Is Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy an Adequate Foundation for the Market Economy?

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Is Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy an Adequate Foundation for the Market Economy?

By Jim Halteman

This article attempts to show that Adam Smith did not completely abandon the notion that morality must ultimately be derived from the purpose or telos for which people were created. Alasdair MacIntyre argues that Adam Smith and other Enlightenment thinkers considered moral life outside the scope of reason and objective analysis. Rather, they based morality on what subjectively seemed natural and appropriate in a particular context given the nature of humanity. He believes this project will ultimately fail along with whatever social systems are built on such a moral base. While I believe MacIntyre makes an important point about the prospects for a social order constructed without some ultimate purpose, I will argue that Smith did not exclude human telos from his work and that his moral system has enduring qualities that can sustain the market economy if followers of Smith are willing to integrate Smith’s moral theory with his economic system. Finally, I will suggest that Christianity adds important qualities to economic life, but that a market economy does not have to be Christian to survive.
MacIntyre’s Challenge to Enlightenment Thinking
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the enlightenment’s quest for unconditional scientific truth has contributed to the marginalization of questions about meaning and value in contemporary philosophy and social science. This is true because “Reason is calculative; it can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more. In the realm of practice therefore it can speak only of means. About ends it must be silent. Reason cannot even, as Descartes believed, refute skepticism; and hence a central achievement of reason according to Pascal, is to recognize that our beliefs are ultimately founded on nature, custom and habit.”1
Consequently the Enlightenment thinkers, when dealing with ethics and morality, grounded behavior in speculation about people as they happen to be, given their nature as well as their social and cultural setting. This rejection of objective reason as a foundation for ethical and moral judgment, in MacIntyre’s view, will cause such judgments to fail as meaningful guides in life. MacIntyre sees Pascal, Descartes, Hume and most other Enlightenment thinkers as contributing to this trend. They all have made moral life little more than something that seems reasonable and acceptable from the vantage point of human nature itself. In MacIntyre’s view, even Kant believed along with Pascal and Hume that reason

discerns no essential natures and no teleological features in the objective universe available for study by physics. Thus their disagreements on human nature coexist with striking and important agreements and what is true of them is true also of Diderot, of Smith and of Kierkegaard. All reject any teleological view of human nature, any view of man as having an essence which defines his true end. But to understand this is to understand why their project of finding a basis for morality had to fail.2

People as they happen to be
acIntyre’s framework for conceptualizing the problem can be sketched as follows.

People as they ought to be if they recognized their true telos.
Ethics and moral precepts

If people are to make sense of moral precepts, they must understand their lives as having a telos that originates outside of their own nature and toward which these moral precepts give guidance. Within this teleological framework, the moral precepts lead to socially constructive behavior which, when institutionalized, provides an effective social glue. On MacIntyre’s account, this teleological approach to grounding moral precepts held sway throughout the history of the West until the Enlightenment period, first in terms of Aristotle’s metaphysical biology and then in terms of Medieval Christendom’s assumption of divine providence. When these worldviews were diminished by Enlightenment thinking the essential importance of teleology faded and moral precepts were left hanging without an anchor. In the diagram above the right side box disappears and ethics and moral precepts have no grounding. In short, because Enlightenment thinkers supposed that sufficient moral resources could be found within human nature alone, they no longer saw a need for the teleological foundations previously provided by metaphysical biology and divine providence.

The fallout of this failure of Enlightenment thinkers to understand the importance of telos for grounding moral precepts, MacIntyre maintains, is emotivism. In MacIntyre’s words

"For what emotivism asserts is in central part that there are and can be no valid rational justification for any claims that objective and impersonal moral standards exist and hence that there are no such standards."3 Rather, moral standards are subjective, contextualized and individually conditioned. MacIntyre's characterization of Enlightenment thought emphasizes the autonomous individual as the focal point of analysis.

The unifying preoccupation of that tradition is the condition of those who see in the social world nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction, who interpret reality as a series of opportunities for their enjoyment and for whom the last enemy is boredom.4
In other words, one of the side effects of the Enlightenment failure is a world that sees people operating as the economic person, homo economicus.
While MacIntyre’s assessment of the Enlightenment condition may be correct, I believe his reading of Adam Smith as one who contributed to the decline of a telos based morality is debateable. Indeed, it is a thesis of this paper that Smith went to great pains to understand humans as they happen to be and as they ought to be if they realized their true telos. His life's work in moral philosophy was an attempt to show the moral process that was needed to control human passions so that a higher moral purpose, external to the person, could be reached. True, Smith was a product of the process MacIntyre describes, but he was never able to completely abandon the idea that authentic morality and ethics needed some sense of human telos even though that sense was based on a nebulous transcendent awareness rather than a God of revelation. Smith’s moral theory will be summarized in the following sections with special attention given to the way in which human telos seeps through the analysis.

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