Adam Smith and the Horror of Frankenstein

frankenstein mary shelley theory of moral sentiments impartial spectator prometheus

A lecture by Dr. Caroline Breashears on February 27, 2019, with an introduction and discussion questions.
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Dr. Caroline Breashears, Professor of English at St. Lawrence University and a specialist in eighteenth-century British literature, treats listeners to a Smithian interpretation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein—in the wake of the 200th anniversary of the novel.  
Dr. Breashears uses the moral framework that Adam Smith develops in his Theory of Moral Sentiments to help admirers of Shelley’s work understand the deeper debates and horror of Frankenstein—drawing especially from Smith’s thought on the topics of justice, beneficence, and the family.
Frankenstein raises many questions that have relevance to our current era. Is it ever ethical to create artificial life, or to genetically modify it? In our era of rapidly progressing technology, including artificial intelligence, what is the responsibility creators to their creations, or of creators to the world more broadly?
Dr. Breashears uses Smith to explore the horror and fraught nature of relationships gone awry, and how the feelings of abandonment and rejection that the monster endures at the hands of Dr. Frankenstein are a driving force in the novel. Dr. Breashears then examines this theme in the context of the novel drawing from Smith’s view of justice. 
Combining Shelley and Smith in a way that few scholars have done before, listeners are given a new window into the minds of two eminent thinkers. This forty-five-minute lecture offers new ways of thinking about the relevance of the work of Adam Smith and Mary Shelley to our modern era.

Questions for Discussion:

  • After listening to the lecture and drawing from modern examples, what responsibility do you think creators have to their creations? For example, consider the way this theme is explored in the HBO show “Westworld.” 
  • After listening, what do you think the responsibility or of creators to the world is more broadly? For example, consider Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions in creating Facebook versus how it may have been used (or abused) to influence American elections. Should we hold him wholly responsible, or partially? Do you view Dr. Frankenstein differently than Mark Zuckerberg? If not, why? If so, how? 
  • For Adam Smith, murder constitutes a violation of the most sacred laws of justice. To what extent do you think that parental abandonment and neglect are synonymous with  infanticide, as Dr. Breashears? Explain.  
  • Sympathy, or “fellow feeling,” is the driving concept of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and is the primary lens through which he explains human interaction. Do you think Dr. Frankenstein demonstrates sympathy in the novel—even though he neglects to care for his creation? Does the monster—even though he took human life? What do you think Smith would claim this says about their humanity, and human nature more broadly?  
  • How is Dr. Frankenstein like Prometheus, the god of Greek mythology and sub-titular character in Shelley’s Frankenstein? How is he different?  
  • Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments offers a theory of virtue that is grounded in a constrained vision of humanity: there are certain boundaries to human conduct that, when crossed, lead to suffering. When adhered to, man flourishes. How does Smith’s understanding of the moral and ethical limitations on human conduct influence how you view Dr. Frankenstein? Are you more or less sympathetic to Dr. Frankenstein after hearing this lecture? Explain. 
  • Dr. Breashears suggests that Mary Shelley drew from her own relationship with her father in writing Frankenstein, and in characterizing the relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster—even going so far as to dedicate her book to him. How is the relationship between parent and child similar to the relationship between a creator and their created? How is it different? What do you think Adam Smith would say about the responsibilities each group has to the other? 
  • Dr. Breashears suggests that neither Smith nor Shelley believe in the unlimited perfectibility of man. Are you persuaded by this view? Explain your answer, grounding it in examples past and present. 

*This project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this project are those of the creator(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.