Adam Smith's Pluralism: Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith's Pluralism: Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments

by Jack Russell Weinstein
Adam Smith's Pluralism: Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith's Pluralism: Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments

by Jack Russell Weinstein


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In this thought-provoking study, Jack Russell Weinstein suggests the foundations of liberalism can be found in the writings of Adam Smith (1723-1790), a pioneer of modern economic theory and a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. While offering an interpretive methodology for approaching Smith's two major works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, Weinstein argues against the libertarian interpretation of Smith, emphasizing his philosophies of education and rationality. Weinstein also demonstrates that Smith should be recognized for a prescient theory of pluralism that prefigures current theories of cultural diversity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300162530
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/24/2013
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Jack Russell Weinstein is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life at the University of North Dakota.

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Adam Smith's Pluralism

Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments

By Jack Russell Weinstein


Copyright © 2013 Jack Russell Weinstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16253-0



Mediating Terminology and Textual Complexity

In this chapter I focus on the literary complexity in both my project and Smith's. In the first section I address the difficulties of using the contemporary language of pluralism to analyze an eighteenth-century text. I investigate the manner in which Smith might be said to postulate pluralism and begin to unravel its centuries-old relationship to rationality. In the second I show that such literary tensions were not uncommon in Smith's times. The Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were unified in their opposition to Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, but, as I illustrate, that book is itself a mixture of philosophical argument, maxims, and contradictions. This necessitated a different type of response on Smith's part, one that involved explicit rejection and implicit acceptance, the former finding its voice in TMS, the latter being much more subtly placed in WN. Ultimately, I show that the debate between Mandeville and Smith is one about the place of rationality in negotiating human motivation.


It would be anachronistic to suggest that Adam Smith offers an explicit theory of pluralism in any contemporary sense. The first published reference to the term as a theory of diversity is found in 1924, one and a half centuries after his death. This seems surprisingly late given the long history of writing on toleration. However, its usage does seem a natural extension of pluralism's first political designation, only seven years earlier, as a theory of politics that prioritizes individuals and organizations over a monolithic state. Tellingly, this earlier definition contains the term "rationality," although its meaning suggests a Weberian account rather than the phronesis that is the focus of this book. From the first, diversity and rationality were intertwined.

Modern theories of diversity concern themselves with ethnic, religious, cultural, sexual, and other group differences. They preserve and celebrate patterns of dissimilarity, recognizing that a truly pluralistic state manages rather than eradicates variation. Thus Kant's categorical imperative is not itself pluralistic because it seeks to find a universal human morality that transcends difference and contingency. It can be used to undergird pluralism, as Rawls and his followers try to do, but the imperative itself is homogeneous and absolute.

Smith explicitly rejects this uniform picture of humanity, acknowledging class, race, sex, religious, and ethnic differences throughout his work. It is, however, in a comment on national identity that Smith comes closest to arguing for some sort of modern pluralism. In TMS VI.ii.2, while Smith is elaborating on the nature of loyalties to one's state, he writes, "Every independent state is divided into many different orders and societies, each of which has its own particular powers, privileges, and immunities. Every individual is naturally more attached to his or her own order or society, than to any other" (TMS VI.ii.2.7). These subgroups, Smith continues, while sometimes acting "unjust," are not "useless." They tend "to preserve whatever is the established balance among the different orders and societies into which the state is divided." And, while they often seem to disrupt things, any group "contributes in reality to the stability and permanency of the whole system" (TMS VI.ii.2.10). Thus subgroups, for Smith, both preserve the status quo and promote national strength.

Shortly thereafter, while exposing the disruptive dangers of fanaticism, a topic Smith revisits numerous times throughout his corpus, he writes,

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear (TMS VI.ii.2.16).

There is a political tension in this paragraph between individuals' and groups' "powers and privileges," a phrase we would colloquially call rights, although they do not meet the philosophical criteria for identifying them as such. This tension requires a negotiation between what individuals are free to do, what groups are free to do, and what limits they all impose on one another. This is more than just liberal individualism. Pluralism gives special acknowledgment to groups and recognizes that while the perspective of one group does not always appear legitimate to others, the association must still be permitted to exist and not simply as a collection of individuals.

These nuances are likely too subtle for Smith's eighteenth-century perspective. The important point is that Smith is not simply acknowledging the existence of diversity but institutionalizing the maintenance and cultivation of group identity and its importance to the state. This is pluralism as a system of governance, not just plurality as a fact.

Smith also references in the passage many of pluralism's great themes while emphasizing his own approach to political stability. Those who seek the public good must respect the different individuals and groups of society. Such people may be understood, from a spectator's perspective, to have different habits and prejudices, but they must still be approached with humanity and benevolence, never violence. Because no system is perfect, the public-spirited person must seek to moderate people's prejudices, but in the end the sovereign should aim to establish the best system of laws compatible with the people and groups already contained within society, remedying the negative consequences of those group behaviors and attitudes that will not change. Replace the phrase "great orders and societies" with "ethnic, religious, and racial groups," and replace the term "moderate" with "teach equality to," and one would be hard-pressed to distinguish Smith's prescription from that of most modern pluralists.

Smith makes a similar point with similar language in WN when he compares the corn laws to laws that effect religion: "The laws concerning corn may every where be compared to the laws concerning religion. The people feel themselves so much interested in what relates either to their subsistence in this life, or to their happiness in a life to come, that government must yield to their prejudices, and, in order to preserve the publick tranquillity, establish that system which they approve of. It is upon this account, perhaps, that we so seldom find a reasonable system established with regard to either of those two capital objects" (WN IV.v.b.40).

This is not democratic theory. Great Britain did not have a true democracy until the reform acts of 1832, and Smith offers no account of democracy in either his published or unpublished writing. Instead, it is a discussion of managing group interests, activities, perspectives, and identities. Obviously, the second passage tempers the first one, in that tolerant laws are seen as more of a compromise, and Smith emphasizes that religions lead to unreasonable attitudes. But my argument is not that Smith offers a full-fledged pluralism, only that he anticipates this type of political system in many ways. Rawls may reject this kind of diversity, a system built upon a modus vivendi, but in a society ripped apart by strife, toleration by compromise is a grand achievement.

Smith's pluralism is too embryonic to be clearly identified as either a "melting pot" or "mosaic" model, where the former emphasizes assimilation and the latter encourages multicultural coexistence. The comments cited so far emphasize mosaic difference, but, as we shall see, the intersubjective elements of Smith's moral theory encourage a kind of melting-pot assimilation. Sympathy, for Smith, involves sharing in the experiences of others. It demands, ultimately, the creation of an imagined impartial spectator who speaks for the community in times of moral myopia, but who can also act as an advocate for individuals determined to challenge a community. An impartial spectator who speaks for a community must be culturally assimilated, but one who is capable of challenging that community must be accepting of difference.

While Smith recognizes that privileges and inequalities are to be preserved in some sense, he also recognizes that these advantages are not absolute. Stable political systems must allow for idiosyncrasies even if, from the perspective of those in charge, these attitudes are illegitimate. Smith makes it clear that these prejudices appear unreasonable, but one of the central questions of this book, and of pluralism in general, is what, in a diverse society, reasonable can actually mean.

In contrast to Kant, Smith's approach presumes human difference; he rejects noncontextual normativity. While he does call into question the breadth of the spectrum of human difference (WN I.ii.5), his analyses and recommendations suggest that variation is both normatively and empirically informative. Continually negotiating the tensions between discordance and commonality, Smith frames his project as a dialogue between otherness and familiarity. To begin with, the full title of TMS as printed in the later editions is The theory of Moral Sentiments or, an essay towards an analysis of the principles, by which men naturally judge concerning the conduct and character, first of their neighbours, and afterwards of themselves to which is added, a dissertation on the origin of languages, and each edition begins with the first principle that individuals care for others despite there being no benefit but "the pleasure of seeing it" (TMS I.i.1.1). Smith is arguing that while we care about others and judge ourselves on their account, our doing so creates a philosophical problem that must be addressed. Diversity both interferes with and cultivates moral determinations; that which divides us also unites us.

TMS is intended to describe the moral psychology that allows for communication and judgment amidst differences. In part VII, for example, Smith identifies two questions that "ought to be examined in a Theory of Moral Sentiments," the second of which concerns us: "By what power or faculty in the mind is it, that this character, whatever it be, is recommended to us?" (TMS VII.i.2). In this book I investigate the nature of the human mind from Smith's point of view. In it, I ask how differently people think and how they think in the face of these differences. Again, diversity and rationality are intertwined.

Smith is famous for his system of "natural liberty," but liberty is not pluralism. The former is a state of possibilities for individuals; the latter is a description of society. Smith understands this distinction, recognizing that the "liberty of every individual" depends upon the "impartial administration of justice" (WN V.i.b.25). However, the question at hand is to what extent pluralistic principles are implicit in Smith's notion of impartiality. Furthermore, the relationship between pluralism and liberty is dependent on what kind of liberty one presumes.

There are times when Smith seems to presume negative liberty, suggesting that what he wants is simply freedom from obstruction. But there are others when he focuses on human development and progress, suggesting that the sovereign has a responsibility to cultivate the moral, social, political, and intellectual capacities of its citizens. To a certain extent, then, Smith's discussion is a preamble to the nineteenth-century German idealist struggle with the state's role in individual actualization. It necessitates reflection on the nature of individuality and its relationship with difference and commonality.

In WN the tension between familiarity and otherness manifests itself as a discussion of cooperation in the face of specialization. It too presumes some sort of natural human differences, some existing from birth and some acquired through experience. In the third paragraph of its introduction, Smith references possible variation in "the skill, dexterity, and judgment" of laborers (WN intro.3) and then refers to these differences again in the first sentence of the first chapter (WN I.1.1). Even the title of WN's first book announces the fact of diversity by describing its subject as "Of the Causes of Improvement in the productive Powers of Labour, and of the Order according to which its Produce is naturally distributed among the different Ranks of the People." Smith's starting point in both published books is that difference in skills, experience, and capacities are matters of fact that must be acknowledged and dealt with.

Smith's comments allude to education as well as diversity. TMS's subtitle summarizes the process by which individuals learn to make moral judgments about themselves and others, and WN's account of skills and dexterity begins a recurring emphasis on specialization and the process of skills development. Rationality, however, is more subtly placed throughout the text, and while it turns out that the rational faculty is tied to education and knowledge of oneself and others, teasing out Smith's theory of it is a lengthy task.

While reconstructing Smith's unfinished corpus is difficult (he ordered most of his unpublished work burned before his death), it is clear that his overall purpose was to provide a systematic account of human activity and its relationship to nature. Philosophy is, for him, the "science of the connecting principles of nature." It seeks to "introduce order into this chaos" and "allay this tumult of the imagination" (HA II.12). It is an umbrella discipline that offers both content and method in a vast range of subject areas. Notice how this terminology prepares the ground for rational thought. It presupposes the possibility of imposing order. It allows an individual to moderate and control the imagination, resting on the interpretive and predictive power of 'principles'—a term Smith references in the first sentence of TMS and one he uses as a contrast to nonevidentiary supposition (TMS I.i.1.1).

Rationality is, for Smith, a response to more than just political pluralism; it challenges philosophical monism as well. Smith presumes not only that there is more than one mind, but that each has more than one motivation. As I emphasize, while some commentators have misinterpreted Smith's text as postulating a monistic egoism or a monistic altruism, the rational capacity, for Smith, is that which allows an individual to act on multiple motivations at once. He inherited this approach to rational deliberation from his predecessors, most specifically Mandeville, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume.

These four, like Smith himself, were all empiricists; Daniel Carey usefully employs the word "observational" in describing their approach to evidence. All played with the notion of inborn capacities in different ways, but Hutcheson, at least, explicitly asserts that he is not postulating any innate knowledge (Inquiry, xv). Each was bound by the success of Locke's Enquiry, assumed the existence of reflection, and struggled with Locke's assertion that humans are born without any knowledge whatsoever. Hutcheson, building on Shaftesbury's terminology, transformed this reflection into a moral sense theory ultimately rejected by Smith and most post–Scottish Enlightenment thinkers.

The moral sense is a response to human diversity; it bespeaks a universal human nature in the face of cultural and personal difference. Whereas Mandeville and Locke embraced this difference as a fundamental human fact, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson worked hard to show that evidence of moral variation was exaggerated. They rejected seventeenth- and eighteenth-century travel literature, the source of much anthropological data, as sensationalistic and sought to show that whatever differences existed had developed only after natural moral unity had been achieved. Although not every modern debate about diversity can be traced to this lineage, "a substantial core of current concerns had its first modern exploration in the work of Locke, Shaftesbury, and Hutcheson."

Excerpted from Adam Smith's Pluralism by Jack Russell Weinstein. Copyright © 2013 by Jack Russell Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

List of Abbreviations xvii

Introduction 1

Part 1 What Rationality Is

1 Mediating Terminology and Textual Complexity 21

2 One System, Many Motivations 40

3 Education as Acculturation 68

4 Education and Social Unity 82

5 Finding Rationality in Reason 109

6 Reason and the Sentiments 129

7 Normative Argumentation 147

Part 2 Improving Rational Judgment

8 Education Foundations 169

9 Formal Education 185

10 History and Normativity 219

11 Progress or Postmodernism? 239

Conclusion: A Smithian Liberalism 264

Notes 271

Works Cited 311

Index 329

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