Adam Smith in the Anthropocene

ecology sympathetic imagination environmentalism

Paul Crider for AdamSmithWorks

April 19, 2023

Can Adam Smith's philosophy help those who care about environmental issues develop a theory of ecoliberalism?
The green movement splashed across headlines and book covers in the 1970s and has challenged liberalism ever since. This only intensified as environmental crises went global, first with the degradation of the ozone layer and then with greenhouse gas-induced climate change. Liberals have struggled to reformulate our ideas to address environmental crises—where we haven’t resisted the need to do so altogether.
Yet liberalism is fully capable of apprehending environmental problems, and one promising avenue is the philosophy of Adam Smith. Several elements of Smith’s thought illuminate the value of nonhuman and even nonsentient entities in nature, like species populations and ecosystems. These adjustments are spurred by the remarkable changes the world has seen in the past two and a half centuries, changes which Smith’s philosophy are well-suited to accommodate. My argument will necessarily go beyond what Smith might have thought himself about environmental matters—evidence of which is pretty sparse—and speculate about how a modern Smithian can approach intrinsic value in nonhuman and holistic nature.
I first note that Smith (like David Hume before him) theorizes not from first principles or some master value but instead observes the social world around him—how real people think, feel, and behave, and how these are shaped by institutions, material economic factors, and the contours of history. Thus, today’s Smithian should see the prevalence of concern about the environment, including the recognition of intrinsic environmental value, as a sociological datum. This doesn’t mean we must acknowledge environmental value just because it is in vogue. After all, Smith himself criticized pervasive practices such as slavery in his own time and infanticide among the Ancients. Yet it does suggest Smith would approach environmentalism in the spirit of inquiry.
Smith explicitly favored extending moral regard to at least higher animals. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) Smith argues
We cannot form the idea of any innocent and sensible being, whose happiness we should not desire, or to whose misery, when distinctly brought home to the imagination, we should not have some degree of aversion. The idea of a mischievous, though sensible, being, indeed, naturally provokes our hatred: but the ill-will which, in this case, we bear to it, is really the effect of our universal benevolence. It is the effect of the sympathy which we feel with the misery and resentment of those other innocent and sensible beings, whose happiness is disturbed by its malice. (TMS VI.ii.3.1, my emphasis)
“Sensible” refers to the capability to feel, or to have senses. Smith thus believes we should both desire the happiness of animals—at least those that can feel pleasure and pain—and feel aversion to their misery. Moreover, Smith seems to endorse the notion that such animals can be wronged: the malicious inflicter of misery to animals “provokes our hatred.”
An early essay of Smith’s, Of the External Senses, directly states that Nature has "implanted in man [a fellow-feeling] toward all other animals" and, "[h]aving destined him to be the governing animal in this little world, it seems to have been her benevolent intention to inspire him with some degree of respect, even for the meanest and weakest of his subjects." (Senses, 7)
These examples prove Smith valued animal welfare. His respect for non-sensible entities like plants or holistic entities like species or forests is weaker. In Smith’s discussion of universal benevolence, he warns that, while “our good-will is circumscribed by no boundary, but may embrace the immensity of the universe,” the prosperity of the universe is charged to God, not humanity. Man is “allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension; the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country … “ (TMS VI.ii.3.6, emphases mine).
Yet the “weakness of our powers” and the “narrowness of our comprehension” have changed dramatically since Smith’s time. However narrow our comprehension, Smith passionately advocated extending our horizons of knowledge. In the History of Astronomy, Smith argues that the sense of wonder itself impels us to study the natural world, “to lay open the concealed connections that unite the various appearances of nature …” and further that we pursue such scientific inquiry for its own sake. (Astronomy, III.3)
Smith of course had no inkling of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the elegance and power of which would surely have sparked admiration to rival Newton’s theory of gravity. With evolution comes ecology and the modern understanding that we humans are inextricably connected to the rest of nature, and the very “sensible” animals with whom we can most easily sympathize are themselves embedded in ecological networks that can be and have been impacted by human behavior. To care about sensible animals, we must care about the ecosystems in which those animals live and which they themselves constitute. Universal benevolence coupled with the intrinsic interest of scientific understanding thus yields an indirect moral concern for ecosystems by way of their importance to animals.
One advantage of Smith over Hume in exploring natural value is the cognitive imaginative dimension of Smith’s method of sympathy. For Hume, sympathy is largely contagious, as the emotions we witness directly evoke some like response in ourselves. For Smith, we witness emotions and, before we confer on them our approbation or disapprobation, we carefully attend to the circumstances in all their relevant details in which those emotions arose. We project ourselves into the situation of the other person and construct in our minds the sentiments that would arise. Where personal commitments interfere, we displace this imaginative construction onto Smith’s famous impartial spectator, who is equipped with all the humanly sentimental capacities but sympathizes at a remove.
Smith’s method of sympathy is vivid enough for most animals, who have not only bodily senses but in many cases well-developed sentiments of affection, fear, playfulness, and anxiety. It’s a simple matter to imagine myself in the position of my cat as she awaits her dinner with mounting impatience or climbs on my shoulders for company and cuddles. It’s just as possible in principle to imagine myself a lizard sunbathing on a fence, or nursing my cetacean young in the sea. Our scientific advances in the two centuries since Smith have given us a richer understanding of the particular needs, markers of good health, and modes of flourishing for a variety of species. And Smith’s method of sympathy always recommends seeking out such additional contextual details to more completely sympathize with the other. When we are attentive to the context of the animals with which we sympathize, we may vicariously feel the life-sustaining value of the environment.
The concepts of health and flourishing allow us to make an even more radical step. Nothing in the process of imaginative construction and projection limits us to Smith’s “sensible beings” in the animal kingdom. With the aid of modern biology, forestry, and ecology we can assess the health and well-being of trees, forests, soils, and species populations. We can’t sympathize with the sentiments of these entities—they have no sentiments—but we can imagine ourselves in comparable states of thriving or disrepair. It is not so difficult to enter into the hypothetical frustration or delight of these nonhuman holistic entities as their objectives are abetted or obstructed. With universal benevolence unto the immensity of the universe, we can at least limit unnecessary or wanton destruction without trespassing beyond Smith’s “humble departments.”
Smith frequently appeals to works of literature to more evocatively bring home the human emotional experience. Literature, art, and poetry exercise our imaginative capacities. Disputing Stoic apathy, Smith remarks, “The poets and romance writers, who best paint the refinements and delicacies of love and friendship, and of all other private and domestic affections … are … much better instructors than Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus.” (TMS III.iii.14) Such literary tools are powerful motivators for fostering environmental sympathy, as the examples of Alexander von Humboldt, Henry David Thoreau, and (the Scottish-born) John Muir show. Aldo Leopold, the poet ecologist who introduced the “land ethic,” illustrates how literary art can draw us into sympathy with natural wholes. In Thinking Like a Mountain he muses how
… just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. (Leopold, 122)
Smith scholar Patrick Frierson has argued that Leopold’s anthropomorphization of the mountain is exactly how we would expect a Smithian to sympathize with nature.
But Smith’s point is that this anthropomorphic projection is precisely what is ethically relevant, as long as it is a natural human response to imagining oneself in the place of the mountain. The mountain is endangered by the deer, and the potential damage could be devastating. In such a context, one who imagines herself in the place of the mountain will anticipate (in a way that the mountain cannot) the danger that the deer pose, and this anticipation will generate fear in the imagining and attentive spectator. Moreover, because this fear can be shared by an impartial spectator, the sympathetic fear with the mountain will be proper. (Emphasis in original)
Let’s return to how the “weakness of our powers” limits the range of our practical moral consideration. Perhaps in Smith’s time, this note of caution applied to excessive concern about the natural world, (though human-caused ecological collapses in history aren’t uncommon). But amidst anthropogenic climate change and a steady stream of less existential environmental crises, it’s clear that our powers are no longer so weak. Our ethical concern should consequently extend to the bounds of our extended effective reach.
A Smithian approach to environmental ethics may look like Leopold’s land ethic, which “reflects the existence of an ecological conscience [and] a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” (Leopold 207) J. Baird Callicott, the eminent environmental ethicist, grounds the land ethic in Hume’s moral sentiments by way of Charles Darwin. (As an aside, by choosing Hume and neglecting Smith’s more cognitive approach to sympathy, Callicott missed an opportunity to more deeply root the land ethic in the Scottish Enlightenment and the liberal tradition.)
The land ethic orders our care and attention in an essentially Smithian way (TMS VI.i and VI.ii): first attend to ourselves, then to our close family, then friends, then our particular communities and organizations, and then onto the nation. Compare Callicott’s summary of how the land ethic relates to other ethical commitments in his book Thinking Like a Planet:
[I]ndividual Homo sapiens also remain members and sometimes citizens of other communities—clans (extended families), tribes, nations (ethnic groups), nation-states (countries), the global village (the international community)—each with its own associated ethic. … The land ethic thus does not replace all the previous steps in the ethical sequence; it is an addendum to them. The land ethic may well require the subordination of some individual human interests to the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community—those that are weak or trivial—but the ethic of democratic nation-states and that of the global village uphold the rights of individual human beings to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. (Callicott, 66)
A Smithian approach to intrinsic natural value begins by entering into sympathy with sensible animals. An attentive sympathy, augmented by universal benevolence and modern science, commends we value ecosystems indirectly, for the sake of the animals with which we sympathize. This indirect value of environmental wholes and our burgeoning ecological sensibility (enlivened by environmental threats to human welfare) prompt us to project ourselves onto ecosystems themselves, to experience the flowering or wilting of their objectives as though they were our own humanly objectives. These are the beginnings of a Smithian ecoliberalism.

J. Baird Callicott: Thinking Like a Planet: The Land Ethic and the Earth Ethic  Oxford University Press; 1st edition (February 4, 2014)
Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There   Oxford University Press; Illustrated edition (May 1, 2020)