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Smith, Adam (1723–1790)


Adam Smith, one of the most influential political economists of Western society, first became known as a moral philosopher. Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His father died shortly before he was born, and his mother's loss doubtless explains the lifelong attachment that flourished between her and her son. Smith entered the University of Glasgow in 1737, where he attended Francis Hutcheson's lectures. In 1740 he entered Balliol College, Oxford, as a Snell exhibitioner. He remained at Oxford for seven years and then returned to Kirkcaldy. In 1748 he moved to Edinburgh, where he became the friend of David Hume and Lord Kames (Henry Home). In 1751 he was elected professor of logic at the University of Glasgow, and in the next year he exchanged logic for the professorship in moral philosophy, an appointment that he held for the next ten years.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, drawn from his course of lectures, was published in 1759. The work received wide acclaim and so impressed the stepfather of the young duke of Buccleuch that he invited Smith to become the duke's tutor, with the promise of a pension for life. Smith resigned his professorship at Glasgow and accompanied the duke on a visit to the Continent that lasted from 1764 to 1766. His tutoring duties ended, he returned again to Kirkcaldy, where he spent the next ten years in retirement at work on The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776 and for which he became famous. In 1778 he was appointed a commissioner of customs for Scotland. He died in 1790 and was buried in the Canongate churchyard, Edinburgh.

The greater part of the Theory of Moral Sentiments is an account of moral psychology. Only after he has settled the psychological questions does Smith turn, in the last seventh of the work, to moral philosophy. The mainstay of Smith's moral psychology is sympathy. Sympathy is our fellow feeling with the passions or affections of another person. Smith characterizes the mechanism of sympathy in this way: "Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator." The important phrase here is "at the thought of his situation." Sympathetic feelings may seem to arise from our seeing the expression of a certain emotion in another person, but Smith argues that if the appearance of grief or joy, for example, arouses similar feelings in us, it is because these feelings suggest to us the general idea of some good or evil that has befallen the person in whom we observe them. What is more, there are some passions whose expression excites disgust rather than sympathy until we are acquainted with their cause. The furious behavior of an angry man, for example, is more likely to exasperate us against him than against his enemies. Thus, Smith concludes that sympathy does not arise so much from the view of the passion as from the view of the situation that excites it, and he reinforces this claim by noting that we sometimes feel for another a passion that he himself seems to be altogether incapable of, as when we feel embarrassed at someone's behaving rudely although he has no sense of the impropriety of his behavior.

Sympathy is the basis for our judgments of both the propriety and the merit of other people's feelings and the actions that follow from them. When the original passions of the principal person are in perfect accord with the sympathetic emotions of the spectator, the passions of the principal appear to the spectator as just and proper. Smith even goes as far as to say that to approve of the passions of another as suitable to their objects is the same as to observe that we entirely sympathize with them. Indeed, even though our own emotions may make it impossible for us to have on occasion a certain sympathetic emotion, we may "by general rules" recognize the appropriateness of some person's having a given emotion because, for example, we could sympathize with the other person's joy but for our own grief.

Although our sense of the propriety of some piece of conduct arises from our sympathy with the affections and motives of the agent, our sense of merit (that is, our sense of a certain action's making the agent worthy of a reward) stems from our sympathy with the gratitude of the person affected by the action. When we see someone aided by another, our sympathy with his joy at the receipt of the aid animates our fellow feeling with his gratitude toward his benefactor.

Having shown how sympathy gives rise to the senses of propriety and of merit in our judgment of the passions and conduct of others, Smith turns to showing how these sentimental mechanisms may be employed in our judgment of ourselves. We must take care to avoid a self-interested partiality in our judgments. According to Smith, impartiality can be achieved only if we look at our own behavior as though it were someone else's. Thus, we may judge ourselves from the same point of view that we judge others, and our approval or disapproval of our own conduct will depend on whether we can sympathize with the sentiments from which our actions flow. Conscience, "the judge within us," enables us to make a proper comparison between our own interests and the interests of others. With its aid we may approach the ideal of the man of perfect virtue, who is possessed of both a command of his own feelings and a sensibility for the feelings of others.

We may guard against self-deceit by keeping before us the general rules for what is appropriate in human conduct. These rules have their basis in the sentiments that certain kinds of behavior evoke, and our own respect for the rules should follow from the correspondence between them and our own feelings as we observe the conduct of others. Smith stresses that the rules are generalizations from particular instances in which conduct has excited the sense of propriety and merit in humankind. A just regard for these general rules is a sense of duty. By acting from a sense of duty, one can make up for any lack of the appropriate sentiment on a given occasion. Of all the general rules, those that define justice have the greatest exactness.

Throughout his discussion of our moral psychology, Smith assumes the general acceptance of beneficence and justice as social virtues. He glides quickly over the problem of their description, and he introduces sympathy into his moral psychology as a kind of absolute without considering whether someone might sympathize with "wrong" affections.

In his moral philosophy Smith treats of two questions: Wherein does virtue consist? What power or faculty of the mind recommends virtue to us?

The different accounts of virtue may be reduced to three principles. First, virtue is the proper government and direction of all our affections (propriety). Second, virtue is the judicious pursuit of our own private interest (prudence). Third, virtue lies in the exercise of only those affections that aim at the happiness of others (benevolence). These principles make it evident either that virtue may be ascribed to all our affections when properly governed (as the principle of propriety implies) or that virtue is limited to one of two classes of our affections, either the prudent ones or the benevolent ones.

After surveying the various systems of morals, Smith offers the following conclusions. The systems based on propriety give no precise measure of it. Smith remedies this defect by pointing out that the standard of what is appropriate in sentiments and motives can be found nowhere but in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial spectator. The most that can be claimed for the definition of virtue as propriety is that there is no virtue without propriety, and where there is propriety, some approbation is due. But those who make propriety the sole criterion of virtue can be refuted by the single consideration that they cannot account for the superior esteem granted to benevolent actions. However, neither prudence nor benevolence can be allowed to be the sole criterion of virtue, for whichever we choose, we make it impossible to explain our approbation of the other. Smith's implied conclusion is that there can be no single criterion of virtue and that each of the three principles that he notes must be allowed its just scope.

When Smith turns to the question of what power or faculty of the mind recommends virtue to us, he remarks that this question is of purely speculative interest and has no practical importance whatsoever. Several candidates had been proposed by Smith's predecessors as the source of virtue, notably self-love, reason, or some sentiment. Smith rejects self-love as the ultimate basis of behavior, and hence as the basis of virtue, on the ground that its proponents have neglected sympathy as a cause of action. For Smith, sympathy is not a selfish principle. Smith also rejects reason as a source of the distinction between virtue and vice because reason cannot render any action either agreeable or disagreeable to the mind for its own sake. The first perceptions of right and wrong must be derived from an immediate sense of the agreeableness or disagreeableness of actions. Thus, Smith is left with the conclusion that there must be some sentiment that recommends virtue to us.

Smith considers the proposal that there is a special sense of virtue, the moral sense, as proposed by his former teacher Hutcheson. But Smith regards the moral sense as objectionable on two counts. First, no one seemed to be aware that he had a moral sense before the moral philosophers began to talk about it; and if the moral sense is a genuine sense, this state of affairs seems very odd indeed. Second, Smith finds that sympathy, a recognized human phenomenon, is the source of a range of feelings that provide a foundation for virtue. Therefore, since a sentimental basis for virtue is already provided by nature, there is no need to invent one in the form of a moral sense.

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is partly a description of the actual conditions of manufacture and trade in Smith's own time, partly a history of European economics, and partly recommendations to governments. Smith opposes the mercantilist beliefs that money is wealth and that the best economic policy for a country is the retention within its borders of as much gold and silver as possible. He argues, rather, that wealth is consumable goods and that the wealthiest country is one that either produces itself or can command from others the greatest quantity of consumable goods.

The development of a full-blown economic system requires some people in a society to possess a supply of either raw materials or manufactured goods greater than is required to fulfill their own immediate needs. The surplus stocks provide the opportunity for trade among people with various needs. Where the demand for a certain kind of thing is great enough to assure a producer that his other wants may be supplied in exchange for producing this certain good, he will specialize in its production. This kind of division of labor will continue, according to Smith, until some laborers are producing a very small part of a manufactured product because the master finds that a division of labor enables his workers to produce a greater quantity of goods in a shorter time.

Smith believes that the general welfare will be best served by permitting each person to pursue his own interest. Sympathy, which figured largely in Smith's account of moral psychology, is not mentioned in his economics. Self-interest is the motive required to explain economic action. Smith argues, "Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command." Since the most advantageous employment of capital is to be found in producing and selling the goods that satisfy the greatest needs of a people, the capitalist is bound to work to satisfy those needs. Intending only his own gain, he contributes nonetheless to the general welfare. Thus, the capitalist is "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention."

Smith was instrumental in bringing his contemporaries to see the modern European economic system for the first time, and we are the heirs of their vision. Of course, Smith is guilty of oversimplifications and omissions, but his work is nonetheless a model of both observation and systematization in the social sciences.

See also Ethics, History of; Ethics and Economics; Home, Henry; Hume, David; Hutcheson, Francis; Moral Sense; Philosophy of Economics; Virtue Ethics.


The edition of The Wealth of Nations prepared by Edwin Cannan (London: Methuen, 1904) is recommended. See also William R. Scott, ed., Adam Smith as Student and Professor, with Unpublished Documents (Glasgow: Jackson, 1937), a biographical account, and Eli Ginzberg, The House of Adam Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934), which is the classic analysis of Smith's economics based on consideration of his predecessors and contemporaries. For Smith's moral philosophy, see James Bonar, Moral Sense (London: Allen and Unwin, 1930), Chs. X and XI.

Elmer Sprague (1967)

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