Ethics in Aristotle and Adam Smith

Elaine Sternberg for AdamSmithWorks

April 21, 2021
Aristotle and Adam Smith both understand ethics in ways that differentiate them sharply from most other moral philosophers.  Their common sense attitudes are substantially compatible, and many of their evaluations coincide.  Nevertheless, the differences between Smith and Aristotle are profound, largely because of Smith's modern assumptions and impoverished metaphysics.
Consider the similarities.  In contrast to, for example, austere Plato and waspish Immanuel Kant, both Aristotle and Adam Smith seem amiable and sensible.  Their naturalistic understanding of ethics is concerned with action by embodied individuals operating in the everyday physical world.  As such, their ethics necessarily involves judgement about the particular and the possible.
For both Aristotle and Adam Smith, the key unit is an individual, not a group of any sort.  This contrasts with, for example, utilitarians, whose 'greatest happiness for the greatest number' is necessarily about aggregates.  Moreover, the moral agent for both Aristotle and Adam Smith is neither a detached intelligence nor a noumenal self. It is a sociable human being, who is not atomistic, but is bound to others by ties of natural affection and sympathy.
Aristotle and Adam Smith both acknowledge that human desires have a positive role to play in the moral life.  The passions are not to be denied, but trained; we are morally responsible for our emotions as well as our actions.  According to Aristotle,
a good man, in virtue of his goodness, enjoys actions that conform with virtue and dislikes those that spring from wickedness, just as a skilled musician is pleased by good music and pained by bad... (NE 1170a8-10).
Smith agrees.  The fact that doing the right thing is pleasurable need not disqualify the act or the actor from being considered virtuous.  Both Aristotle and Adam Smith appreciate that motives can be mixed and still be meritorious. They also recognise, however, that good intentions are never enough.  Consequences as well as motives are relevant for evaluating moral agents.
Also distinctive, is their shared acceptance of common sense conditions in the ordinary contingent world.  Physical deprivation typically undermines happiness for even the most virtuous.  Inequality and luck are pervasive features that need to be taken into account, not eliminated.  Significantly, prudence is not contrasted with virtue, but constitutes an important part of it. Though ethics has cognitive content, it can neither be expressed with mathematical exactitude nor encapsulated in invariable rules.
Aristotle and Adam Smith acknowledge that attaining ethical perfection is extremely difficult.  For both, moral education consists largely of developing appropriate habits.  Corrective guidance is provided by Aristotelian true friends, those who are 'good and alike in virtue', and by Smith's notional impartial spectator, who is described as a kind of imaginary friend.
The basis for their advice is, however, radically different:  Smith lacks an objective standard of ethical action comparable to that provided by Aristotle's natural teleology.
For Aristotle, knowledge involves understanding things in terms of what have traditionally been called the 'four causes’, which represent four kinds of explanation.  Everything has a material cause, that of which it is made, and an efficient cause, the source of motion that brings it into being.  Less familiar, but vitally important, is the formal cause or essence, 'the what it is to be that thing'.  The essence of a thing both constitutes its identity, and explains its attributes.  Essences are apprehended by reason via a kind of induction from particulars.  So are a thing's fourth or final cause, its telos, 'the that for the sake of which it is'.  According to Aristotle, every object, art, and pursuit has a telos, i.e., a goal, purpose or end that can be discovered through using reason.  Each also has an ergon, a function, characteristic activity or product proper to it, typically the achievement of its distinctive end.  Virtue, arete, consists in the excellent performance of that function.
The function peculiar to man 'is the active exercise of the soul's faculties in conformity with rational principle' (NE 1098a3).  Moral virtue is
... a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it. (NE 1106b36-1107a1)
The prudent man is also known as the 'virtuous man' and as the 'man of practical wisdom'.  Moral virtue is the habit of choosing the right action or emotional response determined by reason, as the prudent man would do.
The right thing is typically neither too much nor too little: the virtue of courage, for example, is considered to be a mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness.  Though often regarded as the core of Aristotelian moral virtue, this 'doctrine of the mean' is frequently misunderstood.  It is not exhaustive:  there is no acceptable mean for things that are bad in themselves, e.g., malice and envy, theft and murder.  Moreover, even when a mean can be ethical, choosing the mean is not evidence of a middling or luke-warm commitment or of any sort of mediocrity or lack of rigour.  In respect of its 'excellence and rightness... it is an extreme.' (NE 1107a18)
The mean is not the outcome of an arithmetical calculation, and is not easy to recognise.  It requires reason in the form of practical wisdom to balance the particulars of the situation, and assess possible choices in relation to man's proper end. Choices are morally appropriate insofar as they express or contribute to the objective telos, which for man consists of living in accord with the fullest development of the rational faculty.  The virtuous man will characteristically identify the right thing to do, and make the correct choice.  Furthermore, he will do so in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reason.  Accordingly, his conduct can serve as an example to others, and contribute to their moral education.  Observing him will help others learn how to act ethically, just as studying a virtuoso can help musicians learn to play their instruments.
Although the virtuous man is exemplary, what makes his choice the morally correct one is not any feeling or opinion of his that it is so. X is not the right choice because it is chosen by the virtuous man; rather, the virtuous man chooses X because it is right, because it conduces to actualisation of the human telos.  The reference to an objective, non-mind-dependent standard is how Aristotelian ethics avoids the circularity that is often associated with 'virtue ethics', insofar as the latter’s proponents eschew Aristotelian metaphysics.
Aristotle's metaphysics supports a much richer understanding of reason than Smith's does.  According to Aristotle, reason is the essential feature of a properly human life.  Reason apprehends man's telos, and constitutes part of man's distinctive purpose.  Reason evaluates what best conduces to achievement of the telos; reason is necessary for acting ethically.  For Smith, in contrast, reason neither does nor can play such a fundamental role.  According to him, ' is altogether absurd and unintelligible to suppose that the first perceptions of right and wrong can be derived from reason....' (TMS VII.iii.2.7)  And that is because for Smith, reason is limited to being a mere calculator:  reason can at best ascertain only the means to ends, not the ends themselves.
This limitation is a natural outcome of the impoverished metaphysics to which most modern philosophers have been reduced.  Following Descartes's injunction to discard everything that can be doubted, much modern philosophy implicitly complies with the version of the Cartesian challenge asserted by Adam Smith's much admired friend, David Hume:
...take in... hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance... ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (Hume 1902, XII.iii; emphasis in text)
Aimed squarely at Aristotle's 'school metaphysics', this seems to require rejecting Aristotelian realist teleology, insofar as its ends and essences fit into neither of Hume's acceptable categories.  Accepting it leaves Smith’s realism, and his reliance on notions of nature and reason, philosophically unsupported.
Smith’s ethics is based not on reason, but on sympathy, and a fundamental desire for '...praise-worthiness; the thing which... is... the natural and proper object of praise.' (TMS III.ii.1)  Praise-worthiness requires that the emotion felt in a given situation be appropriate to it, as perceived by others.  For Smith, the sole
...measure by which th[e] fitness or propriety of affection can be ascertained or judged of. That precise and distinct measure can be found nowhere but in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and well-informed spectator. (TMS VII.ii.x.49)
This suitable level is determined by an iterated process of reciprocal reflection between a notional spectator, who is an imagined ‘man within the breast’, and the 'person principally concerned'.  Each imagines what his reactions would be if he were in the exact situation of the other: nature teaches the spectators to assume the circumstances of the person principally concerned, so she teaches this last in some measure to assume those of the spectators.... (TMS I.i.4.8)
If the person principally concerned
...would act so as that the impartial spectator may enter into the principles of his conduct, which is what of all things he has the greatest desire to do, he must... humble the arrogance of his self-love, and bring it down to something which other men can go along with. (TMS II.ii.2.2)
As the individual directly affected, the person principally concerned is likely to have reactions that are stronger than those of any spectator.  Consequently, in order to secure the approbation of his fellows, he will be led by reflection – both mirroring and thinking – to moderate his responses.  Conversely, reciprocal reflection will fortify the responses of the imagined spectator.  In this way the reactions of both are adjusted to a level that, although not identical, will be 'sufficient for the harmony of society... and this is all that is wanted or required.' (TMS I.i.4.7)
Though associated with the impartial spectator, this outcome is necessarily dependent on the specific identity of the 'other men' whose approbation has so assiduously been sought, and on the soundness or otherwise of their assessments.  Neither their judgements nor those of the impartial spectator reflecting them are based on an objective, reasoned standard.  Accordingly, though Adam Smith agrees with Aristotle that virtuous action must be appropriate to the circumstances, Smith's basis for assessing what counts as virtuous is radically different:  it is based on feelings rather than reason.
There is another fundamental way in which Smith's understanding of ethics differs from Aristotle's.  For Smith, as for most moral philosophers, ethics is about relations with other people.  For Aristotle, however, ethics is not primarily concerned with how others should be treated.  Nor, unlike Smith’s, does it presuppose or reflect any relation to a deity.  Aristotelian ethics is instead about the extent to which an individual actualises his potential for living rationally, in accordance with the telos of man:
...the function of man is... the exercise of the soul's faculties and activities in association with rational principle... the function of a good man is to perform these activities well and rightly.… (NE 1098a13-15)
The virtues reflecting this distinctive approach also differ.  Far from including humility, or the modesty praised by Smith, the Aristotelian virtues are crowned by pride, better understood as megalopsychia, 'greatness of soul':
...a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much... greatness in each of the virtues would seem to go with greatness of soul. (NE 1123b15-32)
Smith attributes similar characteristics to the 'man of superior prudence', who represents 'the best head joined to the best heart'. (TMS VI.1.15)  His similarity to the megalopsychiac is indeed acknowledged by Smith himself. But the fellow-feeling that Smith claims is desired above all by everyone, including the man of superior prudence, is largely disdained by the megalopsychiac.
In conclusion, Aristotle and Adam Smith resemble each other in many ways that significantly differentiate them both from most moral philosophers; they are radically unlike utilitarians, deontologists, emotivists, prescriptivists, etc..  Reflecting their common sense, naturalistic approaches, many of Aristotle's and Adam Smith's evaluations of ethical situations are both sensible and similar.  But Smith and Aristotle are nevertheless fundamentally divided by their metaphysics.  Whereas Aristotle's understanding of ethics is based on reason, and apprehending man's natural telos, Adam Smith's ethical pronouncements reflect mere feelings, and opinions about what is considered praiseworthy.

Related Links:
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics at the OLL
Charlotte Thomas, Adam Smith and Aristotle
Jonathan Jacobs, Adam Smith on Moral Education
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics (‘NE’), in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19, translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1934. Online
- Hume, David (1902 [1777]) Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press). References are to Section.Chapter.paragraph numbers.  Available online at
- Smith, Adam (1982 [1759]) The Theory of Moral Sentiments ('TMS'), Glasgow Edition. Edited by D.D.Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. References are to Part.Section.Chapter.Paragraph numbers.