Smith: Perfectionist or Practical Moralist? – Fonna Forman-Barzilai

This comment is from a roundtable on Ryan Patrick Hanley’s Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue.

Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue is a gem – original and timely, meticulously researched and documented, richly attuned to the subtlety of Smith’s thought and beautifully written. The book presents a serious and challenging intervention in Smith scholarship, by directing our attention to Smith’s thoughts about the virtuous character, and the way this formulation navigates various tensions in Smith’s often conflicted views of modern commercial life.

Rigorously engaged in scholarly debates, the book is nevertheless admirably accessible to non-specialists interested more generally in the morals of modernity. It opens with lively prose on the contradictions – the “hopes and despairs”, the “benefits and challenges” — of capitalism and throughout confines its masterful and astonishingly complete and useful research apparatus to footnotes.

Hanley has offered perhaps the richest account to date of Smith’s views on the corruptions of commercial society, contributing to the wave of revisionist scholarship on Smith in recent decades that has sought to rehabilitate Smith as a moral philosopher worthy of serious consideration by those interested in more than small states and the limitless pursuit of wealth.

Drawing explicitly on Smith’s affinities with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (an underappreciated subject on which Hanley has already written much), he is especially illuminating on Smith’s response to the psychological ills of commercial life — such as “restlessness, anxiety, inauthenticity, duplicity, mediocrity, alienation, and indifference to others” — and the various “solutions” he posited to “ameliorate” these ills. It is this normative project of “amelioration” or “palliation” that Hanley characterizes as a three-stage “virtue ethics” – comprised, we are told, of an amalgam of virtues that draw on ancient, Christian and commercial sources — an agenda that Smith pursued most fully and vigorously at the end of his life, in Part VI of the final, sixth edition of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1790.

The three stages of Smith’s virtue ethics provide the architecture of Hanley’s presentation. Chapter four explores the first stage, the well-established place of commercial prudence in Smith’s thought, as a method for ameliorating modern restlessness, anxiety and deceit. The second stage, in chapter five, is the classical virtue of magnanimity, which helps to mitigate the effects of mediocrity and individualism endemic to commercial pursuit. The capstone for Hanley is the third virtue in chapter six — Christian beneficence — which serves to tamp down the self-preference and indifference of modern commercial people. The reason I call Christian virtue a capstone for Hanley is not only because it concludes his presentation of the virtues, but because it culminates in discussion of Smith’s “wise and virtuous man,” who for Hanley serves as the very embodiment of the perfection of these virtues.

For an account of Smith’s ambivalence about commercial life, and his attempts to render the benefits of commerce (“maximizing opulence and freedom”) safe for human flourishing (“nobility and greatness”), one can do no better than Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. In my comments here, I’d like to address Hanley’s focus on Smith’s perfectionism, which I believe is closely related to his very deliberate choice not to engage Smith’s central account of sympathy and the impartial spectator in the Moral Sentiments.

I appreciate his eagerness to explore the understudied place of virtue in Smith’s thought, and to avoid unnecessary redundancy “in light of the excellent treatments these concepts have already received in studies by others,” but I suspect that an emphasis on the undeniable place of virtue in Smith’s thought, without the context of his more central pursuits in moral philosophy, may lead to a distorted view of Smith’s overall project, and what I will characterize here as his overarching commitment to cultivating a modern, practical morality, released from any sort of perfectionist expectation, classical or Christian, that ordinary people should pursue nobility and greatness.

A foundational assumption in my own interpretation of Smith is that he was a quintessentially modern thinker, primarily preoccupied with social order, with identifying the cement, the foundation, of modern society in the wake of declining forms of authority that had situated lives in times long past.1 The Theory of Moral Sentiments presented a lighter, freer, self-regulating description of social coordination perfectly suited to modern commercial people. Sympathy was a social practice for Smith, through which people who share physical space participate together in exchanges of approbation and shame, and through infinite repetitions over time learn to become social, learn to adjust their passions to a pitch commensurate with living in a society with others, without ideological or religious foundations, and without being coerced. A post-metaphysical foundation you might say.

Hanley takes Smith’s perfectionist turn and his talk about God far more seriously than I think a faithful, historical interpretation of Smith should. Scottish practical moralism sustained a preoccupation with the tolerable decency of the many, the middle-class, and not the aspirations of the few. Smith comes down rather decisively against the Christian ascetic and the Stoic sage as models for modern moral conduct.2 I believe Smith focused primarily on ordinary morality, and articulated a modern theory that insisted on taking men as they are, resisting moral rigorism in any form, be it Christian or Stoic.

Smith was concerned primarily with describing the origins of what Deirdre McCloskey has called “the bourgeois virtues”. In an astonishingly parochial tone, Smith directed our energies to local cares and pursuits, which are a more efficient use of our limited love, knowledge and capacity. In the final sixth editions of the Moral Sentiments he did offer up a robust portrait of the wise and virtuous man, as a sort of model or ideal type, and he undoubtably described conscience as a “vicegerent” in the soul guiding our actions as if we are participating in God’s plan, and so forth – and this is all a beautiful and compelling portrait from the perspective of the ancient virtues than animate Ryan’s interpretation. But my real point -– and this really is the main point — Smith never expected the mass of mankind to become wise and virtuous. And I don’t simply mean achieving the end of wisdom and virtue, for only the very few ever do that. He never even expected them to begin the process of attuning themselves to higher models, to feel compelled to perfect themselves. But the point is: that is ok! The point for Smith was that moderns could get on reasonably well without contentious abstractions about what’s right and good and true.

This is where my own recent book, and Ryan Hanley’s book, most dramatically depart. It’s ultimately a matter of emphasis. I don’t deny the perfectionist language is there – my own book contains an entire chapter on Smith’s perfectionism and why I believe he articulated it in a treatise devoted primarily to an empirical description of the moral sentiments that arise among ordinary people through their worldly interactions. But Hanley focuses on the wise and virtuous man standing somehow outside and above the tangle of the human drama, and insists that Smith was primarily concerned with the cultivation of virtue – not moral sentiment or even propriety, mind you, but virtue of the Aristotelian and Thomist perfectionist variants.

I on the other hand emphasize that Smith was always looking at the world, describing actual human behavior in rich and vibrant vignettes that so captivated his eighteenth-century readers. Smith was a Scottish practical moralist concerned, as his Scottish Enlightenment contemporaries were, with the tendencies and capacities of ordinary people, the “coarse clay of mankind” as he often called them. He never expected more than that of which he believed they were capable – which for Smith, was efficient local action, driven by affective connections with specific others – self, family, friends, neighbors, and more weakly communities and nations – everything “which Nature has prescribed to us as the proper business and occupation of our lives.”

And yet, despite my worries about an interpretation that emphasizes perfectionist virtue in Smith’s thought at the expense of practical morality, about an interpretation that focuses on philosophical abstractions rather than what I would characterize as Smith’s greatest contribution to the history of moral philosophy: the very earthy dynamics of sympathy and the impartial spectator – despite all this, I find myself returning to the book again and again, for its subtle interpretation of text, for its biting critique of the effects of commercial culture; and for its rigorous engagement with Smith scholarship (Hanley’s footnotes are, hands down, the best survey available on contemporary debates in Smith studies – unobtrusive to general readers who won’t care, but an irresistible beckon to those who do).

Hanley’s talents as an historian of political philosophy, and as a political theorist, shine in this fine interpretation that is sure to inspire students of Smith’s thought for years to come. It seems fitting to conclude by thanking Ryan for so many years of friendship and collegial dialogue on Smith since our days together in graduate school at the University of Chicago. It is a great joy to continue learning from him, and evolving as a scholar in dialogue with him.

Fonna Forman-Barzilai is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. She is author of Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy: Cosmopolitanism and Moral Theory (Cambridge 2010)

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  1. See Fonna Forman-Barzilai, Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy: Cosmopolitanism and Moral Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  2. For an alternative account of Smith’s perfectionism, see Forman-Barzilai, Circles of Sympathy, ch. 4)