Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue – Ryan Patrick Hanley

This essay, part of a roundtable, is excerpted from Hanley’s Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue.

We live in strange times. Depending on where one looks, the student of capitalist society can discover good reasons for either hope or despair. Even before the most recent global financial crisis, partisans of the latter view were particularly vocal. The titles of two recent books tell much of the contemporary story: warning us of “the moral consequences of economic growth,” they caution us that we stand in the midst of a “battle for the soul of capitalism.”1

Part of this concern emerges from an ever-growing awareness that our capitalist culture has recently entered a new stage. This “new capitalism,” as it has come to be called, has been criticized on a number of fronts, including its effects on labor, on the corporation, and on political identity.2 But its most powerful critics have focused on the effects of consumerism and materialism on human well-being. It is a concern that has united a strange set of allies, from postmodernists to paleo-conservatives, from Pope Benedict to Baudrillard, from Lyotard to Leo Strauss.3

Indeed across the political and the philosophical spectra, an unexpected consensus has emerged over the fact that the moral psychologies and political orders to which consumerism and materialism have given rise have eviscerated the human psyche. And this is hardly a concern limited to “humanists”; social scientists – from psychologists to sociologists to political scientists – have all attested to these dangers as well.4 But what should we make of this strange consensus? At the very least, we can provisionally conclude that a strikingly widespread conception exists today that capitalism has been detrimental to the human person and that the status of human life in the new capitalism is (to mix metaphors) fit only for last men trapped in iron cages.

But one wonders: are things really as bad as all that? However widespread, the view just described is only one of at least two. Alongside that pessimistic view, a more hopeful perspective is also now emerging. Its most prominent manifestation is the recent boom in popular studies of happiness. A cynic might write this explosion off as merely a consequence of the crisis in capitalism itself; the product of that crisis is, after all, those who claim to have “invented happiness,” and one might uncharitably – but perhaps not unfairly – be tempted to dismiss their rediscovery of their invention as little more than a resuscitation of the narcissism and navel-gazing that distinguish the last men.5 But doing so would miss the forest for the trees.

Many of these happiness studies take as their departure point the well-known gap between happiness and wealth accumulation, and in so doing they reflect a familiar but now urgent longing for a happiness more substantial than that afforded by capitalist success. Other recent studies look even further and seek to defend and indeed revivify a reverence and longing for even more elevated states of human flourishing, whether understood as “nobility of spirit” or “greatness.”6 All such studies reflect the influence of a growing academic inquiry into the proper understanding of human flourishing, or virtue – an inquiry as diverse as that of the pessimists profiled earlier.

Uniting many of these inquiries is the conscious and hopeful attempt to remedy capitalism’s iniquities. In my field, the history of political philosophy, this turn was largely inspired by scholars who sought to recover a “republican” or “civic humanist” virtue-centered tradition of political thought as an alternative to procedural liberalism.7

Yet these concerns were hardly limited to liberalism’s critics, for in time the recovery of virtue became a primary interest of political theorists within the liberal tradition as well.8 And these debates are no longer internal to political theory, as an interest in the necessary conditions and nature of human flourishing is now the focus of philosophers who propose “virtue ethics” or “ethics of care” as alternatives to utilitarian and deontological ethics.9 So too psychology has a vibrant interest now in both “emotional intelligence,” focusing on the role of sentiments in shaping cognitive states, and “positive psychology,” which focuses on the place of “character strengths and virtues” in the good life, as alternatives to the traditional focus on diagnosing and treating psychopathology.10

An explanation of why both capitalism’s critics and virtue’s champions have grown so rapidly over the past two decades lies beyond the scope of my book. It might be best to limit ourselves to the conjecture that the optimism of the latter camp is perhaps best understood as a response to the pessimism of the former; a renewed interest in our capacity to maximize subjective happiness would hardly be an unexpected consequence of a sense of anomie, isolation, and impotence in the face of seemingly inexorable forces.

But leaving to sociologists of knowledge the question of why these two literatures have emerged in tandem, the aim of my book is to explain how their substances are mutually illuminative. In particular, my goal is to explain how a particular understanding of virtue might offer a remedy for specific ills diagnosed by capitalism’s critics past and present.

The subject for my development of this claim is the moral philosophy of Adam Smith. For many years, rightly or wrongly, Smith has been famous as a founding father of capitalism. In recent decades, at least in academic circles, he has also emerged as one of capitalism’s earliest and most trenchant critics; as several recent works have noted, Smith himself anticipated several of the ills that capitalism’s critics continue to insist upon today.11 But what has not yet been sufficiently emphasized is that Smith in his own name set forth a sustained and developed remedy for the ills he diagnosed. 12

The articulation of this remedy, I want to argue, in fact constitutes the principal intent of one of the most disputed aspects of Smith’s corpus, namely the revisions to the sixth (1790) edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In particular I want to suggest that the sixth edition’s entirely new Part VI, “Of the Character of Virtue,” was intended by Smith as a remedy for the challenges that he identified with the advent and progress of commercial society and indeed contains Smith’s most direct effort to fulfill the mandate implicit in his own insistence that the amelioration of commercial society’s moral defects is indeed “an object worthy of serious attention” (LJB 333). Smith’s study of virtue in Part VI thus represents at once his mature answer to what he considered the primary question in moral philosophy – “wherein does virtue consist?” (TMS VII.i.2) – as well as his considered response to the ills of commercial corruption that he himself so powerfully articulated.

Smith’s study of the character of virtue can thus on some level be understood as an effort to demonstrate how “corruption” can be ameliorated by “virtue.” At the same time, these all-too-familiar categories have to be handled with great care by students of Smith. In the first place, Smith’s conception of corruption is itself quite subtle. A great deal of excellent commentary has illuminated the ways in which various aspects of his conception resonate with the expositions of the deleterious effects of commerce to be found in either republican or Marxist critiques. Yet Smith’s own position, I argue, is less concerned with the political effects of commercialization on which republican and Marxist critiques focus than with commercialization’s psychological effects. So too his conception of virtue.

While Smith’s theory of virtue bears some broad similarities to the conceptions of “civic virtue” familiar from republican accounts, the horizon of Smith’s vision goes well beyond the virtues conventionally associated with the good republican citizen – and indeed well beyond the virtues conventionally associated with the good bourgeois of whom Smith is also often considered a champion. Smith’s vision of virtue encompasses these perspectives but also speaks to the aspirations of those seeking a less qualified excellence. In so doing he speaks to the longings for transcendence and nobility and greatness that he presumes to persist in his readers’ hearts – categories impossible to subsume under the republican or Marxist or bourgeois perspectives yet central to Smith’s account.

Smith’s theory is also many-layered as a consequence of its intent; rather than offering a stock “civic virtue” to remedy corruption, it offers instead a synthesis of multiple visions of virtue, each element of which forms an integral response to a specific type of corruption. As a result, this theory, seen from a distance, may appear a hodgepodge of commercial, classical, and Christian virtues. His synthesis of elements of these traditions is, however, as unified as his conception of corruption. The thread that unites the various strains in his vision of virtue is moreover precisely the same thread that connects the various elements of his conception of corruption: namely, self-love. Indeed just as Smith’s differential diagnosis of several discrete effects of commercialization can be traced to his conception of the way in which commerce corrupts self-love, so too his remedy is founded on the rehabilitation of self-love through its education, elevation, and ennoblement.

Smith’s understanding of virtue’s normative role in ameliorating the challenges of commercial modernity in turn compels us to reconsider a familiar characterization of his broader commitments. In particular, it compels us to reconsider the propensity to regard Smith as principally or exclusively committed to a conception of inquiry that privileges descriptive or phenomenological analysis – broadly speaking, “scientific” analysis – over normative or prescriptive analysis. This position, common among both his supporters and his detractors, minimizes Smith’s normative concerns in favor of a vision of Smith as an objective and detached student of economic and ethical phenomena.

But this view not only obscures Smith’s commitment to normativity; it also has given rise to the assumption prevalent among specialists and generalists alike that Smith, intentionally or otherwise, deflected, displaced, or deflated the traditional questions of how human beings might best live and best live together to a new question of how they might maximize profits, thereby substituting economics for politics as the central human concern.13 Yet this view can only be defended at the expense of excising those aspects of Smith’s corpus that reveal both his awareness of the limits of the economic conception of man and his commitment to providing a normative resolution to commercial society’s moral challenges.

These reveal that Smith is neither a participant in nor an advocate of what has been called modernity’s “great disembedding,” the process by which impersonal markets governed by the logic of “the order of mutual benefit” replaced the legitimating and order-inducing bonds afforded by the reciprocal ideals of Christian charity, premodern aristocratic social hierarchies, or shared commitments to teleological orders in biology and cosmology.14 Smith may not have chosen to wave the flag for any one of these particular commitments, but advocating their subversion through the great disembedding was neither his implicit nor his explicit aim. His interest – and his interest to us today – lies in his effort to chart a course whereby we might best navigate the challenges of a world in which freedom and subjectivity have displaced the order and security afforded by certain traditional institutions and beliefs.

Taken together, my principal claims, in the order in which they appear in Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue, are the following:

  1. Smith is first and foremost a champion of commercial society on the grounds of its capacity to maximize opulence and freedom and especially its capacity to maximize the opulence and freedom available to the poorest and weakest.
  2. Smith’s enthusiasm for commercial society hardly blinds him to its faults, and chief among the faults he identifies is the propensity of commercial society to induce and exacerbate such psychological ills as restlessness, anxiety, inauthenticity, duplicity, mediocrity, alienation, and indifference to others.
  3. In forthrightly addressing himself to the amelioration of these ills, Smith reveals himself to be a true friend of commercial society, and his commitment to remedying them reveals his conviction that ethics is a normative enterprise that supplements the empirical social science and purely descriptive ethics with which he is often associated.
  4. Smith’s normative approach is best understood as a virtue ethics rather than a deontological or utilitarian ethics – a virtue ethics that aims to harmonize the longing for individual perfection with the conditions of liberal commercial society.
  5. Smith’s normative virtue ethics receives its fullest expression in the new Part VI of the sixth edition of TMS, in which Smith consciously set forth “a practical system of morality”, dedicated to the articulation of a moral education that uses a specific rhetoric and ascending dialectic to improve and ennoble our self-love in three discrete stages.
  6. The first stage of this education lies in Smith’s effort to inculcate the virtue of prudence to ameliorate the anxiety, restlessness, and deceit to which he thought commercial civilization susceptible – a remedy that itself exacerbated the propensities to mediocrity and individualism to which he also thought commercial civilization prone.
  7. The amelioration of mediocrity and individualism was the aim of the second stage of Smith’s moral education, which took the form of an effort to recover the virtue of magnanimity, the peak ethical virtue of the ancients – a remedy that in its turn exacerbated commercial society’s encouragement of excessive self-preference and indifference to others.
  8. The remedy for such excessive self-preference and indifference is to be found in the third stage of Smith’s moral education, dedicated to recovering the Christian virtue of beneficence, a demanding active virtue that transcends sentimentalism.
  9. Smith’s account of beneficence culminates in his portrait of the wise and virtuous man, at once the embodiment of his vision of human perfection, as well as Smith’s apologia for his own life and the key to his decision to turn from the study of moral philosophy to the study of political economy.

In developing these claims, I hope to promote clarity in discussions of capitalism’s corruptions or “moral consequences” – to use the language of the titles mentioned at the outset – as well as present Smith’s answer to how capitalism’s “crisis” or “battle” might be resolved. But it is not only a substantive conception of virtue that renders Smith of continued interest today; the very spirit of his philosophical engagement with practical political problems is perhaps his greatest legacy.

Smith’s uniqueness is largely captured by his capacity to appreciate the benefits as well as the challenges of commercial society. As a consequence, he occupies a unique place on the spectrum: rather than degenerating into partisanship or detraction, his attitude toward commercial society is rather one of guarded optimism informed by a sense of pragmatic realism.

A similar attitude may prove useful to us. If indeed we are today, for better or worse, “stuck” with commercial liberalism,15 our challenge is to demonstrate how it can be improved so that its best effects are maximized and its worst ameliorated, rather than to demonstrate either how it might be replaced, on the one hand, or why it should be complacently accepted, warts and all, on the other.

What is needed – and what Smith provides – is an opportunity to transcend the all-too-common propensity to side “for” or “against” the project of commercial modernity or liberal Enlightenment more generally.16 In this sense his aim is comparable to that of Charles Taylor. Commenting on the futility of the struggle between the Enlightenment’s “boosters” and its “knockers,” Taylor suggests the real challenge “is to see that the issue is not how much of a price in bad consequences you have to pay for the positive fruits, but rather how to steer these developments towards their greatest promise and avoid the slide into the debased forms.”17 Without offering false consolation in the face of the magnitude of the problems we face, Smith, like Taylor, offers us reason for hope on precisely this front.

This intention itself challenges a final view of his project. It has, for some time, been fashionable to regard Smith’s conception of commercial society as tragic. On the grounds of his recognition of the place of “illusions” in epistemology and of “deceptions” in ethics (TMS I.i.1.13; TMS IV.1.10), in conjunction with his tough-minded claims that the world prefers “wealth and greatness” to “merit and virtue” (TMS I.iii.3.2–4), Smith’s attitude toward commercial modernity has often been taken to be one of resignation to its ills and evils. Hence a variety of similar observations, from the claim that “Smith thinks the advancement of society is well worth the corruption of the individual,” to the claim that, in Smith, “social cohesion is achieved at the price of social compassion,” to the claim that Smith seems to argue that “the conditions of our material prosperity are tied to those of our spiritual poverty.”18

Remarkably little has been done to meet these challenges. Even the most well-intentioned efforts in this vein seem resigned to the concession that his defense of commercial society is founded on little more than the belief that its benefits are worth its costs; commercial society is to be welcomed for the freedom and order it brings, even if our attachment to such freedom and order fails to encourage or directly inhibits our pursuit of genuine happiness and our realization of genuine excellence.19

Yet Smith’s own position is, I think, quite different: happiness, conceived as individual and social flourishing, remains a possibility for modern men, even in our modern world. In setting forth his proposals on this front Smith eschews the pleasures afforded by other familiar positions, from the euphoric joy of the reformer who optimistically hopes and believes our most fundamental problems can be transcended, to the melancholy realism of the hard-nosed pessimist resolved to the ostensible inescapability of our tragic condition. Adam Smith, even in preparing for his death, seems to have discovered a very different sort of solace – an optimism that is guarded, perhaps, yet genuine. In so doing, he gives us reasons for hope, too.

Ryan Patrick Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. He is the author of Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue (Cambridge, 2009), the editor of the Penguin Classics edition of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (Penguin, 2010), and current President of the International Adam Smith Society.

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Cite this essay: Hanley, Ryan Patrick, "Adam Smith and the
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  1. Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (New York: Knopf, 2005); John C. Bogle, The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).
  2. On labor, see Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York: Norton, 1998) and The Culture of the New Capitalism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); on the corporation, see Daniel Yankelovich, Profit with Honor: The New Stage of Market Capitalism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); on the corporation and identity, see Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, tr. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2005); and on religion, see William E. Connolly’s opening chapter, “The Spirit of Capitalism,” in his Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 1–16.
  3. For the postmodern critique, see especially Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998); Jean Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,1991). For critiques from another side of the spectrum, see Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 248–51; Irving Kristol, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism,” in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Free Press, 1995); Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press,1984); cf. Pope Benedict XVI’s Angelus delivered at Castel Gandolfo, 23 September 2007; and as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Church and Economy: Responsibility for the Future of the World Economy,” Communio 13 (1986): 199–204.
  4. In psychology, see Tim Kasser, “Materialism and Its Alternatives,” in A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology, ed. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 200–14; in political science, see Robert E. Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); in social and political theory, see William A. Galston, “The Effect of Modern Markets on Civic Life,” in The Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 128–47; and Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York: Norton, 2007). Jerry Z. Muller provides an excellent introduction to and overview of the intellectual history of anticapitalist debates in The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought (New York: Knopf, 2002), 3–19.
  5. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (“Zarathustra’s Prologue,” sec. 5).
  6. See, e.g., Rob Rieman, Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, trans. Marjolijn de Jager (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); Robert Faulkner, The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
  7. This literature is well known; important contributions in political theory include Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996), and Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); important contributions in the history of ideas include Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998),and J.G.A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  8. See especially Galston, “Liberal Virtues and the Formation of Civic Character,” in Seedbeds of Virtue, ed. Mary Ann Glendon and David Blankenhorn (Lanham, MD: Madison, 1995), 35–60; Stephen Macedo, Liberal Virtues (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); Peter Berkowitz, Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); and the essays in John W. Chapman and Galston, eds., NOMOS XXXIV: Virtue (New York: New York University Press, 1992). An excellent guide to these debates which helpfully brings out the tension between the liberal commitment to justice and the love of the noble or good is provided in Susan D. Collins, Aristotle and the Rediscovery of Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 6–41.
  9. I deal extensively with virtue ethics in Chapter 2. For an important overview of virtue ethics, see especially Roger Crisp and Michael Slote, eds., Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). On the ethics of care, see especially Virginia Held, “The Ethics of Care,” in The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory, ed. David Copp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  10. On emotional intelligence, see especially Daisy D. Grewal and Peter Salovey, “Benefits of Emotional Intelligence,” in Life Worth Living, ed. Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 104–19. On positive psychology and the virtues, see especially Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  11. Important recent contributions to the debate over Smith’s awareness of commerce’s deleterious effects and how this awareness inclined him toward either pessimism or optimism include James E. Alvey, Adam Smith: Optimist or Pessimist? A New Problem Concerning the Basis of Commercial Society (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003); Jerry Evensky, Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Lisa Hill, “Adam Smith and the Theme of Corruption,” Review of Politics 68 (2006): 636–62; and Dennis Rasmussen, The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith’s Response to Rousseau (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2008). I engage each of these at greater length in what follows. My understanding of optimism has also been helpfully shaped by engagement with Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
  12. Within the Smith literature, the most important exception to this rule is Charles L. Griswold, Jr., Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Griswold’s book presents itself, like the present work, as in part a study of “Smith’s diagnosis of and therapy for the modern age” (20) and, like the present work, it opens with the claim that “we find ourselves in a curious situation,” caught between reasons for optimism and pessimism (1ff ). Yet despite our similar departure points, our differences, I hope, will become clear in what follows. Provisionally, Griswold begins with optimism and thoroughly presents the tragic side of commercial society (“tragedy” is his last word; 376n13); I begin with pessimism but argue that Smith provides good reasons to hope and believe that specific aspects of this tragedy can be transcended. I also add at the outset that while I have sought in every instance to register, as fully and specifically as I possibly can, both my debts to and disagreements with their works, no footnote that I am capable of writing could express the entire degree of influence that engagement with the seminal books of Griswold, Haakonssen, Fleischacker, Otteson, and Cropsey have had on my understanding of Smith, as readers, I hope, will recognize throughout.
  13. Among Smith scholars, see especially Joseph Cropsey, Polity and Economy: An Interpretation of the Principles of Adam Smith (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001, 1957), 119–20, cf. 38, 115; Peter Minowitz, Profits, Priests, and Princes: Adam Smith’s Emancipation of Economics from Politics and Religion (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 12, 97–98; Susan E. Gallagher, The Rule of the Rich? Adam Smith’s Argument Against Political Power (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1998), 98; Richard F. Teichgraeber III, “Free Trade” and Moral Philosophy: Rethinking the Sources of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), 9–10, 20; Vivienne Brown, Adam Smith’s Discourse: Canonicity, Commerce and Conscience (London: Routledge, 1994), 139, 210; Brian C. J. Singer, “Montesquieu, Adam Smith and the Discovery of the Social,” Journal of Classical Sociology 4 (2004): esp. 31, 36. Among political theorists more generally, see Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, 1960), 269–71; Pierre Manent, The City of Man, trans. Marc A. LePain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 107–8. For an important early response, see Donald Winch, Adam Smith’s Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 16–23.
  14. On the “great disembedding” and its effects on morality, see esp. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998, 1966), 166–67; MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1–5, 33–34, 62, 77, 126, 174, 204–5, 225; Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 18, 21, 49–67, 145–48, 186–87 (in which the term itself is to be found); Taylor, A Catholic Modernity? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 14–18, 35; cf. Michael Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” in Virtue Ethics, ed. Crisp and Slote, 68. The same point also constitutes a main theme of Sennett, Corrosion of Character.
  15. See, e.g., Raymond Geuss, “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” in Outside Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 11–28; see esp. 12 for both the quote and for its description of Freud’s position with regard to civilization: “it is strictly impossible to do away with it altogether; the best we can do is try to mitigate some of its worst effects.”
  16. In so doing I also hope to move beyond the political reading of Smith. Recent years have witnessed a scholarly reaction to an earlier “laissez-faire” appropriation of Smith, much of which either distances him from such positions or emphasizes the confluence of his political economy with contemporary welfare state or “social-democratic” policies; in this vein, see esp. Iain McLean, Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian: An Interpretation for the Twenty-First Century (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 120, 138–42; Gavin Kennedy, Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 96–100, 235–40; Fleischacker, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, 273–81; and Gordon Brown, remarks delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 25 April 2002, with video available at; and also Brown’s preface to McLean’s book (viii–ix).
  17. Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 11–12, 72–3.
  18. Stewart Justman, The Autonomous Male of Adam Smith (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 97; Robert Heilbroner, “The Socialization of the Individual in Adam Smith,” History of Political Economy 14 (1982): 427–39, as reprinted in J. C. Wood, ed., Adam Smith: Critical Assessments (New York: Routledge, 1994), vol. 5,p.132; Griswold, Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, 16
  19. This view received its clearest expression a half-century ago in Cropsey’s study, which concludes that it is “not to be questioned” that Smith “advocated commercialism and did so seriously.” That he did so in spite of his explicit recognition of its “gross moral shortcomings” is in fact “of the essence of his teaching,” for commercial society “is vindicated by some end which it is meant to procure to mankind.” Cropsey identifies this end clearly: “commerce generates freedom and civilization” by overcoming barbarism and premodern authoritarianism, as argued at WN III.iv.4; in this light, Smith’s “reprobation of the moral and intellectual defects of commercial society” are only “the tokens of his regret over the price that must be paid for humane, civilized life as he understood it” (Cropsey, Polity and Economy, 108–12). A similar view has now been well developed by Rasmussen. His focus is commercial society’s moral ills, and, like Cropsey, he identifies as the “central puzzle” of Smith’s thought the question of “why he advocates commercial society despite these problems” (Rasmussen, Problems and Promise, 7;c.11–12, 89–90, 158–59). Rasmussen answers that commercial society has “positive political effects” (136), and “the most important benefit” is that “it helps provide people with a greater degree of liberty and security” as compared to previous social orders (13;cf.9, 91–92, 101, 131–2, 140, 145, 153, 157, 159, 165). Smith’s defense of commercial society is thus presented as justified on “overall economic and moral balance sheets” or “a kind of cost-benefit analysis” (13;cf.91, 114, 123–24, 162, 164); Smith “acknowledges” and “accepts” that commercial society has an inherent “moral shortcoming,” yet “its advantages ultimately far outweigh its disadvantages” (113–14, 128–29). But the cost on other side of the ledger is equally clear: namely the impossibility of “complete” or “unalloyed happiness” in commercial society (13, 89, 131, 138–39, 158). Rasmussen does an excellent job of reviewing Smith’s arguments for commercial society as well as Smith’s orientation toward Rousseau; my agreement with his thorough expositions on each front will be evident in my notes that follow. But this larger argument fails on two fronts. First, it fails to capture Smith’s commitment to ameliorating these ills through practical normative intervention; the balance sheet image suggests a level of complacency belied by Smith’s engagement with these issues from his first publication to his last. Thus while Rasmussen rightly claims that we need to “ameliorate the problems of commercial society” (175;cf.109, 173) and that “counterarguments and countermeasures” are needed (9, 71, 90–91, 159), beyond calling attention to Smith’s well-known educational proposals, he gives little indication how this might be done or how Smith might serve as a guide for such. Among my principal aims is to remedy this omission. Second, Rasmussen minimizes Smith’s commitment to happiness understood as human flourishing. He seeks to go beyond Cropsey in explicating the relationship of liberty and security to happiness (137). But ultimately he claims merely that Smith sought to overcome unhappiness by overcoming the “obstacles” of “dependence and insecurity” (13;c.131, 139, 144, 150, 169–70). He concedes that the alleviation of misery “might not seem to be a terribly lofty goal” (141). More importantly, his conception of Smith’s defense is predicated on a shift from achieving happiness to avoiding misery – from achieving a summum bonum to avoiding a summum malum, to use Shklar’s familiar Hobbesian distinction. But this, I think, fails to capture the whole of Smith’s concerns – concerns which prompted from him a rather different sort of inquiry in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and especially its sixth edition, than mere balance sheet tallying. As described by another subtle philosopher: “Material comforts are all very well, but, if the summum bonum is to be achieved, the Soul also demands a look in” (P.G. Wodehouse, The Clicking of Cuthbert (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2002, 1922), 3).