What would Adam Smith think about "vocations"? Part 2

productive work vocation

Janet Bufton and Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

We can look at Smith's ideas but also his own decisions to think about what he might think about the idea of a vocation. 
This post is the second part of a 2-part series and was inspired by Rachel Ferguson’s question to @adamsmithworks. You can read Part 1 here

In our previous post, we talked about some Smithian ideas about human potential, how it changes throughout a lifetime, and about how activities can influence temperament. In this post, we’ll focus on interests, sympathy and reason, and whether Smith reveals his own preferences through the choices that he makes in his own life. 

The power of interests
Silver and wine and corn are directed through markets to places and people that want them. Likewise, many silversmiths, wine merchants, and agricultural workers will change occupations if they are paid more. Smith seems to consider this appropriate, and often acknowledges that work that needs to be done now would be better if it were eliminated. Indeed, he sees value in both clever innovations that reduce work and in the leisure that these innovations might allow. 

There are few people today who can make a buggy whip or repair 8-track players, and that’s just fine. Smith is delighted by the “boy who loves to play”, who ties a string from the handle of a valve on a machine he’s manning, leaving “him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour” . Smith doesn’t lament that character-building work or wage-generating hours have been eliminated by the boy’s innovation. The world and the boy are better without that job. 

Sympathy but also Reason
For people who feel strongly that vocations exist and, perhaps even believe that they are pursuing them in their own lives, Smith’s focus on sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments might suggest that we use our own imagination to understand where these feelings come from and how powerfully they can motivate people. But Smith was also aware that fanaticism, especially religious fanaticism, could be dangerous to the individual and those around him. “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition,” according to Smith. This could serve as a warning to those who might be too enthusiastic or superstitious about vocations, as well as other pursuits.       

Revealed preferences
Finally, we can look at Adam Smith’s life and consider what it reveals about him and his beliefs about work as a vocation.

Young Adam Smith attended Oxford on a scholarship intended for future clergymen, then negotiated himself into a civil law track, attended only the lectures he wished to attend, and educated himself in the library.  After his schooling was complete, he wrote essays and was invited to give public lectures. Eventually he was offered a professional teaching position at the University of Glasgow. 

His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, raised his standing such that he could leave Glasgow abruptly to become a traveling tutor for a young duke in a wealthy and influential family. The pension for life he was granted by the duke provided him with the security needed to research and write the sprawling An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. What does Smith choose to do with the free time his economic security gives him? He writes a new work, revises his old work, and finally, worked for the government as a customs officer. This last occupation was one that has personal significance, since his father, who died only a few weeks before he was born, had held a similar position. 

Did Smith’s life reveal that he would view his own work was vocational? He certainly appears to have been drawn to ideas, but less compelled to do any particular thing with them. It’s hard to believe that anyone could write (and revise) such deep and sweeping books without the compulsion to do so and conviction that they could matter. But it was the product of that work, not the work itself that he seemed to value (evidenced by the burning of his unfinished papers). Smith also appears to have chosen work he enjoyed, cast aside work that didn’t suit him, and, in the end, took a job motivated, perhaps, by public spirit, humanity, and benevolence for his country. 

Overall, Smith’s life and work provide a range of ideas about work, who does it, why it might be chosen, and when work is costly or beneficial. We think he might have had lots to say about the question, but it seems unlikely he’d give a single answer.

Learn more about Smith’s life here: