When Can Superiors Act Superior?

justice beneficence superiors inferiors equals jural authority non-jural authority

Jon Murphy for AdamSmithWorks

Smith sees the need for such a dual-world given there are times when beneficence may need to be forced to “promot[e] the prosperity of the commonwealth, establish good discipline, and…discourage[e] every sort of vice and impropriety” (pg. 81).  Things like requiring parents to care for their children, children to care for elderly parents, or building party walls to avoid spreading fire (TMS 81, WN 324) should be compelled through force. 
For centuries after his death, Adam Smith scholars wrestled with the “Adam Smith Problem.”  Smith seemed to deal in contradictory frameworks of human interaction: the socially sympathetic world of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the self-interested world of The Wealth of Nations.  

            The same sort of “dual worlds” thinking also appears in Smith’s discussion of the major virtues of justice and beneficence (Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 1).  Smith opens the section with a discussion on how beneficence cannot be forced: 

“Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment” (pg. 78).  The man who does not give beneficence where beneficence is due is “guilty of the blackest ingratitude,” but to punish him and force him to do what he ought to do “would be still more improper than his neglecting [to be beneficent].”  

            But, later on in the same paragraph, Smith adds a caveat that indicates his thinking is not so monolithic.  If a person did not give beneficence and gratitude where it is due, then “[h]is benefactor would dishonour himself if he attempted by violence to constrain him to gratitude, and it would be impertinent for any third person, who was not the superior of either, to intermeddle” (pg. 79, emphasis added).  There is a hint at another class of individual who could intermeddle without dishonor - some sort of superior.

            A few paragraphs later, Smith makes the distinction between equals and superiors abundantly clear.  First, he reiterates the point: “Even the most ordinary degree of beneficence, however, cannot, among equals, be extorted by force” (pg. 80, emphasis added).  But then he addresses the caveat he mentioned on page 79: “A superior may…oblige those under his jurisdiction to behave…with a certain degree of propriety to one another” (pg. 80).  Thus, the stage is set for a distinction between two types of relationships.  Jonathon Diesel in The Adam Smith Review calls these two relationships the “Equal-Equal” relationship and the “Superior-inferior” relationship.  

            In the Equal-Equal relationship, all parties come together as jural equals.  That is, neither one possesses any sort of legal authority over the other.  There may be other degrees of superiority involved (e.g., a teacher to a student, a parent to a child, an expert to a nonexpert), but in those relationships, beneficence and “giving what’s due” cannot be extorted by the other person through force.  

            In the Superior-inferior relationship, one party is a jural superior over another.  That is, one party does posses legal authority over another person.  This is the relationship of a subject to the state: a judge, magistrate, legislator, king, etc.  Unlike the Equal-Equal relationship, the jural Superior may enforce beneficence by the inferior through the threat of force.  

            Why does Smith need to make this distinction?  The two-worlds distinction between impersonal exchange and personal exchange makes sense.  Smith argued that humans simply do not have the capacity for universal beneficence; outside of caring for our loved ones, we simply cannot be effectively beneficent.  Thus, our moral duties include beneficence to our loved ones but mere justice to others outside our personal world.  We owe love and beneficence to those closest to us.  To those furthest from us, we owe merely to do what we promise and not harm them or their possessions.  

            Smith sees the need for such a dual-world given there are times when beneficence may need to be forced to “promot[e] the prosperity of the commonwealth, establish good discipline, and…discourage[e] every sort of vice and impropriety” (pg. 81).  Things like requiring parents to care for their children, children to care for elderly parents, or building party walls to avoid spreading fire (TMS 81, WN 324) should be compelled through force.  The Equal-Equal relationship cannot accomplish this, and the commonwealth would suffer for it.  The Superior-inferior relationship developed to handle these issues.  However, the Superior-inferior relationship is very limited; very few of our relationships occupy the Superior-inferior framework.  It is only those dealing with the state.  And even then, the relationship must be circumscribed.  While important, to push the Superior-inferior relationship too far “is destructive of all liberty, security, and justice” (pg. 81).

            Just as the overall analysis of Adam Smith deals with the dual worlds of impersonal and personal exchange, the analysis of virtue deals with the dual worlds of jural authority and non-jural authority.  What may be appropriate in one context is inappropriate in another.  

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