Just Sentiments—Welcome!

adam smith works just sentiments

Dan Klein and Erik Matson
The two of us lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, we study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain. Intellectual history affords us ways of developing big ideas. 
 
Adam Smith Works has kindly afforded the opportunity for us to lead a new feature call Just Sentiments. An essay, between 800 and 2500 words, will appear on the fourth Wednesday of each month. The essays will sometimes be written by us, but also by others. We hope to attract submissions—write to us at dklein@gmu.edu or ematson@mercatus.gmu.edu. We will also cultivate material by approaching colleagues and associates, notably current and previous Adam Smith Program fellows.

The first essay, published today, is "What’s Natural about Adam Smith’s Natural Liberty?
 
The phrase “just sentiments” highlights the willful and cognitive aspect of sentiment, which is emphasized in Smith’s ethics. The sentiment that someone experiences is influenced by actions he took prior to the experience. And, during the experience, or immediately after it, the person can reflect on his having felt the sentiment. He asks himself: Should I affirm the sentiment? Should I revise it? Should I reject it? The experiencing of a sentiment can be seen as a matter of the will and thus of acting justly. “Just sentiments” suggests one’s responsibility for one’s sentiments. 
 
But the relationship between action and sentiment can also be turned around. “Just Sentiments” may suggest that sentiment causes action. Maybe a person’s conduct is just sentiments. Maybe his learning, his reason, and his conclusions are just sentiments. 
 
The relationship, then, seems to run in both directions—action to sentiment and sentiment to action. One could set up an action-sentiment spiral, for a journey that proceeds one loop to the next. Any sentiment can be asked: How do you justify your existence? And any action can be rendered as just an event in a history of sentiments. 
 
Smith encourages us to actively shape our sentiments, through social interaction, education, and sympathy with persons whom we look up to. Across his discourses he seeks to enhance and ennoble the sentiments of his readers. Even his social science may be seen in service to that end—for instance, his political economy instructs us toward juster sentiments on matters of public policy.
 
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote: “The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.”
 
We are grateful to Liberty Fund and Adam Smith Works for this opportunity. We hope it helps to make sentiments juster!
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