The Melancholy Realism of the Hard-Nosed Pessimist – Catherine Labio

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

Cross-disciplinary interest in the works of Adam Smith has spiked in the past thirty years.  A “new Adam Smith” has emerged as a result: a philosopher acutely aware of the ills associated with modern economies and as concerned with sympathy and sentiment as with the division of labor.  If the picture is more complex than ever before, a fundamental question remains unanswered: Does Smith succeed in reconciling economics with morality?

In his excellent and innovative Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Ryan Hanley offers the richest answer to date.  He goes beyond the dichotomous view of Smith as either the eulogist of economic self-interest or the philosopher of disinterested morality and argues that Smith did not merely diagnose the ills of modern societies, but offered a remedy.  For Hanley, “the value of [Smith’s] approach lies in his demonstration of the possibility—and even the necessity—of synthesizing virtue ethics and liberal individualism” (56).

Though Hanley builds on the latest spate of inquiries into the Theory of Moral Sentiments, his book represents a remarkable departure from the recent emphasis on the role of sympathy in the formation of the moral subject.  In an original and persuasive move, Hanley argues that Smith also underscored the limits of sympathy (which does not hold, for instance, before poverty) and gave equal if not greater weight to the competing values of excellence, greatness, nobility, and beauty.  Hanley argues further that embracing these values allowed Smith to offer practical remedies to the  ills he had diagnosed.

Hanley offers a compelling reading of Smith’s diagnosis of the moral problems confronting commercial societies. He also contends, quite convincingly, that “Smith took it upon himself to chart a moderate and middle path, one that might ameliorate the most destructive features of commercial corruption and preserve the maximal gains of markets” (52).  He also gives a rich and persuasive account of the virtues upon which Smith’s moral philosophy rests.

Nonetheless, I fear I share “the melancholy realism of the hard-nosed pessimist” (14) rather than Hanley’s generous assessment of the normative dimensions of Smith’s moral philosophy. I am, as a matter of principle, loath to embrace an ethical system that is only applicable to commercial societies and thus makes it difficult to distinguish morality from expediency.  More practically, I am not convinced that the turn to the commercial, Classical, and Christian virtues of prudence, magnanimity and benevolence—rightly identified by Hanley as essential to understanding Smith’s ethics—yields the synthesis of ethics and liberalism Hanley singles out  as one of Smith’s primary goals.

First, is prudence a commercial virtue?   I would argue that it is of greater consequence to agricultural or pre-commercial societies.  Smith’s advice, in the Wealth of Nations, that a young man with two or three thousand pounds  use that capital to buy and cultivate a plot of land in order to be able to live independently, is quite telling in this respect.1 It suggests that prudence is a virtue only people who need not participate in commercial activity can afford.

Second, it is not at all clear that the Classical virtue of magnanimity, exemplified by the indifference to torture, is particularly beneficial in commercial societies.  Third, the usefulness of the Christian virtue of  beneficence is also questionable.  Smith gives little empirical evidence of the role played by beneficence in a commercial society, appealing instead to arguments from authority regarding human nature.  Nor does he explain why and how the transcendence of self-preference might occur.

Hanley’s book is divided almost equally between an analysis of Smith’s diagnosis of the moral challenges presented by life in commercial societies and an inquiry into the course Smith charted in his attempt to make morality and commercialism compatible.  Unlike Hanley, I am not convinced that Smith succeeded in meeting the challenges he had identified. In many ways, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s far more pessimistic prognosis, which derives from an assessment of modernity similar to Smith’s, is more coherent.  In the end, however, what matters here is that Hanley’s Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue gives the reader a new and immensely valuable blueprint of Smith’s moral philosophy that will be of interest to Smith scholars and to anyone interested in the ways in which ethics and economics intersect.  Or not.

Catherine Labio is Associate Professor of English in the Department of English at University of Colorado-Boulder. She is the author of Origins And The Enlightenment: Aesthetic Epistemology From Descartes To Kant (Cornell, 2004)

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  1. WN III.iv.19, qtd. on p. 115.