Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics, and Culture

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"Adam Smith is best known among economists for his book, The Wealth of Nations, often viewed as the keystone of modern economic thought. For many, he has become associated with a quasi-libertarian laissez-faire philosophy. Others, often heterodox economists and social philosophers, on the contrary, focus on Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, and explore his moral theory. There has been a long debate about the relationship or lack thereof between these, his two great works." This work treats these dimensions of Smith's work as elements in a seamless moral philosophical vision, demonstrating the integrated nature of these works and Smith's other writings. Although many practitioners today see the study of Smith as an antiquarian exercise, this book weaves Smith into a constructive critique of modern economic analysis (engaging along the way the work of Nobel Laureates Gary Becker, Amarty Sen, Douglass North, and James Buchanan) and builds bridges between that discourse and other social sciences.
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'… the mature result of a lifelong project.' History of Economic Ideas
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Meet the Author

Jerry Evensky is Associate Professor of Economics and Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence at Syracuse University. He coedited Adam Smith and the Philosophy of Law and Economics (1994) with Robin Malloy and is the author of the textbook Economics: The Ideas, the Issues. Professor Evensky serves on the editorial board of The Journal of the History of Economic Thought and served on the Executive Committee of the History of Economics Society from 1997 to 2000. He has published articles in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, History of Political Economy, Southern Economic Journal, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Scottish Journal of Political Economy, and Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology.

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Cambridge University Press
0521852471 - Adam Smith's Moral Philosophy - A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics, and Culture - by Jerry Evensky




Adam Smith's Vision

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein

Philosophy is the science of the connecting principles of nature. Nature, after the largest experience that common observation can acquire, seems to abound with events which appear solitary and incoherent with all that go before them, which therefore disturb the easy movement of the imagination...Philosophy, by representing the invisible chains which bind together all these disjointed objects, endeavours to introduce order into this chaos of jarring and discordant appearances, to allay the tumult of the imagination, and to restore it, when it surveys the great revolutions of the universe, to that tone of tranquility and composure, which is both most agreeable in itself, and most suitable to its nature. Philosophy, therefore, may be regarded as one of those arts which addresses themselves to the imagination....

Adam Smith
"History of Astronomy"


Imagine that there is an order to the universe, an order that is the work of a deity as designer. Imagine further that somewhere beyond our sight that deity has a drafting table and on that table are the blueprints for that design. Those imagined blueprints are invisible to us, and so too the hand that drew them.

That hand is the invisible hand of Adam Smith's moral philosophy.

Smith uses the invisible hand image three times in his works. The first, in the "History of Astronomy," (hereafter, HA) refers to "the invisible hand of Jupiter" (HA, 49), a clear connection between the image and a deity. However, this is a micro-managing deity of superstition. Smith's deity is a designer. His second and third usages of the invisible hand image (The Theory of Moral Sentiments [TMS], 184; An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [WN], 456) reflect the power of that deity's design to guide the ultimate course of human events through, but independent of, humans' intentions.

Smith believes we can only imagine the invisible connecting principles designed by this hand. We cannot know them. His objective as a moral philosopher is to represent what he imagines these invisible principles to be, and to do so in a way that is persuasive to a thoughtful and observant spectator of human events and is instructive to the noble leader who seeks to contribute to humankind's progress. His system of moral philosophy is meant to be a guide, not a mandate. He would reject as insolent arrogance the assertion of anyone who claimed to know the design and to act on that knowledge with the self-assurance that he acts on behalf of the deity.1

Smith's analysis of the role of philosophy in humankind begins with the premise that although we cannot know the design, we do take comfort in the notion that there is a design, an order to our world. A child takes pleasure in offering a simple taxonomy of appearances "when it...ascertains to which of the two...classes of objects a particular impression ought to be referred; to the class of realities...which is (sic) calls things, or to that of appearances which it calls nothings" (HA, 38, emphasis in original). Adults do the same thing with the same purpose, but with more sophistication. "[W]hen something quite new and singular is presented [to us]...What sort of a thing can this be? What is that like? are the questions which...we are all naturally disposed to ask" (HA, 39). We do so out of a desire to "introduce order into this chaos of jarring and discordant appearances" (HA, 45-6).

As it is with the singular, so it is with "a succession of objects" or events (HA, 40). While we cannot observe the invisible connecting chain that gives rise to the succession we see, we are comforted when, through our imagination, we can conceive of principles that "seem" (HA, 41) to explain the order of the events we observe.

Customary successions are inherently comforting because such connections are easy to conceive:

There is no break, no stop, no gap, no interval. The ideas excited by so coherent a chain of things seem, as it were, to float through the mind of their own accord, without obliging it to exert itself.... (HA, 41)

Smith cites as an example of such thinking

the artisan [(e.g., "dyers, brewers, distillers") who] cannot conceive what occasion there is for any connecting events to unite those appearances ["to us very strange and wonderful"], which seem to him to succeed each other very naturally. It is their nature, he tells us, to follow one another in this order. In the same manner bread has, since the world began, been the common nourishment of the human body, and men have so long seen it, every day, converted into flesh and bones, substances in all respects so unlike it, that they have seldom had the curiosity to inquire by what process of intermediate events this change is brought about. (HA, 44)

It is the philosopher who, spurred by "anxious curiosity" (HA, 40), explores the invisible connecting chains that form those links that others take for granted.

[A] philosopher, who has spent his whole life in the study of the connecting principles of nature, will often feel an interval betwixt two objects, which, to more careless observers, seem very strictly conjoined. By long attention to all the connections which have ever been presented to his observation...[the philosopher] has, like the musician, acquired, if one may say so, a nicer ear, and a more delicate feeling with regard to things of this nature. (HA, 45)

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher and, as Isaac Newton had done for natural philosophy, so Smith sought to do for moral philosophy: to imagine and represent those invisible connecting principles designed by the deity that determine the course of nature. Newton's natural philosophical realm encompassed all in nature that envelopes humankind. Smith's moral philosophical realm was humankind.

As philosophers who shared a belief in the deity as designer, both Newton and Smith faced the same challenge: How do we see into that windowless workshop of the designer? How do we know the design without access to the blueprints? As Smith writes:

Who wonders at the machinery of the opera-house who has once been admitted behind the scenes? In the Wonders of nature, however, it rarely happens that we can discover so clearly this connecting chain. With regard to a few even of them, indeed, we seem to have been really admitted behind the scenes....(HA, 42-3)2

Nature's "Truth" lies "behind the scenes." No philosopher has the privilege, as an opera patron might, of going behind the scenes to observe those "concealed connections" (HA, 51). No philosopher can see what the invisible hand has drawn on those inaccessible blueprints. But while Smith knows he cannot "see" the invisible, he believes he can imagine it.3 Based on what he can see, the visible effects from the work of that invisible hand, he imagines the connecting principles of the design and represents them.

Smith appreciates that he is not describing Truth, but rather he is offering his best approximation of what he imagines Truth to be. Even the work of Sir Isaac Newton, whom Smith admires as the greatest philosopher of all time, is, in Smith's opinion, a representation, not a Truth. In the closing paragraph of his "History of Astronomy," after expressing his awe at Newton's accomplishments, Smith reminds us:

And even we, while we have been endeavouring to represent all philosophical systems as mere inventions of the imagination...have insensibly been drawn in, to make use of language4 expressing the connecting principles of this one, as if they were the real chains which Nature makes use of to bind together her several operations. (HA, 105, emphasis added)5

Not even Newton had found a window into the workshop of the deity.

Philosophy...[only] pretends to lay open the concealed connections that unite the various appearances of nature. (HA, 51, emphasis added)

The difference between the stories of superstition and the representations of philosophy lies not in the distinction between fiction and truth. Neither represents Truth with a capital T. Both are fiction, both are products of the imagination. The difference lies in how the imagination forms the stories to be told.

The stories of superstition are ad hoc, a new piece (e.g., a new god) added whenever there is an apparent anomaly to be explained, and they are often designed to be fantastic in order to intimidate others into belief. The representations of philosophy are based on rich, systematic observation in search of patterns that may approximate the invisible connecting principles. A philosophical analysis that can represent the observed patterns in a familiar, elegant and simple way is compelling to Smith because it meets his standard of philosophical excellence: It is persuasive to a well-educated, open mind.6


Smith is a proud disciple of Newton, but he appreciates that there is a significant difference between Newton's natural and his moral philosophical enterprise. This derives from a fundamental difference between the human condition and the natural world that surrounds it.

The subjects of natural philosophy - the planets, the plants, the tides, and so on - these things do not imagine or reason, they simply follow the design of nature. Not so the subjects of moral philosophy; humans imagine, they reason, and they suffer "human frailty" (Correspondence, 221).7 That "frailty" makes humankind unique in nature. We are the unnatural dimension of nature. Our vices can distort the "regular and harmonious movements" of the design:8

Human society, when we contemplate it in a certain abstract and philosophical light, appears like a great, an immense machine, whose regular and harmonious movements produce a thousand agreeable effects. As in any other beautiful and noble machine that was the production of human art, whatever tended to render its movements more smooth and easy, would derive a beauty from this effect, and, on the contrary, whatever tended to obstruct them would displease upon that account: so virtue, which is, as it were, the fine polish to the wheels of society, necessarily pleases; while vice, like the vile rust, which makes them jar and grate upon one another, is as necessarily offensive. (TMS, 316)

In Smith's analysis, the nexus of human imagination, reason, and frailty puts humankind in a peculiar and problematic position. Our imagination and reason9 give us dominion over the earth and the capacity to develop natural resources into wealth far beyond our requirements for survival. But that imagination and reason, when wedded to frailty, also sets the stage for destructive interpersonal conflict when some seek to capture a larger share of the human bounty for themselves.

This dilemma was brought into sharp focus by the moral philosophers of the first ages of liberal society, who, including Smith, struggled with the "cohesion question": If the productive potential of liberal society derives from individuals' freedom to pursue their own interests (the Physiocrats' "laissez-faire"), how can such a society avoid a Hobbesian war of all against all?10 What cohesive force can constrain the destructive dynamic of unbridled self-interest and hold liberal society together so that its potential - a materially satisfactory, secure, tranquil life for each individual and the greatest possible wealth for the nation - can be realized?11

In order to answer this question Smith examines the history of humankind.12 He culls from that history13 the contours of those invisible connecting principles that have guided humankind through the twists and turns of distortions caused by our frailty, and that guide a more harmonious case where those distortions are diminished.14 The framework of analysis he develops is evolutionary.15


Humankind has been evolving, according to Smith,16 through stages. This process began in a rude state of human existence and has progressed from that rude state of hunting and gathering through stages of pasturage and agriculture to commerce.17 This progress from stage to stage occurs because there is an intrasocietal dynamic that generates change within a society, and an intersocietal process of natural selection at work.

Intrasocietal change is driven by human imagination and reason. These give individuals the power to intentionally or unintentionally affect their inherited social construction. These choices, along with chance and circumstance, determine the course of a society's changes. As more mature, productive social constructs emerge, these more mature constructs have the capacity, ceteris paribus, to be stronger than less mature constructions (e.g., ceteris paribus, pastoral societies have the means to dominate hunting and gathering societies, agricultural to dominate pastoral, and commercial to dominate agricultural). Thus there is a natural selection bias among humankind's societies toward increasing maturity in social constructions.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1 Adam Smith's vision 3
2 On human nature, social norms, co-evolution, natural selection, and the human prospect 34
3 On the role of positive law in humankind's evolution 59
4 On the role of religion in humankind's evolution 85
5 On the progress of opulence, setting the scene in book I of The wealth of nations 111
6 The role of capital in the progress of opulence : the analysis of book II of The wealth of nations 138
7 An unnatural path to natural progress : Smith represents the power of his principles in book III of The wealth of nations 167
8 Smith on the mercantile system and the evolution of his voice : book IV of The wealth of nations and part VI of The theory of moral sentiments 182
9 On the role of government : book V of The wealth of nations 213
10 "Chicago Smith" versus "Kirkaldy Smith" 245
11 Toward a dynamic three-dimensional analysis 265
12 The liberal plan and the quandary of capital 289
Epilogue : on the human prospect 308
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