Hanley's Great Purpose: Correct Misconceptions about Smith

moral philosophy theory of moral sentiments quotes god

Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

Looking for a good book to read or gift on Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments? This might be the one for you. 
Begin with self-interest; End with God. That’s how Ryan Patrick Hanley does it in his book, Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life which I recently finished reading. I’ve been curious about it for awhile because I’d often heard it mentioned along with Russ Roberts’ How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life and E.G West’s Adam Smith: The Man and His Works as books that are good to give to people who probably won’t read Smith’s actual works but who want more than a Wikipedia entry. After reading, I don’t think this would be my first choice to give someone who didn’t know anything about Smith, but I think it would be a good choice for someone who only knew the Wealth of Nations Smith and was genuinely curious about his moral philosophy. 

The structure is charming. Each chapter begins with a quote, some familiar but not all. 

The first two quotes in the book well represent: 

Chapter 1:  
Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so. 

Chapter 2: 
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.”

Or as Hanley summarizes them (respectively), “[S]elf-interest is part of human nature, but it’s a self-interest of a particular sort,” and “[B]y nature we are not only self-interested; we’re also naturally interested in others.” We have ourselves and others and we’re on our way to chapters such as, “On Imagination,” “On Tranquility and Pleasure,” and, “On Parise and Praiseworthiness.” The last four chapters make a strange quartet though, “On Socrates,” “On Jesus,” “On Hume,” and, “On God.” The format of the books allows for reading a small amount at a time. The chapters are quite short but it would have to be read in order (unlike John Haggarty and Benjamin A. Rogge’s The Wisdom of Adam Smith).

But, as one might guess from the title, the majority of the quotes are from The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There's a mere two quotes from An Inquiry into the Causes and the Nature of the Wealth of Nations, one from Lectures on Jurisprudence (with the caveat all professors seem obliged to make about relying on student’s notes for an accurate picture of a teacher’s teachings!) and one from Smith’s correspondence, the famous letter to William Strahan praising Hume after Hume’s death. There are 29 chapters including a brief Introduction with a few pages of biography and an Epilogue, “Why Smith Now?”. Hanley also does a nice job of leaving philosophical cliffhangers at the end of his chapters. 10 of them literally end with question marks. 

And, of course, one of the biggest Adam Smith question marks is Smith's personal beliefs in God and Hanley clearly sees a commitment to a belief in God in Smith. The final chapter, “On God,” begins with this quote: 
“Every part of nature, when attentively surveyed, equally demonstrates the providential care of its Author, and we may admire the wisdom and goodness of God even in the weakness and folly of man.”
Hanley paraphrases, “[B]eyond the wisdom and virtue of man lies the wisdom and goodness of God.”

Hanley leans toward interpreting Smith as a religious person; Other scholars interpret Smith quite differently. Sometimes the passages of Smith that people point to as evidence of faith are seen as concessions to his readers by others. For more on this topic, I suggest Samuel Fleischacker's essay "Adam Smith on Religion" and  Jordan Ballor's "Adam Smith in Theological Perspective" which cites Hanley. But Hanley makes his case simply and clearly. For someone who's looking for God in Smith, this book would be a good choice.

Want to Read More?
Samuel Fleischacker's "Adam Smith on Religion"
Jordan Ballor's "Adam Smith in Theological Perspective"

More by Hanley on related topics:
“‘The Happiest and Most Honourable Period of My Life’: Adam Smith’s Service to the University of Glasgow,” in The Scottish Enlightenment: Human Nature, Social Theory, and Moral Philosophy, ed. Robin Mills and Craig Smith (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2021), 115-131.

“Justice and Politics in the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,” in Hume’s ‘Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals’: A Critical Guide, ed. Wim Lemmens and Esther Kroeker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 53-71.

“Rousseau’s Three Revolutions,” European Journal of Philosophy 29 (2021): 105-119.

“Magnanimity and Modernity: Greatness of Soul and Greatness of Mind in the Enlightenment,” in The Measure of Greatness: Philosophers on Magnanimity, ed. Sophia Vasalou (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 176-96.

“Smith, Rousseau, and Kant on Learning to Become Just,” in Justice, ed. Mark LeBar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 39-66.

“Freedom and Enlightenment,” in Oxford Handbook of Freedom, ed. David Schmidtz and Carmen Pavel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 223-38.

“Practicing PPE: The Case of Adam Smith,” Social Philosophy and Policy 34 (2017): 277-295.

Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).