Adam Smith as Moral Philosopher

by Leonidas Montes for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith as Moral Philosopher[1]

In 1752, Adam Smith was appointed Professor to the prestigious Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. According to Dugald Stewart’s “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith”,[2] we know that “his course of lectures on [Moral Philosophy] was divided into four parts” (EPS, 274). They were “Natural Theology”, “Ethics”, “that branch of morality which relates to justice” (or Jurisprudence), and “expediency” (or Political Economy). 

Apparently Smith did not pay much attention to theology or, better said, gave only such attention to the subject as was strictly necessary.[3] But Smith’s lectures on ethics were fundamental for developing what became The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and his lectures on Political Economy would become the origin of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). 

Although Smith did not publish anything on jurisprudence, his interest in it remained alive until his final days. In fact, in the advertisement for the sixth and final 1790 edition of TMS, he declared his intention to write a book on jurisprudence, acknowledging “very little expectation of ever being able to execute”. At the end of TMS he maintained the promise of “an account of the general principles of law and government … concerning the history of jurisprudence” (TMS, 342). However, shortly before his death, Smith instructed his executors, Joseph Black and James Hutton, to burn most of his unpublished papers, presumably including manuscripts on jurisprudence. 

It is difficult and certainly overambitious to talk about Adam Smith having a “Moral Philosophy” in the fullest sense. But if we associate ethics with TMS, Political Economy with WN, and add in the jurisprudence project, we can imagine that the division of Smith’s moral philosophy lectures was part of a large scheme. 

It would be correct to argue that, emulating his friend David Hume, Adam Smith attempted a “Science of Man”. It would be even more correct to assert that by dividing Moral Philosophy into ethics, political economy, and jurisprudence, Smith’s main aim was to cover what in modern times we would call “social science”. Though Smith could not fulfill his dream of a complete social science system, he was a forerunner in the intellectual tradition that pursued this dream. He not only became the undisputed father of economics, but also envisaged a particular, original, and modern view of human nature and human beings as part of society.

Behind this grand project is another circumstance that relates to Smith’s legacy. The publication of TMS in 1759 brought Smith intellectual prestige and bolstered his reputation. He was invited, as his friend David Hume had predicted in a beautiful and witty letter (see Corr. 33-5), to travel with the Duke of Buccleuch to the Continent.  During this grand tour, Smith met Voltaire and many intellectuals of the French Enlightenment. After more than two years abroad, the death of the duke’s younger brother necessitated their return to London, after which Smith retired to his birth town of Kirkcaldy. He spent almost ten years in Kirkcaldy working on his WN and this magnum opus was published in the emblematic year of 1776. 

While Smith made some additions and corrections for the second edition of WN in 1778, during his last years he devoted his time to working on revisions to TMS. In fact, almost one third of the final and definitive edition of TMS belongs to Smith’s late mature period. We can glean some indication of the importance Smith gave to ethics from the fact that he expended his last energies on TMS. 

It is noteworthy that TMS, the book that brought him intellectual success, was practically ignored during the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. There is a clear and compelling explanation for this phenomenon: the overwhelming influence of utilitarianism and Kantianism overshadowed TMS, which was misunderstood or simply dismissed. The few economists that knew about it thought it was a book about psychology, while some philosophers considered it a minor proto-utilitarian work.  Only recently have philosophers, economists, political scientists, and scholars from a broad spectrum of other disciplines reassessed the value and significance of TMS. This deserved reappraisal accompanies booming academic interest in Smith’s rhetoric, his essays on language, and his history of philosophy, science, and metaphysics. This renaissance of Smith’s works has reconfirmed his place as not just any Moral Philosopher, but one that pursues Kant’s dictum of sapere aude, or “dare to learn”. Adam Smith was a Moral Philosopher who, intellectually, really did dare.

Das Adam Smith Problem

The famous debate on Das Adam Smith Problem also contributed to the neglect of TMS. The supposed Problem scrutinized the relationship between TMS and WN and questioned the consistency of the works, one based on sympathy and the other on self-interest, and even the consistency of the author. Witold von Skarzynski (1850-1910) suggested that Smith changed his mind after becoming acquainted with the French materialists during his grand tour to Europe. However, when Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence were found and published in 1896,[4] they provided evidence that Smith’s notion of self-interest in WN, along with many other ideas from that text, were quite clear before his trip to the Continent. Regardless, the apparent contrast between TMS and WN is still an important issue, as it brings us face to face with the relationship between ethics and economics. 

Since the Smith Problem debate, the concepts of sympathy and self-interest have been misunderstood. This common misunderstanding emphasizes narrow meanings of self-interest and sympathy. Today we know that Smith’s concept of self-interest is deeper than and different from selfishness. We also know that Smith’s sympathy is a much broader and more complex concept than the colloquial understanding of sympathy. Moreover, TMS, besides developing the crucial concept of sympathy, presents a strong moral defense of Smith’s concept of self-interest. And WN, besides its account of self-interest, is rich in moral implications. A proper understanding of these subjects in Smith’s work dispels any attempt to dissociate sympathy from self-interest and to disconnect WN from TMS. They are both part of Smith’s moral philosophy.

Sympathy in Smith

Let me begin with sympathy, which is the cement of Smith’s Moral Philosophy. The first sentence in TMS,

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (TMS, 9)

defines sympathy as a complex principle in human nature. Smith differs from Hume in arguing that sympathy is not just a kind of contagious fellow-feeling. He asserts that “[s]ympathy … does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it” (TMS, 12). In other words, sympathy implies not only putting oneself in the other person’s shoes, but also assessing where those shoes are standing. While of course I will have fellow-feeling with any passion, I cannot sympathize “... till informed of its cause” (TMS, 11). I may feel and share your passion, but that does not necessarily mean that I can sympathize with it. Smith’s sympathy requires a rational assessment of the circumstances, which implies a deliberative process. 

For Smith, sentiments are therefore a necessary but not a sufficient condition for attaining mutual sympathy. Sympathy is about feelings, but because it also demands a process of deliberation it more precisely corresponds to the modern concept of empathy (em-pathos, that is, feeling “in” the other). When Smith introduces the impartial spectator, it embodies a sympathetic process that involves “the best head joined to the best heart” (TMS, 216). 

We cannot forget that Smith follows the Aristotelian tradition of considering human beings as naturally social (zoon politikón). There is no place in Smith’s theory for a lonely and isolated Robinson Crusoe. Sympathy requires social communication insofar as ethics is a social phenomenon simply because a man without society cannot have a sense of good or bad (see TMS, 110). For Adam Smith, human nature is predominantly social, and sympathy, upheld by the impartial spectator, is the core of moral judgment and social interaction. 

Self-interest in Smith

Now let us move on to self-interest. Adam Smith shares with many of the philosophes of the Scottish Enlightenment, and particularly with David Hume, a realistic and pragmatic view of human nature and society. Even if we aim at moral perfection, we can only attain human morality. Self-interest, which is different from selfishness, has moral foundations. It is part of the virtue of prudence, a virtue that has a longstanding history within the classical liberal tradition. 

Smith’s understanding of prudence is worth reproducing:

“The care of the health, of the fortune, of the rank and reputation of the individual, the objects upon which his comfort and happiness in this life are supposed principally to depend, is considered as the proper business of that virtue which is commonly called Prudence … Security, therefore, is the first and the principal object of prudence … The methods of improving our fortune, which it principally recommends to us, are those which expose to no loss or hazard; real knowledge and skill in our trade or profession, assiduity and industry in the exercise of it, frugality, and even some degree of parsimony, in all our expences.” (TMS, 213)

Prudence is related to Smith’s self-interest, a commercial virtue that deserves sympathy (“the habits of oeconomy, industry, discretion, attention, and application of thought … deserve the esteem and approbation of everybody” (TMS, 304)). It is a self-regarding virtue that fosters Smith’s recurrent defense of the right to ‘bettering of our condition’. This does not entail the cold individualism of the homo œconomicus as a detached individual. It is the zoon politikón in the marketplace of human life.

Moral Philosophy in the Wealth of Nations

As TMS develops the ethical underpinnings of self-interest, let me close with some of the ethical spheres surrounding WN. The generally accepted view that TMS is about ethics and WN about economics needs to be laid to rest. 

Right from the “Introduction and Plan of the Work”, WN is rich in moral implications. Indeed, in the first page of WN, Smith refers to the “savage nations of hunters and fishers” that are “miserably poor.” They have “the necessity sometimes of directly destroying, and sometimes of abandoning their infants, their old people, and those afflicted with lingering diseases, to perish with hunger, or to be devoured by wild beasts.” And he goes on to compare this situation with “the civilized and thriving nations” in which “the produce of the whole labour of society is so great, that all are often abundantly supplied” (WN, 10). 
Smith, as a visionary, was predicting the positive consequences of progress and commercial society compared to the “savage nations of hunters and fishers” of our ancestors. The image of the abandoned children and elderly is as eloquent as the morality of the comparison. 

The first chapter of Book 1 of WN finishes with another tribute to progress. In a passage about inequality, Smith refers to the “extravagant luxury” of a European prince and the striking differences with “an industrious and frugal peasant”. But, surprisingly, it closes with a kind of Rawlsian thought experiment: it compares the “accommodation” of the peasant with that of an African king, “the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked slaves” (WN, 23-4). Once again, the image of the African king and his subjects contrasts with the dignity of even the common people under progress and commercial society. 

At the end of chapter 2 of Book 1, the foundational chapter that situates Economics in “the propensity to truck, barter and exchange” and persuasion (WN, 25), we find this brilliant and provocative passage about the differences between the street porter and the philosopher:

“The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of... The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance.” (WN, 28-9).

In an epoch when aristocracy was set apart from the common people, this passage might have upset the establishment. This sample of morals at the outset of WN may be said to reflect Smith’s “liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice” (WN, 664). We can find this plan in many other passages that do not articulate a value judgment, but simply observe a reality with moral implications. 

Adam Smith was certainly a radical for his time. He defended civilization and improvement where a philosopher like Rousseau attacked the corruption of progress and commerce. He was an egalitarian when the distinction of ranks was strongly marked. He supported basic education when many contemporaries only saw danger in teaching the poor. And he opposed slavery when it was accepted as good business. In sum, transcending even the trilogy of ethics, economics, and jurisprudence, Smith was a moral philosopher in the fullest meaning and sense of the term.


[1] For references to Adam Smith, I will use the standard citation based on the complete Glasgow Edition published by Liberty Fund, that is, WN (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations), TMS (The Theory of Moral Sentiments), EPS (Essays on Philosophical Subjects), LJ (Lectures on Jurisprudence), LRBL (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres), and Corr. (Correspondence of Adam Smith) followed only by the page number.

[2] Smith’s first biography, published in 1794.

[3] Perhaps he was all too aware of his agnostic friend David Hume’s unsuccessful attempts to obtain an academic position.[4] In 1896, Edwin Cannan found and published Smith’s lecture notes from 1763-64, and then in 1958 John M. Lothian published the lecture notes from 1762-63. Both sets of students’ notes are currently published in Lectures on Jurisprudence (LJ) as LJ(B) and LJ(A), respectively.