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




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Why it is Easy to Misinterpret Smith


For over two centuries Adam Smith has been recognized as one of the most astute analysts of economic behavior in spite of the fact that his work was done before the industrial revolution reached its full bloom. He is not easy to categorize because of the many influences that were at work in his thinking. He was schooled in the Scottish Enlightenment context and heavily influenced by a Christian, Francis Hutcheson who believed humans had an innate moral sense. He was a close personal and professional friend of the atheist empiricist David Hume, who came out of a Protestant Presbyterian background. Significant to his moral theory is the influence of the Stoic tradition reaching back to the Greeks. Their concept of a logos ordered world to which one submitted by self-control was not lost on Smith. The deist label is most commonly applied to Smith's philosophical and religious posture since he sees the creator as a benevolent but detached force in the order of things.
At the outset it is important to note two reasons why a modern reading of Smith can easily result in MacIntyre’s placement of Smith with the typical Enlightenment scholar. The background Smith worked against was one where Christianity’s heavy moral hand on commerce was beginning to fall away. Its impact had been restrictive and profitable commercial activity had often been considered sinful. Smith's views had the effect of replacing Christian theology with a Stoic form of natural theology. If Smith was going to err in his efforts he would most likely have wanted to err on the side of downplaying anything that looked like religious moral restraint. On the other hand, modern economists work in a methodology that claims to be value free. They are inclined to see moral issues and notions of virtue as outside of economic thinking altogether. Putting these two tendencies together, it is fair to conclude that most interpretations of Smith's work will lean in the direction of seeing a minimum of moral reflection in Smith's work. In short, moderns, who see no role for moral reflection in economic analysis, interpreting Smith, who was trying to move economics away from oppressive moral rules, will quite easily see an absence of telos in Smith's work.

A Brief Overview of Smith’s Moral Philosophy


For Smith, the innate passions of humanity fall into three main categories. The social passions of generosity, compassion, and esteem, when practiced, lead to benevolence and self-control. Unfortunately these are rare and cannot be counted on to provide the glue of a social order. The unsocial passions of hate, envy, and revenge are never condoned as a social practice and they can not be transformed into a social virtue. The third category of passions includes grief, joy, pain, pleasure, and self-preservation. These passions are key to the formation of the social order and when the downside of these passions is channeled for good these passions become the virtues of prudence and justice.
Key to the transforming of passions into virtues is three screens or conditioners that function to make society viable. The first is sympathy, which helps people see themselves as others see them. The innate ability to see, hear, feel and identify with another person’s situation and to experience the same fellow-feeling in return creates an interdependency that is socially constructive. The second screen is the impartial spectator (IS) which acts to provide a totally unbiased perspective on how the passions are lived out. Finally there is always the appeal “to a still higher tribunal, to that of the all seeing judge of the world, whose eye can never be deceived, and whose judgments can never be perverted.”5 If this system of three checks on the passions is effectively supported by the proper institutional structures, then the social order can be viable and virtuous. In the area of economics, a market order will best fit this moral framework because of its compatibility with the rules of prudence and justice. The key is the effective control of the passions and it is the moral order described above that must be present for the market system to succeed. What follows is a more detailed discussion of that moral system with special attention given to the question of whether or not that system is based on nature, custom, and habit alone, or whether there is a moral force involved that is anchored in some sense of human telos or essence which defines human purpose.

Moral Sympathy: The First Building Block of Smith’s Moral System


The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) is a delight to read if for no other reason than it gets the reader in touch with his feelings. For Smith, nature has instilled in people the necessary ingredients to make society viable and flourishing. Unlike modern economists, Smith assumes people are highly interdependent as they consider the alternatives they face. Because people share similar feelings and passions they can identify with others as others express their passions in behavior. This identification Smith called "sympathy" and it is deeply rooted in our being. "By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them."6
The instinct of sympathy is not a rational transporting of one into another's shoes. Rather, it is a built-in response that is for the most part involuntary. Smith's example is instructive: "When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer. "7 Many other real life situations are used to tease out a common sense notion of this identification process for each of the three categories of human passions.
Even though the social passions do not dominate behavior they nevertheless are operative in everyone. “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it”8 The passions of pity and compassion for someone in dire circumstances illustrate how one’s happiness is reduced by observing distress or pain in another person. Conversely, the alleviation of such pain enhances our pleasure. This consideration of others occurs because of the ability to assess how we would feel if we were in the suffering person's place. This exercise of our social passions through sympathy is the most meritorious behavior possible in our state of mutual interdependence.
If these caring passions were all that human nature instills in people there would be little need for moral dialogue since we would all naturally act in morally desirable ways. There would not need to be any search for telos either since outside moral guidance would be unnecessary. Indeed, ethics and morality would not be issues for debate since people would be innately programmed to do the right thing. However, Smith recognized that these passions were only part of the complex makeup of people. In fact, these social passions he felt were not the dominant passions and therefore they could not make the social system viable.
The selfish and the unsocial passions are harder to socialize, but sympathy again has not left us hopeless. First, our sympathy with others is conditioned by the context involved. "Even our sympathy with the grief or joy of another, before we are informed of the cause of either, is always imperfect.. … Sympathy therefore does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it."9 Second, we seek the approval or approbation of others because we are social beings. "But whatever may be the cause of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow feeling with all the emotions of our own breast”10 This tendency helps to condition the selfish passions in ways that bring social harmony. Clearly, Smith’s notion of self-interest is not expressed as the isolated preference of an independent economic agent, but rather as the conditioned response of an interdependent participant in a social process. The interdependent nature of sympathy allows this screen of sympathy to function effectively. As Pat Werhane points out, even the butcher and the baker in the oft-used quote in WN cannot ignore the preferences and expectations of people when they pursue their own interest in the restaurant.11 In fact they are operating in a social environment that relies heavily on the interdependence inherent in sympathy. One can successfully appeal to their desire to be socially acceptable as well as to their narrow self-interest. The ability to be in sympathy with another is to go beyond personal boundaries and interests toward a sense of what is appropriate for social harmony in a given context. Sympathy in practice puts one in a community context.
So far there is little in this moral theory to suggest that morality is more than human nature, customs and habits. Unfortunately, sympathy has a downside. There are tendencies in human nature that can cause the group to approve of behavior that is morally questionable. One of the most pervasive examples of this problem in Smith’s work is the manner in which we elevate the rich and disdain the poor. “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty.”12 This theme recurs regularly with a pejorative tone toward those with great wealth. “This disposition to admire and almost to worship the rich and powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean conditions, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”13 Smith recognizes the tension between our desire to be wealthy and command respect and our desire to be wise and virtuous, which would lead to a more active care for the poor.

But upon coming into this world we soon find that wisdom and virtue are by no means the sole objects of respect; nor vice and folly, of contempt. We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent. To deserve, to acquire, and to enjoy the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object; the one by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other by the acquisition of wealth and greatness.”14


Smith is clear about which road he believes tends to dominate for those capable of traveling on it.

To attain to this envied situation, the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhappily, the road which leads to the one, and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions. But the ambitious man flatters himself that, in the splendid situation to which he advances, he will have so many means of commanding the respect and admiration of mankind, and will be enabled to act with such superior propriety and grace, that the lustre of his future conduct will entirely cover, or efface, the foulness of the steps by which he arrived at that elevation.”15


Thus sympathy, for all its social usefulness, needs help in order to ensure moral outcomes. These lengthy quotes illustrate the high level of interdependency Smith saw in human behavior. They also show that he did not believe that the approbation, fellow-feeling and approval seeking of sympathy would be enough to maintain a moral and just social order. The dark side of human nature seemed to overpower the virtuous side too frequently. This darker side of human nature is most apparent in the selfish passions consisting of self-preservation, grief, joy, and pain/pleasure choices because the unsocial passions of hate, envy, and revenge are more easily controlled. This is true because a social consensus against the exercise of these unsocial passions exists from sympathy alone.
If sympathy were all there was to becoming moral it would be clear that MacIntyre is right about Smith. However, something outside of our innate tendencies must have given Smith justification for being concerned about the way the rich are revered and the poor ignored. Since sympathy alone is insufficient to condition the selfish passions, these passions need another safeguard. This safeguard for Smith is the "impartial spectator. (IS)
The Impartial Spectator: The Second Building Block of Smith’s Moral System

Moral discernment requires a stronger foundation than a simple desire to be praised. To be truly moral is to develop the ability to do what is right rather than simply what is considered acceptable by the masses. In order to do right,

“I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion.16
Operating as the first “I” in the situation described here is to tap into the moral discernment of the Impartial Spectator. The perspective of this observer helps one see what is praiseworthy and virtuous. Smith presumed that people were capable of stepping outside of themselves going beyond mere sympathy to make an impartial assessment that considered all aspects of the behavior. In the case of praise and blame Smith is clear that what one’s peer think in the sympathy process is less important than what one senses is right. Something inside a person causes him to avoid undo praise. In fact, the motivation for good behavior comes from the desire of people not only to be praised, but to be genuinely worthy of praise. In the same manner, if blamed, one expects to be truly blameworthy. “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred.”17 Blame that is known to be unworthy does not hurt as much as deserved blame and praise that is unworthy does not gratify as much as praise that is worthy. The difference between the worthy and unworthy is discerned by the impartial spectator. To be virtuous is to desire praiseworthiness and to avoid being worthy of blame. But something outside of the innate sympathies of people informs the IS about what is praiseworthy and blameworthy.
Smith has many examples of this influence of the IS. People who use makeup to cover a bad complexion are not genuinely flattered by compliments on their good complexion. Alternatively, people who perform heroic acts do so recognizing that they may not live to receive any praise. In short, people in their best moments seek what is virtuous. But the origin of this spectator upon which we rely to discern virtue is still somewhat ambiguous. Does it represent humanity as it ought to be if it recognized its true telos or is it little more than the polling of an impartial audience at a game show?

In comparing the screen of sympathy with the IS, Smith declares

“But though man has, in this manner, been rendered the immediate judge of mankind, he has been rendered so only in the first instance; and an appeal lies from his sentence to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct.”18
The lower and higher tribunals relate respectively to the desire to be praised and the desire to be praiseworthy. Peer judgements relate to the desire to be praised, but the impartial spectator calls us to desire the virtue of being praiseworthy. The creator has endowed all humans with both of these tribunals as complimentary screens of behavior. The lower tribunal deals with the behavior itself and whether it is generally agreeable to others. The higher tribunal deals with the motives behind the action and the sincerity of the action. “The man who is conscious to himself that he has exactly observed those measures of conduct which experience informs him are generally agreeable, reflects with satisfaction on the propriety of his own behaviour. When he views it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it, he thoroughly enters into all the motives which influenced it.”19
Smith’s concern for human motivation is clearly tied to the role of the IS. Desirable consequences alone do not imply moral action. Emma Rothschild highlights this point and makes the claim that the tension being dealt with throughout the TMS is the degree to which morality is based on consequences or intentions. She concludes that “To be contemptuous of individual intentions, to see them as futile and blind, is to take a distinctively un-Smithian view of human life.”20 According to Fitzgibbons, Smith saw God guiding the world through the laws of nature and, in a parallel manner he guided humans through the IS.21
In addition to dealing with the inner motivations of our actions the IS helps condition our perspective, which is so influenced by our own interests, so that the larger social interest results. In an extended example, Smith tells of a person who injures his finger on the same day that China was ravaged by an earthquake. While the self-interest of the injured person is to complain about his finger, he comments to his neighbors on the horror of the earthquake instead. Smith asks the obvious question:

“When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? … It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of other, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment abhorrence, and execration.”22


Here Smith links the IS to reason, something MacIntyre argues is absent from Enlightenment morality. For Smith there appears to be a private self-interest and a social interest with the IS drawing humanity away from the private to the social interest. The IS in this case is beyond the soft power of humanity or the innate social passions. Though the source of the IS is ambiguous in this passage, it seems considerably removed from human nature, custom and habit.
In fact, Smith criticizes the speculations of philosophers, or “quibbling dialectics” as he calls them, because they do not seek the wisdom of the IS.

"If we examine the different shades and gradations of weakness and self-command, as we meet with them in common life, we shall very easily satisfy ourselves that this control of our passive feelings must be acquired, not from the abstruse syllogisms of a quibbling dialectic, but from that great discipline which Nature has established for the acquisition of this and of every other virtue; a regard to the sentiments of the real or supposed spectator of our conduct."23


Smith does not root morality in our ability to attach self-command to sympathy or to our ability to philosophically discern right from wrong. Rather he looks to the IS which comes to us from creation and is outside of ourselves. But people often do not have constancy in following the IS so the moral battle is ever-present. In one example of a person in distress Smith describes the battle that goes on between the selfish passions and the IS.

His own natural feelings of his own distress,…presses hard upon him, and he cannot, without a very great effort, fix his attention upon that of the IS. Both views present themselves to him at the same time. His sense of honour, his regard to his own dignity, directs him to fix his whole attention upon the one view. His natural, his untaught and undisciplined feelings, are continually calling it off to the other. He does not, in this case, perfectly identify himself with the ideal man within the breast, he does not become himself the impartial spectator of his own conduct."24


In other words, the inability to appropriate the ideal IS limits the ability of people to live a truly moral life. The language and context of this discussion points toward a view of the IS which approximates the conscience as it is used in modern discussion. There is a spiritual component to the conscience, but it can be easily abused by human weakness. In a similar manner, there are times when public pressure opposes the IS’s judgement for a person and in those times the influence of the spectator will become weak and faltering, leaving the person with sympathy alone to guide action.

“In such cases, this demigod within the breast appears like the demigods of the poets, though partly of immortal, yet partly too of mortal extraction. When his judgements are steadily and firmly directed by the sense of praiseworthiness and blame-worthiness, he seems to act suitably to his divine extraction: But when he suffers himself to be astonished and confounded by the judgements of ignorant and weak man, he discovers his connexion with mortality, and appears to act suitably, rather to the human, than to the divine, part of his origin.”25



The All-Seeing Judge of the World: The Still Higher Tribunal
This divine and human extraction of the IS leaves the possibility of unsolved moral dilemmas where there is no reliable guidance left for a person involved in such a situation. Commenting on the mortal side of the IS Smith concludes that there are times when the IS is no more dependable than the man without (sympathy of public) that accepts options that are not just or ethical.

“In such cases, the only effectual consolation of humbled and afflicted man lies in an appeal to a still higher tribunal, to that of the all-seeing Judge of the world, whose eye can never be deceived, and whose judgments can never be perverted. A firm confidence in the unerring rectitude of this great tribunal, before which his innocence is in due time to be declared, and his virtue to be finally rewarded, can alone support him under the weakness and despondency of his own mind, under the perturbation and astonishment of the man within the breast, whom nature has set up as, in this life, the great guardian, not only of his innocence, but of his tranquility. Our happiness in this life is thus, upon many occasions, dependent upon the humble hope and expectation of a life to come: a hope and expectation deeply rooted in human nature; which can alone support its lofty ideas of its own dignity.”26


Smith believed that the idea of life beyond death where justice is fully realized was a valuable contributor to the willingness of people to transcend a weak man within and a faulty man without. Having this fully immortal backup to the IS, whether real or imagined, would be the final line of defense against anti-social behavior. Religious values could be very beneficial to a social order. In this sense, Smith, though espousing only a natural religion, did adopt a concept of telos that specified how people would behave if they lived up to their essential purpose.
The Stoic tradition, which can be seen beneath the surface of Smith's moral analysis, came through several phases from early Hellenistic philosophy through the Roman period up to the third century. Fundamental to stoic thinking was the notion that the world is an ideally good organism that operates as a system with each part serving the whole. A Divine logos, or primary moving force, ordained the system and acted as its guide, but direct access to the creator rather than submission to the created order was an error of Christianity. Moral development in the Stoic view involved an ever-expanding sense of one’s self interest until the good of the whole is foremost even to the point of sacrificing what would commonly be one’s personal interest, though later Stoicsim developed a more pragmatic ethical posture. The notion of self-control in Stoicsim gives clues as to how one progresses morally. Smith’s ability to connect the Stoic organismic view of the world with the mechanistic natural concepts of the enlightenment provided a broad base on which Smith built his views. The notion of moral progress in Stoicism, when blended with the enlightenment ideas of moral precepts led Smith to his three level approach to the moral socializing of behavior. The ability to exercise sympathy, appropriate the impartial spectator, and, if need be, the final judge of our conduct, can be seen as a marriage of Stoic moral development and the secular virtue concepts of David Hume. While there may be no teleology in Hume one can see Stoic threads in Smith that make the teleological claims plausible.

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