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

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The Role of Rules in Proper Conduct

Smith believed that if the proper institutional structures were established and new rules of the economic game could be established, then a new era of economic performance would result. The reason for established rules in a social order relates to the problem of appropriating the IS. Since all the circumstances and motivations must to be known before the IS can authoritatively speak and because humans rarely know those things in advance it is necessary to set up general practices and rules that simplify the moral discernment process. "So partial are the views of mankind with regard to the propriety of their own conduct, both at the time of action and after it; and so difficult is it for them to view it in the light in which any indifferent spectator would consider it."27 Given this problem and the fact that individuals are easily self-deceived, Smith sees in nature a method that can standardize behavior effectively. We observe behavior that generates individual welfare and social harmony and we see behavior that does not. "It is thus that general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and demerit, approve, or disapprove of."28 Once the rules are established it becomes the duty of everyone to follow the rules. Apparently nature reinforces the opinion that the deity is behind the rules and will subtly enforce them. "Those vicegerents of God within us, never fail to punish the violation of them, (rules) by the torments of inward shame, and self-condemnation; and on the contrary, always reward obedience with tranquility of mind, with contentment, and self-satisfaction."29

But for Smith the rules are limited in their purpose. In discussing the operation of virtue development, Smith divides the process into efficient and final causes. The efficient cause of the heart, arteries and veins, or the digestive track in the body is to circulate blood and process food respectively. The efficient cause of the wheels of a clock is to spin with consistency. The final cause of the body is to make human life meaningful and the final cause of the watch is to tell time. At this point Smith claims that we are trying to do too much if we focus on final causes.

"But though, in accounting for the operations of bodies, we never fail to distinguish in this manner the efficient from the final cause, in accounting for those of the mind we are apt to confound these two different things with one another. When by natural principles we are led to advance those ends, which a refined and enlightened reason would recommend to us, we are very apt to impute to that reason, as to their efficient cause, the sentiments and actions by which we advance those ends, and to imagine that to be the wisdom of man, which in reality is the wisdom of God."30

This passage illustrates Smith's concern that we confuse natural systems, which function as efficient causes, with the ends of social organization, which are the final causes. In short, the natural system is God’s design and the tendencies and forces that he programs into the system guide those concerned with morality to the virtues God intends for us. But the guiding process is toward an end which is more than simply a viable social order or an efficient economy. The goal is to achieve the perfection of human nature. “And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.”31 This surely represents a vision of the essential purpose of human creation and the role of the IS and the higher tribunal are not trivial in this process of perfecting human nature.
MacIntyre’s reading of Smith at this point sees Smith’s view of nature as a substitute for the Christian God. When applied to a setting like economics, nature prescribes principles or rules, which, when submitted too properly, become a system of prudence. When a similar approach is taken in the moral realm, ethics and moral reflection become a prudential rule following enterprise. When Smith says ‘The man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence, may be said to be perfectly virtuous’32, MacIntyre sees Smith as having a moral system which simply follows rules given in a system based on human passions. When Smith criticizes ancient moralists for ignoring the rules of justice, MacIntyre sees Smith as equating virtue with rule-following.33 No purpose beyond the rules of prudence is recognized. While I agree that the intellectual climate in which Smith wrote would support MacIntyre’s view, I believe Smith could not easily discard the notion that there was a meaningful telos toward which human activity should be directed. Smith’s references to the design of God, His vicegerents within us, the higher tribunal and final causation I argue are attempts by Smith to hold on to a sense of telos.

A Look at the Wider Literature on Smith

Joseph Cropsey would disagree with any attempt to interpret Smith as having a view that moral judgement might involve some sense of telos. In order to make this argument work Cropsey adopts a materialist view of body and soul and he interprets Smith to be saying that “the distinction between virtue and vice or between right and wrong conduct is the product of a purely mechanical process – a process not guided by free understanding of intrinsic goodness or badness, but by sympathetic reaction to passion.”34 For Cropsey, Smith’s three screens conditioning the passions (sympathy, impartial spectator, and all seeing judge of the world) reduce to the one screen of sympathy that is the natural source of right and wrong. Also, that screen would not be a screen but rather an inherent part of the passions. Cropsey argues that “the traditional idea of moral education through exhortation is inferentially rejected. The true provenience of virtue is seen as the indefeasible passions themselves, not the careful conquest of the passions.”35 The Theory of Moral Sentiments is seen, in this view, as “an example of the rhetoricization of moral philosophy” where rhetoric is seen as a device to make people manageable but not necessarily good.36 Cropsey does recognize that his view makes Smith appear inconsistent. In commenting on the incompatibility of having all action originate with the passions while still accepting the need for moral judgement, Cropsey states that:

Apart from the fact that Smith appears involved in an inconsistency, what meaning does the inconsistency itself have? I believe it means that the vindication of commercial society required Smith to speak of the passions of the body as the essence of man’s humanity. But for reasons which we may, for convenience, refer to as the influence upon him of classical morality, he was unwilling to abandon the possibility of moral judgment.37

Cropsey’s view is common among some Smith scholars. They see his reliance on justice and prudence as an escape from ideology and questions of purpose, but nearly all of them do mention, as Cropsey does above, that there is something in Smith that made moral judgement and human purpose something he was not able to completely discard. This approach is similar to that of other Smith scholars such as D.D. Raphael, Ronald Coase, Emma Rothschild, Knud Haakonssen, A.L. Macfie, and T. D. Campbell. All of these writers recognize that Smith sometimes uses teleological language, but they see such references as rhetorical concessions to existing religious sentiments rather than something important in his theory.38 This minimizing of the role of teleology, while not dismissing it entirely, claims that Smith’s moral theory is empirical and natural and can stand alone without linkages to a final cause. Sympathy and the impartial spectator are sufficient screens for the unsocial passions of humanity so whatever passes these screens are moral and whatever fails to pass those screens are immoral. Any attempt to ground morality in a metaphysical reality or theology is going beyond Smith’s intent despite his discussions of God and a final cause.
Another example of this treatment of Smith is Samuel Fleischacker’s analysis of Smith. He clearly has Smith in the modern camp and thus minimizes any teleological basis that might be found in Smith’s moral philosophy. But, as for Cropsey and others, there is recognition that Smith has not completely left an Aristotelian based virtue form of ethics that seeks the perfection of humans. Such a process requires some understanding of a standard against which to measure human action. Fleischacker comments on the dilemma Smith faced in trying to reconcile an Aristotelian teleology, with its hierarchical social structure, and modern liberalism with its egalitarian individualism.

Were he to follow Aristotle down the line, rooting ethics in a teleological conception of nature and praising hierarchical structures for governing polities, he could offer nothing to the ethics of a modern scientific world or the politics of a liberal democratic one. As it happens, he differs from Aristotle in two crucial respects. The First is that he submerges, if not quite eliminates, the teleology that characterizes Aristotelian ethics. The second is that he refuses to grant any natural superiority to one human being over another.39 (italics mine)

In fact Smith does see a natural social hierarchy even though he might prefer it otherwise. (see footnote 13) and even Fleischacker sees something resembling telos in Smith even if he believes it is submerged.
One final example of this effort to make Smith thoroughly modern is Charles Griswold. He contends that teleology, which is rooted in a metaphysical biology, relies heavily on nature as the basis from which our behavior springs. Griswold dissects Smith’s view of nature and concludes that Smith has rejected the Aristotelian notion that nature involves a metaphysical form or essence of a thing. For Griswold, Smith’s impartial spectator puts moral behavior in the arena of self-reflection more akin to Kant’s “autonomous self legislation” than to natural moral perfection.40 However, Griswold concludes by qualifying his claims that Smith had moved away from a teleologically based moral system. Commenting on Smith’s use of nature Griswold admits that “Smith uses the term and its cognates with great frequency throughout his work. It occurs in the title of one of his two published books, and there may even be a role for teleology in his system. Smith thus seems to be one of the last major philosophers whose work is a defense of nature, even though he has dropped some of its traditional meanings.”41 (italics mine) If one reads Smith with an openness to seeing nature as consisting of a metaphysical essence as well as a physical presence it is not hard to see the side of Smith that shows the role of teleology in his system.
In one of the more creative treatments of Smith’s moral theory, James Otteson questions the notion that Smith’s references to God, a final cause, or the Author of nature are simply rhetorical concessions designed to avoid a full explanation of the harmony of nature. Otteson argues that Smith was not satisfied with an empirical explanation of how nature has equipped people with traits that enable them to discern right and wrong. “The question is why we have these traits built into us. Smith’s answer to this as we have seen, is that it is part of God’s or Nature’s grand benevolent design.”42 In Otteson’s view of Smith’s system, it is not possible to separate the source of our traits and tendencies from the practice which leads us to a moral system that provides the social glue of life. Otteson claims that “…the issues of explaining human nature and explaining the nature of the marketplace of morals cannot be answered independently from one another - at least not without creating a truncated view of Smith.”43
Jeffrey Young points to numerous cases where Smith goes beyond contextual moral considerations and appeals to objective external standards of morality. One case is where Smith critiques Hobbs for implying that right and wrong was merely the arbitrary will of the civil magistrate.44 Another case involves the story of a socially sanctioned Greek practice of child abandonment. Smith opposes all such general and particular practices that might pervert our sentiments. He argues that “No society could subsist a moment, in which the usual strain of men’s conduct and behaviour was of a piece with the horrible practice I have just now mentioned.”45 The fact that, in Smith’s mind, sentiments can be so perverted is evidence that moral judgements cannot have their foundation in human sentiments alone. Young emphasizes Smith’s reliance on the “ideal spectator” as the standard of moral conduct that trumps any custom or practice approved by our sentiments alone.46
It certainly is important to recognize that, in the hands of Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, David Ricardo, John S. Mill and others of the philosophical radicals of the early 19th century, the notion of moral discernment related to telos disappeared. For them, social norms based on utilitarian ideas made morality an issue for continual social negotiation rather than something grounded in natural or divine law. While these social thinkers drew heavily on Smith’s economic principles, they ignored his moral theory. The loss of telos in mainstream economic thinking is more accurately attributed to these philosophical radicals than to Adam Smith.

If Smith indeed had a sense of telos in his moral theory, the next question to ask is whether Smith’s system is sufficient to save economics from the doom predicted by MacIntyre for those disciplines that rely on Enlightenment thinking that is devoid of telos. This, of course presumes that MacIntyre’s assessment of the Enlightenment problem is valid in the first place. This article is not intended to explore the pros and cons of the MacIntyre thesis. Rather, it assumes that it does make some difference in economic life if a human purpose exists external to the natural passions of people. If the Christian story of the fall of human nature points toward behavior that is bent toward the self and away from the common good, then it is reasonable to question, as MacIntyre does, whether a social system without an exogenous moral compass can be viable and flourishing in the long run?

Three Alternatives for a Moral Foundation in Economic Life

If the thesis of this paper is granted, then three scenerios come to mind as possible moral frameworks for economic life.

  1. The pure Enlightenment view proposes that nature, as our senses and passions perceive it, has given us the moral tools with which to make meaningful moral judgements that are satisfying and sufficient in coordinating social activity. Thus human nature, custom and habit together can provide sufficient moral and social glue for the liberal social order. David Hume might be an example of this approach.

  2. The Smithian view, for which this paper argues, proposes that the moral life requires moral tools given to us by creation as part of our nature, but that those moral tools presuppose some exogenous moral force toward which the essence of our being points. This sense of telos, be it real or imagined, is necessary and sufficient for a social order to be viable.

  3. A typical Christian view takes the Smithian approach further by personalizing the exogenous divine moral force in a relational God who is active in real time, drawing people toward enduring values through the revelation of Himself throughout history. A social order devoid of that influence falls far short of its potential. The purpose of human life is to glorify God.

I have tried to show in this article that Smith holds the second and not the first approach. MacIntyre sees no future for social science if it limits itself to the first approach, but his prognosis is not directed at the second approach, which I describe as Smith’s view.

The final question raised in this article is whether the second approach is sufficient for a viable social system or whether the value added by the third view is needed in the long run. In other words, is the Christian message central to social viability or is it primarily a higher calling for those God is calling into the kingdom of God? Is the Christian message foolishness to the world or is it part of the natural order of things toward which Christian economists need to point? Alternatively, the question could be asked: Is the redemption of the social order a central part of the Christian agenda or is the influence of the Christian faith on the social order a by-product of a Christian witness well lived?
The answer to these questions depends heavily on how one understands the three scenarios described above. Several options are apparent. First, if MacIntyre is right about Smith and liberalism is devoid of a moral foundation outside of human nature, habit and custom, then Christians become an essential force in the preservation of the liberal worldview. Redeeming the social structures is part of the Christian calling because being the best that the secular liberal social order can be apart from Christianity is not good enough. Second, if Smith indeed has identified in human behavior a moral force anchored by a sense of telos, then the liberal social order may survive and perhaps thrive without being influenced specifically by explicitly Christian values. In other words, the best that the liberal secular social order can be, while it falls short of the radical Christian calling, is adequate for maintenance of a successful social organization. In this case Christians add new radical perspectives that fulfill the deepest longings of humanity and offer more meaningful solutions to human problems, but the survival of the social system does not depend on the implementation of Christian ethics.
The line of reasoning followed in this paper is that Smith’s moral sentiments do provide an adequate moral base for the survival of secular liberalism. Regarding the role of Christians in the system, I will argue that they do add value to the social enterprise by living out the radical teachings of Jesus which give full expression to the social passions of benevolence, compassion, esteem, and generosity. These passions Smith felt were in too short supply to condition behavior effectively.
Smith never clearly articulated his views on religion. To him, a complete system of thought included political economy, moral philosophy, government, and natural religion. The Wealth of Nations covers the first category. The Theory of Moral Sentiments dealt with the second category and his Lectures on Jurisprudence cover the third category. The final area of natural religion unfortunately was never finished in a public work. Since he had all his unpublished papers burned upon his death, one might speculate that there was much unresolved in his mind about religion. He clearly did not believe that high virtue espoused in Greek philosophy and Christian thought was useful as a social organizing foundation. Rather a more mundane natural moral path to economic sufficiency was needed, but I have argued here that the path toward efficiency that Smith espoused did include a moral purpose from outside the bounds of homo economicus. Human nature, custom and habit are too limited a view of the moral life as Smith understood it.
It is no simple matter to argue that the Christian calling involves expressions of the social passions that would not be expected of those who do not share the same calling. Such a claim implies that Christian transformation of the social order will be limited at best or a failure at worst. The pitfalls in all directions are many. In some cases Christians simply ignore any prophetic message and become supporters of whatever social system works for them. Adopting a civil religion or seeing market capitalism as God’s plan for economic life has been a common course of action. On the other hand, withdrawing from the ambiguities of the world and retreating into enclaves of spiritual purity is hardly consistent with the life of Jesus that was heavily engaged with the real problems in the world around Him. Somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes there is room for debate on how Christians should respond. The purpose of this paper is to show that the task of Christians need not be to save the secular system from collapse by infusing Christian principles into the system. If my interpretation of Smith is correct, the secular system has sufficient moral resources for its own survival. What Christians can do is provide an alternative model showing how life can be more meaningful than the best the world can offer. By doing so they effect change on the margin without selling out to the spirit of the world.47

1 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1984), 54.

2 Ibid, 54

3 Ibid. 19.

4 Ibid., 25.

5 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Liberty Classics Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc. 1984), 131.

6 Ibid., 9.

7 Ibid., 10.

8 Ibid., 9.

9 Ibid., 11-12.

10 Ibid., 13.

11 Patricia H. Werhane, Adam Smith and His Legacy for Modern Capitalism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) 92-93.

12 Smith., 50.

13 Ibid., 61

14 Ibid., 62.

15 Ibid., 64.

16 Ibid., 113.

17 Ibid., 113-114.

18 Ibid., 130.

19 Ibid., 116.

20 Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001) 124.

21 Athol Fitzgibbons, Adam Smith’s System of Liberty, Wealth, and Virtue, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) 20.

22 Smith, TMS, 137.

23 Ibid., 145.

24 Ibid., 148.

25 Ibid., 131

26 Ibid., 131-132.

27 Ibid., 158.

28 Ibid., 159

29 Ibid.,166.

30 Ibid., 87.

31 Ibid., 25.

32 Ibid., 237.

33 MacIntyre, 235.

34 Joseph Cropsey, Polity and Economy, (St.Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN 2001), 16.

35 Ibid., 27.

36 Ibid., 30.

37 Ibid., 20

38 James R. Otteson, Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2002), 240-244. A brief account of these author’s views are discussed on these pages. For the primary source material, see the books listed in the bibliography under these author’s names.

39 Samuel Fleischacker, A Third Concept of Liberty, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1999), 140.

40 Charles L. Griswold Jr., Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1999), 314.

41 Ibid., 314.

42 Otteson, 246.

43 Ibid., 247.

44 Jeffrey T. Young, Economics as a Moral Science: The Political Economy of Adam Smith, (Edward Elgar Press, Cheltenham, UK, 1997) 40.

45 Smith, 211.

46 Young, 41.

47 The role of the Christian in culture is an ongoing topic that can never be fully resolved. Reformed theology pulls one toward the transformation of the social order by deep involvement in all the social systems. Anabaptist theology, while recognizing more and more the need for influence in the social structures, still calls for a life of discipleship that acts as an alternative parallel model to the best the world can be. In The Clashing Worlds of Economics and Faith, (Herald Press, Scottdale,PA 1995) I have tried to sketch out how such an alternative model might interface with a market economy, but the conversation among Christian economists will, no doubt, continue keeping both approaches mindful of the opportunities and pitfalls of each strategy.


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  2. Busch, Lawrence. (2000) The Eclipse of Morality: Science, State, and Market, Hawthorne, NY: Aldine De Gruyter.

  3. Campbell, T.D. (1971) Adam Smith’s Science of Morals, London: Allen an Unwin.

  4. Coase, Ronald H. “Adam Smith’s View of Man,” Journal of Law and Economics, Vol.19 (1976) 538-39.

  5. Cropsey, Joseph. (2001) Polity and Economy: With Further Thoughts on the Principles of Adam Smith, South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s Press.

  6. Fitzgibbons, Athol, (1995) Adam Smith’s System of Liberty, Wealth and Virtue: The Moral and Political Foundations of the Wealth of Nations, NY: Oxford University Press.

  7. Fleischacker, Samuel (1999) A Third Concept of Liberty: Judgement and Freedom in Kant and Adam Smith, Princeton: NJ, Princeton University Press.

  8. Griswold, Charles L. (1999) Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  9. Haakonssen, Knud. (1996) Natural Law and Moral Philosophy: From Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  10. Hirschman, Albert D. (1977) The Passions and the Interests, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  11. Kleer, Richard Arlen, “Adam Smith on the Morality of the Pursuit of Fortune,” Economics and Philosophy, Vol. 9 no. 2, (October, 1993) 289.

  12. MacIntyre, Alasdair (1984) After Virtue, 2nd ed., Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press.

  13. MacIntyre, Alasdair (1988) Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Notre Dame Press.

  14. Minowitz, Peter (1993) Profits, Priests and Prices: Adam Smith’s Emancipation of Economics from Politics and Religion, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  15. Muller, Jerry Z. (1993) Adam Smith in His Time and Ours, New York: The Free Press.

  16. Otteson, James R. (2002) Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  17. Rothschild, Emma (2001) Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  18. Ross, I.S, (1995) The Life of Adam Smith, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  19. Smith, Adam (1976) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  20. Smith, Adam (1976) Theory of Moral Sentiments, Ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  21. Tabb, William R. (1999) Reconstructing Political Economy: The Great Divide in Economic Thought, London: Routledge Press.

  22. Young, Jeffrey T. (1997) Economics as a Moral Science: The Political Economy of Adam Smith, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

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