Adam Smith As a moral philosopher

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“Vice is always capricious, virtue only is regular and orderly”

Adam Smith, well-known as a scottish economist, is also a philosopher through his essay : Theory of Moral Sentiments. An interesting essay in many ways, and whose intellectual level exceeds – by far – that of our postmodern liberals. But in 1759, this thought, because it was not hegemonic, had yet to be rigorous to be intellectually legitimate. And Adam Smith, therefore, was never a counterfeiter intellectual, unlike his contemporary heirs.

Summary of the theory of moral sentiments

In addition to his nature as God made him (Smith is a believer), the man is a moral being. At least, he must be, by regulating his passions. By a process that is both emotional and intellectual, he has to learn to rationalize his behavior, thinking his moral assessments. Which, for Smith, are therefore within the simple reason, and not in a collective sense of externality producer (revealed religion, state ideology …).

In support of this view, Adam Smith offers two concepts as a guideline in its thinking.

Smith and Hume

The first is taken to David Hume. This is the “sympathy” that Smith sees as the regulator of emotional intensity. This is a communication mechanism of the passions of an individual to another. Compassion, somehow contaminate us. But contamination which, in the rational individual, goes beyond the simple psycho-emotional dimension. We are far, for example, the mechanism of infection attributed to the psychological crowd by Gustave Le Bon. Here, sympathy, reciprocity, must be consistent with its purpose, namely because of the feeling experienced by our interlocutor.

Here comes in the second key concept of Smith. The “impartial spectator” is a neutral observer but altruistic. It has to objectify the situation, with rationality, whether sympathetic or not justified.

The combination of the impartial spectator and of the sympathy makes possible the production of morality.

Note at the outset the contradiction: the impartial spectator is supposed neutral, and yet, to judge, he must have a normative implication. The whole problem of the theory of a corporation registered in the simple reason lies in the finding of this contradiction.


Smith intends to overcome the objection by emphasizing the principle of spontaneous sympathy of men. We consider an attitude again according to some grid references, but required the company to give us our opinion forces us to constantly redefine our reference grid, to fit a normative framework “common sense” meets the requirements of office in a utilitarian perspective. Approach typical of British high society: what is right is what is the maintenance of harmony within the group. The truth is what is useful, and the criterion of utility, the practicality against the requirements of good society.

However, it would not do justice to Smith than to limit its comments to the simple utilitarian creed. There are indeed, in the seminal thinker of the Anglo-Saxon liberalism, a counterweight to utilitarianism, or at least the explicit desire to build one.

Smith asks how to become a good “impartial spectator”? He answers, contributing to the spontaneous sympathy. So, being altruistic in moderation, at the same time as a fair trial, and indifferent to the passions. There is therefore, in Smith, what is sought in vain in many of his contemporary disciples distant: a morality of the honest man. Utilitarianism of Smith is not short-sighted, it is not here to say a all-out relativism. The inclusion of “feedback” between spontaneous sympathy and social utilitarianism provide, at the thought of Adam Smith, a dynamic that allows a certain depth.

Adam Smith and Christian Roots

The values of Smith is a disjunctive synthesis between Christianity and ‘nature’ pagan Stoic. They organize underground production of human type adapted to the utilitarian morality, which is part of the anthropological and producer who produces in return. This man, the “good liberal” if you will, or, frankly, the “good citizen” is characterized by the moderation of his passions, by the distrust of any heading trench- control beyond what the simple reason. Hunger, thirst, leaning to the exchange and sexual passion are strong passions, controlled by nature, and have therefore not be subject to a special sympathy. Unsocial passions such as hatred and resentment, are the only ones not to attract the sympathy without prior knowledge of the causes. In the social passions (generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, friendship and mutual esteem, all social affections and caring), on the contrary, the excess does not cause aversion or hatred. Sympathy is doubled for the same benevolent affections. Passion, in Smith, is good if and only if it serves the project utilitarian, and is therefore to educate men to cultivate in them the passion “good” (that way), and restrain the passions “bad”.


This educational requirement leads to a “theory of moral sentiments” (here we go), theory in some detail to define a standard, rational basis for conformity. Adam Smith lived at a time when liberalism was born not set solely in terms of material prosperity, not submitted in full to the rule of money – a time, in short, where was a bourgeois ideology on merit. Very critical of the merchant industrious and adventurous speculator, Smith is full of suspicion against too rapid changes of fortune. For him, is seldom reached virtuous, and virtue is indeed indispensable to the maintenance of “good society”. Defender of a social order preserved any sudden break, the liberal theorist first preferred a man to greatness avançât gradually to minimize the resentment of his peers and ensure the legitimacy of its progress. One would think by almost nationalist Paul Bourget, and its “traditionalism by positivism.” In any case, it is light years ahead of liberalism bling today.

Then specify the size and relativize traditional at Smith. It is anti-traditionalist in that with him, the era of “noblesse oblige” is over: wisdom and virtue are permanently separated from wealth and greatness. But the seminal thinker in the Anglo-Saxon liberalism is written in a form of revival of traditional virtues, in that it expects, the middle and lower classes, they implement their abilities and honesty to achieve success deserved. The ambiguity of the speech, all its fragility, is obviously the fact that we do not really see why, once acquired wealth and grandeur, the winners of the competition should continue to subscribe to an ideology of merit which has benefited but will henceforth play against their best interests.

At this stage of development of the thought of Smith, it appears that in his view, only a mutual benevolence, encouraged by the sympathy itself tempered by the impartiality of the spectator, is a vehicle for a sustainable society – and However, it is not seriously that would ensure that mutual goodwill.

This is where liberalism comes to the rescue of utilitarianism. A company, Smith said, does not necessarily need to remain benevolent affections. It has somewhat of a limp. In the absence of friendship, esteem, gratitude, etc.., The utility that each is in the other ensures the balance. The exchange of values may be sufficient, failing link and reciprocity (gift / gift-cons), so that there is no resentment or animosity.

Smith and Liberal Theories

Here we touch the heart of liberal theory: the shift of the Good, as part prescriptive standards, exactly, available equity and a balanced distribution of values. And through the work of Smith, we realize that this shift is not the cause of liberalism, the origin lies fundamentally in utilitarianism, the shift towards the Good is just a functional instrument, to make utilitarianism credible.

The challenge of the theory of moral sentiments was built by Smith, obviously, to establish a framework that would combine anthropological axiological neutrality of the state, excluding most of the class of power, the negation of all exteriority normative, with the notions of virtue, of transcendent Good, and even patriotism, registration of men in the consciousness of belonging to a common destiny. It was to reconcile the “sweet trade” and the traditional view, stating that in a certain part anthropological, the “sweet trade” can reproduce a consistent habit, or at least close to that previously defined by tradition. Dixit Adam Smith: “Common sense is enough to lead us, if not to the liking of the most exquisite line, at least to something that approaches it, and, provided we are strongly eager to do well, our behavior always will be, on the whole, commendable.

The problem is that two centuries later, it is obvious to any honest observer that the experience has refuted the theory. The framework defined by anthropological Smith exploded, and the ideology that produced, released this framework, has returned to its own negation: the excesses of amoral sentiments has become the rule.


Quotes by Adam Smith extracted from The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“It is decent to be humble when you can enjoy great prosperity. ”

“Even their vices and follies are fashionable and most men proud to imitate and resemble them in the very qualities that degrade and dishonor. ”

“He soon identified with the ideal man inside the heart, it soon became the impartial spectator of his own situation. It does more sobs, no longer lamented, no complaints can sometimes be more to do at the beginning a weak man. The view of the impartial spectator it is so perfectly normal that, without effort or pain, he never thinks his misfortune to see another point of view. ”

“Without this concern sacred to the general rules, there is no man whose conduct can be very effective. This is the most essential difference between a man of principle and honor, and a scoundrel. ”

“In the constancy of his industry and frugality, in his constant sacrifice of well-being and pleasure found in favor of the expectation of a probable well-being and a pleasure to be even greater but more distant more sustainable, the prudent man is always supported and rewarded with the full approval of the impartial spectator, the man inside the heart. “

Cite this article as: Tim, "Adam Smith As a moral philosopher, February 15, 2013, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, February 15, 2013,

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