Readings of Smith by Contemporary Political Philosophers: John Rawls

invisible hand impartial spectator system of natural liberty self-command philosophy utilitarianism

Alejandra Salinas for AdamSmithWorks

September 22, 2021
John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) is the second title most listed in college syllabi worldwide in the field of philosophy of the 20th century. Given that 2021 is the centenary of Rawls’ birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his magnum opus, it seems timely to ask if Rawls read Adam Smith, and if so, how he interpreted his ideas.
Besides ongoing interest in Adam Smith, the questions arise because Rawls characterizes his book as advancing “a theory of the moral sentiments (to recall an eighteenth-century title), setting out the principles governing our moral powers, or, more specifically, our sense of justice.”1 The title recalled – though not quoted in this sentence - is none other than Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Rawls also writes about “the system of natural liberty,” which is mentioned throughout The Wealth of Nations. Curiously, Smith is given no credit as the author of both expressions. We do not know the causes of this omission, nor why the name of Smith eventually disappears from Rawls’ texts.
In any case, in the index of A Theory there are seven entries on Smith. This is an unanticipated finding since in the early 1970s Smith went mostly unmentioned in academic literature; only with the occasion of the bicentennial of The Wealth of Nations did economists begin to quote him. In this regard, Rawls turned out to be a pioneer, for he not only found early inspiration in the contributions of Smith but his treatment of the latter covers a wide and crucial range of themes.
In what follows I present Rawls’ views on the topics that he found worth relating to the Scottish thinker, and I compare his interpretation with Smith’s writings.

In A Theory of Justice David Hume and Smith are considered “great utilitarians,” for whom social institutions should allow for “the greatest net balance of satisfaction” and for the “efficient administration of social resources to maximize the satisfaction of [an impartial] system of desire,”2 and for whom “the good of society is constituted by the advantages enjoyed by individuals.” Rawls includes The Theory of Moral Sentiments among the texts upholding such views.3
However, Rawls does not provide an accurate representation of Smith’s thoughts on utility, institutions, and the good society. For Smith, the first criterion for moral evaluation is not utility but the affection of sympathy, which is the “natural and original measure of the proper degree” of sentiments.4 We first evaluate actions according to a sentiment of sympathy, the measure of which is dictated by a sense of propriety.
However, human conduct is also guided by utilitarian motivations, writes Smith, both in regard to the appreciation of objects and in “the most serious and important pursuits of both private and public life,” such as the achievement of power, greatness, and wealth.5 When we approve of prudent, just, and beneficent actions, utility “joins with our sense of their propriety, and constitutes always a considerable, frequently the greater part of that approbation” (emphasis added).6 In other words, utility is an important factor, not the original moral criterion. Additionally, utility serves as the standard of evaluation of political constitutions, which ought “to promote the happiness of those who live under them.”7
So despite the recognition of the importance of utility in human life, at the individual and collective levels, Smith does not advance its moral priority, or a normative view for maximizing any aggregate benefits, and he does not think that a good society is related to individual advantages only. His is a more nuanced view that escapes the label of “classical utilitarianism.” In an attempt to contrast the latter with his own theory of justice, Rawls misreads Smith as a “great utilitarian.” Instead, he could have said of Smith what he asserts of Hume: that he is not “strictly speaking” a utilitarian, given that if utility is construed as “the general interests and necessities of society” there is “no conflict with the priority of justice.”8

The invisible hand
Rawls’ book explores the basis for institutional design, public policy implementation, and judicial interpretation. With regard to institutional design, it acknowledges the need to introduce incentives for individual behavior: “Rules should be set up so that men are led by their predominant interests to act in ways which further socially desirable ends (…) to achieve results which although not intended or perhaps even foreseen by them are nevertheless the best ones from the standpoint of social justice.” He directly relates this idea to The Wealth of Nations.9
The paragraph reflects well Smith’s considerations on the motivation of the standard economic agent, who “neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it (…) by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intentions.”10 Free economic exchanges are thus regarded not only as beneficial for the persons involved but for the prosperity of society at large.
Rawls also writes that economic activities are “intrinsically good and not merely cooperation for social or economic gain,” and that “it is only in active cooperation with others that one’s powers reach fruition.” He indicates as a source for this argument the first two chapters of The Wealth of Nations,11 where Smith examines the dynamics and effects of the division of labor and the innate human propensity to barter and exchange by which individuals attempt to generate private gains.12
Therefore Rawls, like Smith, values the operation of the invisible hand for its capacity to produce greater overall wealth, and for its contribution to the development of individual productive capacities. However, Rawls remains silent as to the distributive merits of the invisible hand, whilst Smith acknowledges that it is an adequate mechanism to provide for the “distribution of the necessaries of life [and] the multiplication of the species.”13 The invisible hand not only creates personal and general wealth but distributes it conveniently across society.

The system of natural liberty
Rawls identifies four socioeconomic models: “liberal equality,” “natural aristocracy,” “democratic equality,” and the “system of natural liberty.”14 Several authors are associated with the first three models, but none with the latter perspective, despite the fact that it is often used by Smith, who speaks of “the system of natural liberty,” “the natural system of perfect liberty and justice,” and “the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.”15
According to Rawls, “the system of natural liberty asserts, then, that a basic structure satisfying the principle of efficiency and in which positions are open to those able and willing to strive for them will lead to a just distribution.”16 Underlying this reconstruction is the assumption of equal liberty, free markets, and equal opportunity, as well as the acceptance of factors such as natural talents and abilities, social circumstances, and life contingencies.
Rawls then points out three critiques of the system of natural liberty. He first claims: “the most obvious injustice [is] that it permits distributive shares to be improperly influenced by these factors.”17 Secondly, he models its agents as pursuing “private ends which are either competing or independent, but not in any case complementary.” And third, those agents are said to give no value to institutions, “the activity of engaging in them not being counted as a good but if anything as a burden. (…) the members of this society are not moved by the desire to act justly.”18
Rawls’ analysis is somehow incomplete and partly wrong, at least if applied to Smith’s social theory. He is right to identify that in the system of natural liberty the results of social exchanges carried out within the rules of the game are proper and just. But that is not all there is to it. The model also gives ample room for private benevolence, to the point that rulers may even impose “duties of beneficence [to promote] the prosperity of the commonwealth.”19 Prosperity under the system of natural liberty is thus a result of both the justice and benevolence that secure and enrich social life, respectively.
Also, Smith describes the market society as a basically cooperative and complementary one, a feature first acknowledged by Rawls (see note 12), but evidently cut back in this section. Besides being cooperative, in the model of natural liberty people do care about doing justice, understood as refraining from harming the person, the property, and the reputation of others.20 Rawls should acknowledge that Smith’s is a different view of justice rather than asserting the absence of the desire to act justly.
Last, in regard to political life, Smith is conscious that economic occupations may draw people away from the public interest, which is why he advocates education for civic purposes and military engagement,21 among other measures. Such recommendations are far from being a burden; they show a preoccupation with strengthening the political-institutional health of a well-governed society.

The impartial spectator
How can a unanimous agreement about the principles of justice be adopted by means of an ideal deliberation among free and equal citizens? Rawls seeks to answer this question and he positions Hume and Adam Smith as being on a similar search.22 He associates them with the idea of an impartial spectator, defined as a “perfectly rational individual who identifies with and experiences the desires of others as if these desires were his own.”23 He reconstructs the argument about the impartial spectator as follows: “Something is right, a social system say, when an ideally rational and impartial spectator would approve of it from a general point of view should he possess all the relevant knowledge of the circumstances.” The footnote to this sentence makes only one reference, and that is to The Theory of Moral Sentiments.24 Further on in the book Rawls writes that the impartial spectator judgment is “the standard of justice, and this results in impersonality, in the conflation of all desires into one system of desire.”25
Several comments are in order about Rawls’ interpretation of this subject.
He makes reference to a selection of Part I, section 1 (“Of the sense of propriety”), where Smith elaborates on mutual sympathy as the basis of social approbation.26 Nowhere in that part of the text does Smith mention the impartial spectator. This observation reveals that Rawls may not have been sufficiently acquainted with the structure of Smith’s work in general, or with the construction of the impartial spectator in particular.
Smith’s theory does not present any of the characteristics underscored by Rawls. The Smithian impartial spectator does not evaluate social systems, since her objects of attention are individual “passions and conducts.” It is a scrutiny of “the propriety of our own conduct” from the perspective of an imagined spectator.27 Neither does Smith offer a rationalistic analysis based on perfect knowledge, but rather an assessment of what is considered proper for social interactions according to the “sympathetic feelings” of a “supposed impartial and well-informed spectator” (emphasis added).28
Last, what the Smithian impartial spectator approves of is the propriety expected from individuals in their particular circumstances, not the expression of a general and permanent point of view about a single system of desire.29

In his analysis of the morality of the principles of justice Rawls introduces the notion of self-command, which “in its simplest form is manifest in fulfilling with complete ease and grace the requirements of right and justice. It becomes truly supererogatory when the individual displays its characteristic virtues of courage, magnanimity, and self-control in actions presupposing great discipline and training.” The footnote to this quote informs that supererogation is drawn upon J. O. Urmson and that self-command is taken from The Theory of the Moral Sentiments (part VI, section III).30
Rawls leads readers to think that in Smith self-command is reduced to easy compliance with what is right and just. However, Smith explicitly states another form of self-command: “To act according to the dictates of prudence, of justice, and proper beneficence (…) in the midst of the greatest dangers and difficulties [and] in spite both of the greatest interests which might tempt, and the greatest injuries which might provoke us to violate them; is the character of the most exalted wisdom and virtue. Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre.”31
The quote is preceded by several paragraphs where Smith praises the “heroes” who die for “the cause of truth, liberty, and justice,” as well as the virtues displayed in the combat of war and the “nobleness of pardoning,” in a discussion about extraordinary examples of the command of fear and anger.32
The analysis of patriotic instances of self-command tied to great courage and the capacity for pardoning joins the use of education for civic purposes, the need for military engagement, and a call to adopt wise political constitutions to show a strong public-spiritedness in Smith’s moral discourse, one that goes undetected by Rawls.

Rawls was an early contemporary reader of Smith, and he was acquainted with both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Unfortunately, he omitted, misrepresented, or overlooked some important references and premises of Smith’s works.
In A Theory of Justice he commends the workings of the invisible hand in the system of natural liberty yet he considers its distributive results to be unjust, without taking into consideration that for Smith private benevolence may be politically encouraged to accompany and complement the results of the market, thus moving beyond the “principle of efficiency.”
In regard to utilitarianism and impartiality, Rawls finds in Smith a utilitarian philosopher who evaluates society from the angle of a perfectly rational spectator, misrepresenting the place of utility and role of the impartial spectator in Smith’s moral theory.
Last, in reducing self-control to an “easy” norm compliance Rawls overlooks a type of Smithian self-command that denotes an “amazing superiority over the most ungovernable passions of human nature.”33
Perhaps an attentive reading of Smith could have provided a more complete and nuanced analysis of his ideas on Rawls’ part.

Related Links
Leonidas Montes, The Importance of Self-Command
Peter Foster, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand
Video, The Invisible Hand, Part 1 of An Animal That Trades
Nir Ben-Moshe, The Psychological and Normative Framework of TMS
Edward J. Harpham, Conscience and Moral Rules in Adam Smith

  1. J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Revised edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 44 [herein on TJ followed by page number].
  2. TJ xvii, 20n9, 20, 77.
  3. TJ 161n34.
  4. The Theory of Moral Sentiments 306 [herein on TMS followed by page number].
  5. TMS 181,183.
  6. TMS 264.
  7. TMS 185.
  8. TJ 28-29.
  9. TJ 49. Footnote 3 mentions the Cannan edition (New York, The Modern Library, 1937), p. 423.
  10. The Wealth of Nations p. 456 [hereafter WN followed by page number].
  11. TJ 460n4.
  12. WN 13-30.
  13. TMS 185.
  14. TJ 57, 63n11, 64n12, 65ss.
  15. WN, 606, 664, 687.
  16. TJ 57.
  17. TJ 63.
  18. TJ 457n3.
  19. TMS 81.
  20. TMS, 83, 269.
  21. WN 707, 784-786.
  22. TJ 233.
  23. TJ 24.
  24. TJ 161. Footnote 34 reads: “Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in L. A. Selby-Bigge, British Moralists vol. I (Oxford, 1897), pp. 257-277.”
  25. TJ 164.
  26. TMS 9-23.
  27. TMS112.
  28. TMS 294, 130.
  29. TMS 188, 242.
  30. TJ 419. Footnote 16 quotes “Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy, ed. H. W. Schneider (New York, Hafner, 1948), pp. 251-277.”
  31. TMS 241.
  32. TMS 238-240.
  33. TMS 25.