Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment Part Two: Adam Smith

James Stacey Taylor,

Release Date
December 19, 2011



Prof. James Stacey Taylor discusses the contributions of Adam Smith with a particular focus on his philosophy. Smith is most famous for two works: The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
The Wealth of Nations is an important book on economics, so important in fact that Smith has been called the father of modern economics. His second book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was heavily influenced by Francis Hutcheson (See our video on Francis Hutcheson).
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith advocates for a form of moral sentimentalism. We naturally link sympathy to either approval or disapproval of an action or reaction. For instance, if an individual insults another person, we attach sympathy to the reaction of the person who was insulted. If the person insulted underreacts or overreacts, we will disapprove of the response morally. If the reaction seems right, we will approve of the response morally.
We will also sympathize with parties who are not sharing a similar sentiment. For instance, if a person loses their mental capacity or passes way, we will sympathize with that person even though they themselves are not feeling the same sentiment.
Lastly, using Smith’s moral sentimentalism, we can judge our own actions. We can do this by looking at our own actions from a third person point of view.
Watch part one featuring Francis Hutcheson
– or –
Watch part three featuring David Hume

Giants of the Scottish Enlightenment Part Two: Adam Smith
One of the people who was tremendously influenced by Hutcheson is Adam Smith, another of the giants of the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith’s famous for two major works, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Wealth of Nations is a great work of economics. So important is this, that he’s been called the Father of Modern Economics. So, if you’ve ever taken a class in economics, know who you’re learning about now is the father of that cause. This might strike as being a good thing if you enjoyed the course, or a very bad thing entirely if you didn’t like the course. But if you didn’t like the course, you can’t really blame Smith. Blame your instructor, so long as it wasn’t me, in which case it is entirely your fault.
So Smith is the Father of Modern Economics, but with Hutcheson, he is also one of the main advocates of a form of moral sentimentalism. Smith’s sentimentalism, while it does take strong influence from Hutcheson’s, is also distinct from it. For Smith, when we see interactions between persons, we enter into vicarious experiences of their pleasures and pains. We sympathize with their pleasures or we sympathize with their pains.
For Smith, we link our sympathy to either approval or disapproval. So if somebody responds in a way that we think is appropriate—for example, somebody pays another individual a compliment and they respond in a way we think is appropriate, thus leading to a mutually advantageous situation—we will approve of that particular response morally. We would consider it being morally appropriate.
However, if a person overreacts or underreacts, we might actually disapprove of their response, and we do so perfectly naturally. So here’s a simple example. Somebody offers a minor and unintentional insult or personal slight to another individual in the class, and the person who has been so slighted reacts violently and with a great rage. I think that most people’s response to the person who reacted is, this is an overreaction, you’re not engaging in a morally appropriate way. Conversely, we might consider a person to be underreacting. One person offers a terrible and gratuitous insult to another, and the person who has been insulted simply shrugs it off. I think that in certain cases we would consider this to be an underreaction and a morally inappropriate underreaction.
Notice that Smith is also careful not just to allow that persons can vicariously enter into sympathy with others, but also that they can judge the reaction of the person with whom they are sympathizing as being appropriate or not. Moreover, Smith is willing to take this to extremes. Smith gives two examples where we’re going to sympathize with persons’ situations even though they themselves will not actually experience the emotions that we are feeling vicariously on their behalf. Two examples of Smith’s stand out here. One of them is of a normally functioning man who through some trauma suffers a reduction in his status to that of a contented infant. Typically we would think that a great tragedy has befallen this person. But owing to the reduction in status that he has had, he now just experiences the world as a contented infant would. He clearly isn’t going to feel the unhappiness that we would feel on his behalf.
Similarly Smith also recognizes that we might feel sadness on behalf of persons who are now dead. Obviously they are dead, and they cannot actually experience anything. But we recognize the losses that they’ve suffered or the deprivation of the goods of life that they are subject to, and a result, notes Smith, we might feel on their behalf regret and sadness even though they themselves actually can never experience this. So notice what Smith is doing. Smith is not merely saying that we will sympathize with the actual experiences of persons that we see, but also that we naturally sympathize with persons’ experiences of their situation as they should be experiencing their situation.
So we might look upon interactions with others knowing more from the persons who are interacting about the situation in question, and as a result of this additional knowledge, feel that the interaction is either morally acceptable or morally suspect based on our knowledge and our sympathy with the interactees, given our knowledge of their situation.
So far, we’ve been looking at Smith’s view as somebody looking on at the actions of others. But Smith is very clear that we can similarly judge our own actions. And now Smith obviously has a problem, because our judging of our own actions is likely to be tainted by our self interest. How does Smith get around this? Smith notes that it is perfectly natural for persons to look upon their actions from a third-person point of view, or might be termed an impartial-spectator point of view, and to see what would an impartial spectator think of my actions in these situations? People might be familiar with little bracelets which say WWJD, what would Jesus do? We can imagine Smith merchandizing his own bracelets: WWASD, what would Adam Smith do? Or more precisely: WWIOD, what would an impartial observer do? So Smith is concerned with ensuring that persons can regulate their actions in accordance with this imaginary third-person point of view.
For Smith this is especially the case when we come to consider questions of justice and just interaction between persons. For Smith, we must recognize that persons can have resentment if they are treated badly and gratitude if they are treated justly. We enter into sympathy with persons and approve if a person’s response to an interaction is one that we consider to be appropriate. We would disapprove if it’s one that we consider to be inappropriate.
Smith is very clear that when we consider interactions between people, there’s a distinction to be drawn between failing to receive a benefit and actually suffering some injury. If you fail to receive a benefit that somebody might have conferred upon you, Smith notes, it doesn’t make that much sense to be resentful towards them. After all, they simply didn’t harm you. They just didn’t elevate your position. If you resent somebody for failing to confer a benefit upon you, you might be responding inappropriately.
Conversely, if you resent somebody for actually injuring you, for removing your property, for assaulting you, and so forth, that seems to be a perfectly just response. So notice what Smith is doing. He is taking on natural moral sentiments or natural responses to interactions between people, and he is drawing a distinction between resentment towards a failure to secure a benefit as being illegitimate and resentment towards some positive hurt as being legitimate. Putting this in terms, modern terms, of rights violations, for Smith, a failure to fulfill a claimed positive right might not be any injustice at all, but a failure to respect a person’s negative rights might be a very grave injustice indeed.
Smith, like Hutcheson before him, is taking on a moral sentimentalist approach, but he’s doing so in a distinct fashion. Like Hutcheson, Smith is offering a perfectly naturalized account of morality, which is going to accord with our natural responses as humans. This, I think, is incredibly important in assessing whether or not a particular social arrangement or moral claims are going to be just or not. If we take Smith’s views seriously, we should recognize that persons are constituted to resent having injury done to them but might not be constituted to resent a failure to secure benefits. If this is so, then it seems provision of benefits is far less important for a state to do than actually to prevent people from incursions by others.