in different societies, different circumstances, and different people.

Smith’s moral theory has several facets. First, we need to understand people’s natural sympathy with one another. Why and how do they sympathize with their brothers versus with strangers? How do they decide whether to help their neighbor or to help a refugee half way around the world? Second, we need to examine two of Smith’s most important moral ideas: the man within the breast and the impartial spectator. As people judge the rightness of an action, or determine what they should do, they take counsel of the “man within” who represents to them how an impartial spectator would view and feel about their situation. Finally, we need to understand how Smith thought about virtue. He said that the rules of virtue “are loose, vague, and indeterminate”—meaning that they are not formulaic. But justice, Smith argued, particularly commutative justice, was a unique virtue whose rules are “precise, accurate, and indispensable.” The specialness of commutative justice runs throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments and has important implications for what governments should do and what should be left to civil society.

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