Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720
Adam Smith, a leading member of the late eighteenth century movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment (a period of intellectual questioning in which a Scottish humanism developed), is best known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776; commonly known as The Wealth of Nations), which more than any other work created the modern intellectual discipline of economics. Much earlier, in 1759, however, Smith published another work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, while he was a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow; he produced a revised edition of this work in 1790, well after publishing The Wealth of Nations.
Most of the subsequent study of Smith’s work has been conducted by economists. Some have suggested inconsistency between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, with the former giving much more attention to the sources of virtues such as benevolence, while the latter allegedly praises self-interest. In fact, both books give much attention to the unintended consequences of actions, with The Theory of Moral Sentiments giving much more praise to good intentions. Smith inherited from the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers the idea that social affairs manifest the workings of natural laws that produce beneficial and harmonious results, even when people’s motives are less than virtuous.
Although Smith was apparently a Presbyterian, The Theory of Moral Sentiments does not contain many overtly Christian points of reference. Smith did not take the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or other obvious biblical references as his basis for discussion. Emphasis in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is, rather, very much on moral sentiments—that is, people’s attitudes and feelings about right and wrong. Smith’s emphasis is congruent with modern psychology and sociology. Each of us is conditioned (“socialized,” in modern discourse) by the family environment of childhood and by peer groups to accept attitudes about right and wrong. These views are personified in an “impartial spectator,” an imaginary judge who watches and evaluates what we think and do—essentially our conscience. Smith, however, acknowledges that each of us is also concerned about the way our friends and associates judge us. Smith’s analysis thus covers both the “inner-directed” and “other-directed” personalities made famous by sociologist David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, 1950). Smith is also confident that each individual is inclined to feel “sympathy” for others, which he defined as the capacity to identify with other people’s thoughts and feelings.
Smith drew examples largely from his own social circle. He did not try to analyze the concepts of right and wrong formed by people raised in dysfunctional households or the kind of people depicted by Smith’s contemporary, artist William Hogarth, in his scathing illustrations of lowlife in London’s slums. Smith was confident that, as societies evolved over time, standards would converge toward moral laws of nature that would promote the welfare and happiness of the entire society. These might be biblical principles; they might also be the “agreeable” principles Smith attributed to “commercial society” in The Wealth of Nations.
Smith emphasized three elements of natural morality: prudence, justice, and benevolence. Prudence embraces the dimensions of self-concern and self-interest; it occupies center stage in The Wealth of Nations. However, Smith clearly expected that most people would also develop a strong sense of justice, being prepared to treat others fairly and honestly. He expected, finally, that they would feel and act on sentiments of benevolence toward others. (Christian doctrine would probably rank these virtues in inverse order.)
Smith entertained no illusions about human perfectibility. Though he did not dwell on sin as a category, most of the varieties of sin passed in review, not all equally condemned. For Smith, vanity is, perhaps, less objectionable than pride, and it may be better to be too proud than too humble. Smith followed the Stoics in giving much praise to self-command, to virtuous attention to one’s duty.
The central theme of The Wealth of Nations—that the self-serving pursuit of wealth by individuals can lead to public benefits through productivity and economic growth—was clearly foreshadowed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith also warned against a “spirit of system” that could lead to the sort of fanatical and violent radicalism unleashed in the French Revolution.
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