Adam Smith 1759 Table of Contents



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The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith

1759


Table of Contents:

Introduction



  1. Formation of the Theory of Moral Sentiments

  2. Evolution

  3. Reception

  4. The Text

Editorial Policy

Part I: Of the Propriety of Action Consisting of Three Sections

Section I: Of the Sense of Propriety

Chap. I: Of Sympathy

Chap. II: Of the Pleasure of Mutual Sympathy

Chap. III: Of the Manner In Which We Judge of the Propriety Or Impropriety of the Affections of Other Men, By Their Concord Or Dissonance With Our Own

Chap. IV: The Same Subject Continued

Chap. V: Of the Amiable and Respectable Virtues

Section II: Of the Degrees of the Different Passions Which Are Consistent With Propriety

Introduction

Chap. I: Of the Passions Which Take Their Origin From the Body

Chap. II: Of Those Passions Which Take Their Origin From a Particular Turn Or Habit of the Imagination

Chap. III: Of the Unsocial Passions

Chap. IV.: Of the Social Passions

Chap. V: Of the Selfish Passions

Section III: Of the Effects of Prosperity and Adversity Upon the Judgment of Mankind With Regard to the Propriety of Action; and Why It Is More Easy to Obtain Their Approbation In the One State Than In the Other

Chap. I: That Though Our Sympathy With Sorrow Is Generally a More Lively Sensation Than Our Sympathy With Joy, It Commonly Falls Much More Short of the Violence of What Is a Naturally a Felt By the Person Principally Concerned

Chap. II: Of the Origin of Ambition, and of the Distinction of Ranks

A Chap. III: Of the Corruption of Our Moral Sentiments, Which Is Occasioned By This Disposition to Admire the Rich and the Great, and to Despise Or Neglect Persons of Poor and Mean Condition

Part II: Of Merit and Demerit; Or, of the Objects of Reward and Punishment Consisting of Three Sections

Section I: Of the Sense of Merit and Demerit

Introduction

Chap. I 1: That Whatever Appears to Be the Proper Object of Gratitude, Appears to Deserve Reward; and That, In the Same Manner, Whatever Appears to Be the Proper Object of Resentment, Appears to Deserve Punishment

Chap. II: Of the Proper Objects of Gratitude and Resentment

Chap. III: That Where There Is No Approbation of the Conduct of the Person Who Confers the Benefit, There Is Little Sympathy With the Gratitude of Him Who Receives It: and That, On the Contrary, Where There Is No Disapprobation of the Motives of the Person

Chap. IV: Recapitulation of the Foregoing Chapters

Chap. V: The Analysis of the Sense of Merit and Demerit

Section II: Of Justice and Beneficence

Chap. I: Comparison of Those Two Virtues

Chap. II: Of the Sense of Justice, of Remorse, and of the Consciousness of Merit

Chap. III: Of the Utility of This Constitution of Nature

Section III: Of the Influence of Fortune Upon the Sentiments of Mankind, With Regard to the Merit Or Demerit of Actions

Introduction

Chap. I: Of the Causes of This Influence of Fortune

Chap. II: Of the Extent of This Influence of Fortune

Chap. III: Of the Final Cause of This Irregularity of Sentiments

Part III: Of the Foundation of Our Judgments Concerning Our Own Sentiments and Conduct, and of the Sense of Duty a Consisting of One Section a

B Chap. I B: C of the Principle of Self–approbation and of Self–disapprobation C

A Chap II: Of the Love of Praise, and of That of Praise–worthiness; and of the Dread of Blame, and of That of Blame–worthiness

A Chap. III: Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience

A Chap. IV: Of the Nature of Self–deceit, and of the Origin and Use of General Rules

A Chap. V A: of the Influence and Authority of the General Rules of Morality, and That They Are Justly Regarded As the Laws of the Deity

A Chap. Vi A: In What Cases the Sense of Duty Ought to Be the Sole Principle of Our Conduct; and In What Cases It Ought to Concur With Other Motives

Part IV: Of the Effect of Utility Upon the Sentiment of Approbation a Consisting of One Section a

B Chap. I B: of the Beauty Which the Appearance of Utility Bestows Upon All the Productions of Art, and of the Extensive Influence of This Species of Beauty

A Chap. Ii A: of the Beauty Which the Appearance of Utility Bestows Upon the Characters and Actions of Men; and How Far the Perception of This Beauty May Be Regarded As One of the Original Principles of Approbation

Part V: Of the Influence of Custom and Fashion Upon the Sentiments of Moral Approbation and Disapprobation a Consisting of One Section a

B Chap. 1 B: of the Influence of Custom and Fashion Upon Our Notions of Beauty and Deformity

A Chap. Ii A: of the Influence of Custom and Fashion Upon Moral Sentiments

A Part VI: Of the Character of Virtue Consisting of Three Sections

Introduction

A a Section I: Of the Character of the Individual, So Far As It Affects His Own Happiness; Or of Prudence a

Section II: Of the Character of the Individual, So Far As It Can Affect the Happiness of Other People

Introduction

Chap. I.: Of the Order In Which Individuals Are Recommended By Nature to Our Care and Attention

Chap. II: Of the Order In Which Societies Are By Nature Recommended to Our Beneficence

Chap. III: Of Universal Benevolence

Section III: Of Self–command

Conclusion of the Sixth Part

Part VII: Of Systems of Moral Philosophy Consisting of Four Sections

Section I: A of the Questions Which Ought to Be Examined In a Theory of Moral Sentiments a

Section II: A of the Different Accounts Which Have Been Given of the Nature of Virtue a

Introduction

Chap. I: Of Those Systems Which Make Virtue Consist In Propriety

Chap. II: Of Those Systems Which Make Virtue Consist In Prudence

Chap. III: Of Those Systems Which Make Virtue Consist In Benevolence

Chap. IV: Of Licentious Systems

Section III: Of the Different Systems Which Have Been Formed Concerning the Principle of Approbation

Introduction

Chap. I: Of Those Systems Which Deduce the Principle of Approbation From Self–love

Chap. II: Of Those Systems Which Make Reason the Principle of Approbation

Chap. III: Of Those Systems Which Make Sentiment the Principle of Approbation

Section IV: Of the Manner In Which Different Authors Have Treated of the Practical Rules of Morality

Appendix I: Minor Variants

Appendix II: The Passage On Atonement, and a Manuscript Fragment On Justice

Addendum to Introduction, Pp. 32–3



Introduction

1.

Formation of The Theory of Moral Sentiments

(a)

Adam Smith’s lectures on ethics

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith’s first book, was published in 1759 during his tenure of the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. A second, revised edition appeared in 1761. Smith left Glasgow at the beginning of 1764. Editions 3 (1767), 4 (1774), and 5 (1781) of TMS differ little from edition 2. Edition 6, however, published shortly before Smith’s death in 1790, contains very extensive additions and other significant changes. The original work arose from Smith’s lectures to students. The revisions in edition 2 were largely the result of criticism from philosophically minded friends. The new material in edition 6 was the fruit of long reflection by Smith on his wide knowledge of public affairs and his equally wide reading of history.

Adam Smith was appointed to the Chair of Logic at Glasgow in 1751 and moved to the Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1752. His predecessor as Professor of Moral Philosophy, Thomas Craigie, was already ill in 1751, and Smith was asked to substitute for him with lectures on natural jurisprudence and politics1 in addition to taking the Logic class. Thereafter Smith gave the whole of the Moral Philosophy course, in which he was expected to deal with natural theology and ethics before proceeding to law and government. In view of the speed with which Smith had to prepare his extensive range of teaching at Glasgow, it was inevitable that he should make use of material already available from a series of public lectures which he had delivered in Edinburgh during the years 1748–50. These lectures were sponsored especially by Lord Kames. Both Dugald Stewart in a biography of Smith and A. F. Tytler in one of Kames describe the subject–matter of the Edinburgh lectures simply as rhetoric and belles lettres,2 but it seems that by 1750 Smith also included political and economic theory, presumably under the title of jurisprudence or civil law.3 In a later part of his biography (IV.25), Dugald Stewart refers to a short manuscript written by Adam Smith in 1755, listing ‘certain leading principles, both political and literary, to which he was anxious to establish his exclusive right’. Stewart says that they included ‘many of the most important opinions in The Wealth of Nations’, and then quotes a few sentences from the manuscript itself. These end with a statement from Smith that ‘a great part of the opinions enumerated in this paper’ had formed ‘the constant subjects of my lectures since I first taught Mr. Craigie’s class, the first winter I spent in Glasgow, down to this day, without any considerable variation’ and that they had also ‘been the subjects of lectures which I read at Edinburgh the winter before I left it’.

A report of the content and character of the early Glasgow lectures, both in the Logic and in the Moral Philosophy class, was given to Stewart by John Millar, Professor of Law at Glasgow, originally a pupil and afterwards a close friend of Smith. In his Logic course Smith dispatched the traditional logic rather briskly and then ‘dedicated all the rest of his time to the delivery of a system of rhetoric and belles lettres’.4 His Moral Philosophy course could not rely so heavily on the Edinburgh lectures but it will certainly have drawn on them in its latter sections. Millar’s report to Dugald Stewart gives a detailed description of it.

His course of lectures on this subject [Moral Philosophy] was divided into four parts. The first contained Natural Theology. . . . The second comprehended Ethics strictly so called, and consisted chiefly of the doctrines which he afterwards published in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. In the third part, he treated at more length of that branch of morality which relates to justice, . . .

Upon this subject he followed the plan that seems to be suggested by Montesquieu; endeavoring to trace the gradual progress of jurisprudence, both public and private, from the rudest to the most refined ages, . . . This important branch of his labors he also intended to give to the public; but this intention, which is mentioned in the conclusion of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he did not live to fulfill.

In the last part of his lectures, he examined those political regulations which are founded, not upon the principle of justice, but that of expediency, and which are calculated to increase the riches, the power, and the prosperity of a State. . . . What he delivered on these subjects contained the substance of the work he afterwards published under the title of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.5

There is no evidence to suggest that the Edinburgh lectures included ethical theory proper, and we must therefore presume that Smith’s composition of the subject–matter of TMS began in 1752 at Glasgow.

Millar’s statement that both of Smith’s books arose from his lectures on Moral Philosophy is confirmed by the evidence of James Wodrow, writing (probably in 1808) to the eleventh Earl of Buchan.

Adam Smith, whose lectures I had the benefit of hearing for a year or two . . . made a laudable attempt at first to follow Hut[cheso]ns animated manner, lecturing on Ethics without papers, walking up and down his class rooms but not having the same facility in this that Hutn. had, . . . Dr. Smith soon relinquished the attempt, and read with propriety, all the rest of his valuable lectures from the desk. His Theory of Moral Sentiment founded on sympathy, a very ingenious attempt to account for the principal phenomena in the moral world from this one general principle, like that of gravity in the natural world, did not please Hutcheson’s scholars so well as that to which they had been accustomed. The rest of his lectures were admired by them and by all especially those on Money and Commerce, which contained the substance of his book on the Wealth of Nations. . . .6

Francis Hutcheson was Professor of Moral Philosophy from 1730 to 1746. Smith was his pupil in the late 1730s, Wodrow in the 1740s. Wodrow remained at the University as Keeper of the Library from 1750 to 1755.

It seems, then, that the first published version of TMS was prepared or worked up from the final form of the second part of Smith’s lectures on Moral Philosophy. No doubt there was steady development between 1752 and 1758. Although no copy of a student’s notes of Smith’s lectures on ethics has as yet appeared, there is some evidence from which we can reconstruct his method of improving what he had written. In Appendix II we give reasons for thinking that a fragmentary manuscript of philosophical considerations on justice is a part of Smith’s lectures on ethics. Revisions within the manuscript itself and detailed comparison with corresponding passages in TMS show that Smith tended to work over previous composition rather than write a new version. He made minor corrections both of style and of content, he inserted substantial additions, and (when it came to preparing a text for publication) he shuffled passages about like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Exactly the same methods of development can be seen in the changes that Smith made when revising the printed book for edition 2 and for edition 6. There is far more evidence for tracing the genesis of The Wealth of Nations; we have two Reports by students, apparently from successive sessions, of Smith’s lectures on jurisprudence, a fairly long manuscript that has been called ‘An early draft of part of The Wealth of Nations’, and two fragmentary manuscripts that come much nearer to the text of WN itself. From this material Professor Ronald L. Meek and Mr. Andrew S. Skinner have been able to give an extraordinarily precise account of the development of Smith’s thought on a central topic of his economic theory.7 The picture of Smith’s working methods that emerges from a comparison of these documents with one another and with WN is similar to that gathered from the more limited evidence for TMS.

The printed text at times betrays its origin in lectures. At several points Smith refers back to something he has said on a former ‘occasion’, whereas it would be more natural, in a book, to write of an earlier ‘place’. Then again, in the final paragraph of the work he promises to treat of the general theory of jurisprudence in another ‘discourse’.

One other piece of internal evidence seems to match part of the description of the original Glasgow lectures given to Dugald Stewart by Millar: ‘Each discourse consisted commonly of several distinct propositions, which he successively endeavored to prove and illustrate.’8 Much of Part II of TMS can be said to fit this account in a general way, but the first chapter, II.i.1, illustrates it quite strikingly and would seem, if unrelated to Millar’s account and the lecture form, a rather odd way of continuing from the more natural mode of discussion in Part I. If this chapter does indeed retain Smith’s original method of procedure in his lectures, it is almost unique in this respect and shows that Smith must have commonly recast the actual structure of his lectures for the book, even though he kept most of the words and phrases.

The printed text allows a further conjecture about the lectures. The last part of the book seems to originate from material that formed the first part of the lectures on ethics in their earliest version. Why otherwise should Smith set out here (VII.i.2) the two main problems of ethical theory, as if by way of introduction, when in fact most of his task is already done? It seems probable (and it would accord with his usual method of approaching a subject) that at first he entered upon ethics with a survey of its history in dealing with the two topics of moral motive and moral judgment. Having carried the history up to the thinkers of his own day, he will have reflected upon the differences between the two theories that impressed him most, those of his teacher Hutcheson and his friend Hume. Whether or not he already had definite views of his own on these matters in 1752, it is impossible to say; in any event his account of sympathy and its place in moral judgment will have developed as he gave more attention to the subject. Once it had developed it became the focus of Smith’s own distinctive theory of ethics, and at this stage (if our conjecture about the original form of the lectures is correct) Smith will have recast his thoughts, starting off with sympathy, building up his theory from that base, and making the historical survey a sort of appendix.

An examination of changes in style might perhaps give some guidance about alterations from the original lecture notes. There is a clear difference in style between much of what Smith wrote for edition 1 and the considerable additions, including the whole of Part VI, which he composed late in life for edition 6. The earlier matter tends to be rhetorical, in tune with the style accepted for lectures in the mid–eighteenth century, while the later writing is in the more urbane style of WN. Both WN and the additions to TMS were of course written with a direct view to publication. When one remembers the type of classes that Smith addressed as a Professor in Glasgow, the style of the original material can be better understood. Most of the students were of the age of secondary schoolboys today. The number attending the class of public lectures on Moral Philosophy in Smith’s time was probably about eighty, many of them being destined for the Church. To hold the attention of his class Smith used rhetorical language and made humorous references to manners of the day in a way likely to interest young people.

Of the lectures that Smith delivered in his last four years at Glasgow after the publication of TMS, Stewart (III.1) writes:

During that time, the plan of his lectures underwent a considerable change. His ethical doctrines, of which he had now published so valuable a part, occupied a smaller portion of the course than formerly: and accordingly, his attention was naturally directed to a more complete illustration of the principles of jurisprudence and of political economy.

The last statement appears to be borne out by the two surviving Reports of the lectures on jurisprudence as delivered in sessions 1762–3 and 1763–4. It would be wrong, however, to infer from Stewart’s account that Smith’s thought on ethics stood still at this time. There is substantial development of his theory in edition 2 of TMS, especially of his notion of the impartial spectator. He can also be seen to apply that concept in the lectures on jurisprudence, so that there is a continuity in his thinking, as indeed Smith himself makes plain at the end of TMS.



(b)

Influence of Stoic philosophy

Stoic philosophy is the primary influence on Smith’s ethical thought. It also fundamentally affects his economic theory. Like other scholars of his day Smith was well versed in ancient philosophy, and in TMS he often refers as a matter of course to Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero (the last sometimes, but not always, as a source of information about Stoicism). In his survey of the history of moral philosophy in Part VII, however, Stoicism is given far more space than any other ‘system’, ancient or modern, and is illustrated by lengthy passages from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. (The Discourses of Epictetus seem to have been chiefly responsible for Smith’s early fascination with Stoicism.) In editions 1–5 of TMS some of this material on the Stoics appears separately in Part I, but the separation does not produce a lesser impact on the reader; on the contrary, it shows up more clearly the pervasive character of Stoic influence. Even in edition 6 there remain in the earlier Parts of the book enough direct references to and quotations from Stoic doctrine to indicate this. Stoicism never lost its hold over Smith’s mind. When revising his book for edition 6 in his last years, he not only moved two of the earlier passages on ‘that famous sect’ (as he calls it in the Advertisement) to the historical survey in Part VII. He also added further reflections, especially on the Stoic view of suicide, stimulated no doubt by the posthumous publication of an essay by Hume arguing that suicide was sometimes admirable.

More important, however, is the influence of Stoic principles on Smith’s own views, again something that persisted to his latest writings. In the fresh material added to edition 6 of TMS, Smith’s elaboration of his account of Stoicism in Part VII is less significant than the clearly Stoic tone of much that he wrote for Part III on the sense of duty and for the new Part VI on the character of virtue. Part VI deals with the three virtues of prudence, beneficence, and self–command. The third of these, which also figures in the additions to Part III, is distinctively Stoic. The first, though common to many systems of ethics, is interpreted by Smith in a Stoic manner. He departs from Stoicism in his views on beneficence, but even there, when he comes to discuss universal benevolence in VI.ii.3, he introduces Stoic ideas and Stoic language to a remarkable degree.

Smith’s ethical doctrines are in fact a combination of Stoic and Christian virtues—or, in philosophical terms, a combination of Stoicism and Hutcheson. Hutcheson resolved all virtue into benevolence, a philosophical version of the Christian ethic of love. At an early stage in TMS, Adam Smith supplements this with Stoic self–command.

And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; . . . As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbor, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor is capable of loving us.

(I.i.5.5)

Smith emphasizes self–command again when supplementing for edition 6 his treatment of the sense of duty in Part III. He there repeats the dual character of his ideal. ‘The man of the most perfect virtue . . . is he who joins, to the most perfect command of his own original and selfish feelings, the most exquisite sensibility both to the original and sympathetic feelings of others’ (II.3.34). In Part VI Smith goes farther, making self–command a necessary condition for the exercise of other virtues. Great merit in the practice of any virtue presupposes that there has been temptation to the contrary and that the temptation has been overcome; that is to say, it presupposes self–command. ‘Self–command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre’ (VI.iii.11). For Adam Smith, self–command has come to permeate the whole of virtue, an indication of the way in which Stoicism permeated his reflection over the whole range of ethics and social science.

When Smith sets Stoic self–command beside Christian love in the first of the quotations given above, he calls it ‘the great precept of nature’. Life according to nature was the basic tenet of Stoic ethics, and a Stoic idea of nature and the natural forms a major part of the philosophical foundations of TMS and WN alike. The Stoic doctrine went along with a view of nature as a cosmic harmony. Phrases that occur in Smith’s account of this Stoic conception are echoed when he expresses his own opinions. The correspondence is most striking in the chapter on universal benevolence, where Marcus Aurelius is recalled by name as well as in phrase: ‘the great Conductor’ whose ‘benevolence and wisdom have . . . contrived and conducted the immense machine of the universe’ (in the new material of edition 6 at VI.ii.3.4–5) is a recollection of the ‘all–wise Architect and Conductor’ of ‘one immense and connected system’, ‘the whole machine of the world’, (quoted from Marcus Aurelius in VII.ii.1.37). Essentially similar turns of speech are to be found in a number of passages, both early and late, of TMS. Indeed, the frequency of such phrases leads one to think that commentators have laid too much stress on the ‘invisible hand’, which appears only once in each of Smith’s two books. On both occasions the context is the Stoic idea of harmonious system, seen in the working of society.

The Stoics themselves applied the notion to society no less than to the physical universe, and used the Greek word sympatheia (in the sense of organic connection) of both. This is not the sympathy that figures in Adam Smith’s ethics. Sympathy and the impartial spectator, as Smith interprets them, are the truly original features of his theory. Yet it is quite likely that in his own mind each of these two ideas was intimately related to the Stoic outlook. Like the Stoics he thought of the social bond in terms of ‘sympathy’, and he describes the Stoic view of world citizenship and self–command as if it implied the impartial spectator.

Man, according to the Stoics, ought to regard himself . . . as a citizen of the world, a member of the vast commonwealth of nature. . . . We should view ourselves . . . in the light in which any other citizen of the world would view us. What befalls ourselves we should regard as what befalls our neighbor, or, what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor regards what befalls us.

(III.3.11)

In WN the Stoic concept of natural harmony appears especially in ‘the obvious and simple system of natural liberty’ (IV.ix.51). We should remember that the three writers on whom Smith chiefly draws for Stoic doctrine—Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero—were all Roman, and that the practical bent of the Romans closely connected men’s moral duties with their legal obligations as citizens. The universalist ethic of Stoicism became enshrined in the ‘law’ of nature. This tradition Smith accepted, understandably in his setting. Ethics for him implied a ‘natural jurisprudence’, and his economic theories arose out of, indeed were originally part of, his lectures on jurisprudence.

The Stoic concept of social harmony, as Smith understood it, did not mean that everyone behaved virtuously. Stoic ethics said it was wrong to injure others for one’s own advantage, but Stoic metaphysics said that good could come out of evil.

The ancient stoics were of opinion, that as the world was governed by the all–ruling providence of a wise, powerful, and good God, every single event ought to be regarded, as making a necessary part of the plan of the universe, and as tending to promote the general order and happiness of the whole: that the vices and follies of mankind, therefore, made as necessary a part of this plan as their wisdom or their virtue; and by that eternal art which educes good from ill, were made to tend equally to the prosperity and perfection of the great system of nature.

(I.ii.3.4)

This doctrine anticipates the better–known statement of Smith’s own opinion that the selfish rich ‘are led by an invisible hand’ to help the poor and to serve the interest of society at large (IV.1.10). Smith has added the idea of a ‘deception’ by nature and the phrase ‘an invisible hand’. The famous phrase may have sprung from an uneasiness about the reconciliation of selfishness with the perfection of the system. In itself the idea of deception by an invisible hand is unconvincing. It gains its plausibility from the preceding account of aesthetic pleasure afforded by power and riches, a pleasure that is reinforced by the admiration of spectators. Smith himself clearly set most store by the psychological explanation. But the invisible hand, through its reappearance in WN, has captured the attention, especially of economists.

In the TMS passage Smith writes disparagingly of the ‘natural selfishness and rapacity’ of the rich, but this does not mean that he regards all self–interested action as bad in itself and redeemable only by the deception of nature. He does not even accept the view of Hutcheson that self–love is morally neutral. Smith follows the Stoics once again in holding that self–preservation is the first task committed to us by nature and that prudence is a virtue so long as it does not injure others. His explicit account of Stoicism in Part VII begins with the doctrine that ‘every animal was by nature recommended to its own care, and was endowed with the principle of self–love’, for the sake of preserving its existence and perfection (VII.ii.1.15). This is echoed by an expression of Smith’s own view in Part II, ‘Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care’ (II.ii.2.1), and then again in the new Part VI, where it is reaffirmed with acknowledgement, ‘Every man, as the Stoics used to say, is first and principally recommended to his own care’ (VI.ii.1.1).

Smith does appear to give rather more scope to prudence in the new Part VI than in the earlier material, no doubt reflecting a change of emphasis in the thought of the more mature man who had written WN. Essentially, however, TMS and WN are at one. For example, Smith writes in TMS of ‘that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition’ (I.iii.2.1). This reappears in WN in vivid form: ‘But the principle which prompts to save, is the desire of bettering our condition, a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave’ (II.iii.28).9 In WN this is of course worked out in its economic aspect, as the drive to employ one’s stock and industry to one’s best advantage. In TMS the desire to better our condition is related to class distinction and is attributed to ‘vanity’, the desire ‘to be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation’. There is a difference of tone, but both books treat the desire to better our condition as natural and proper.

The consistency and the Stoic character of Smith’s views of prudence may be brought out by comparing two passages, one written for edition 6, the other for edition 1. In VI.i.11 Smith says: ‘In the steadiness of his industry and frugality, in his steadily sacrificing the ease and enjoyment of the present moment for the probable expectation of the still greater ease and enjoyment of a more distant but more lasting period of time, the prudent man is always both supported and rewarded by the entire approbation of the impartial spectator. . . .’ The reference to industry and frugality immediately recalls WN. The other passage, in IV.2.8, written thirty years earlier, contains a similar reference when discussing self–command: from the spectator’s approval of self–command ‘arises that eminent esteem with which all men naturally regard a steady perseverance in the practice of frugality, industry, and application, though directed to no other purpose than the acquisition of fortune’. The passage in Part VI appears to take a more charitable view of prudence as such, but in fact there is no real change of doctrine, for in the Part VI passage Smith goes on to explain that the approval of the impartial spectator is really directed at ‘that proper exertion of self–command’ which enables the prudent man to attach almost as much importance to future enjoyment as to present. There is no reason to suppose that Smith departs in any way from this view when he gives similar praise to industry and frugality in WN. The moral quality of prudence depends on its association with the Stoic virtue of self–command.

Smith’s respect for Stoicism was not unqualified, and he ends his account of it, as of other ‘systems’, with some firm criticisms. Apart from the particular question of suicide, which he says is contrary to nature ‘in her sound and healthful state’, Smith finds fault with two features of the Stoic philosophy. First, he rejects the Stoic ‘paradoxes’ that all virtuous actions are equally good and all failings equally bad. Second, while accepting the idea of world citizenship, he rejects the Stoic view that this should obliterate stronger ties of feeling for smaller groups. On the contrary, Smith argues, it is nature that teaches us to put family, friends, and nation first, while also providing us with the judgments of the impartial spectator to check any excessive attachment. Despite the criticisms, however, it is not too much to say that Adam Smith’s ethics and natural theology are predominantly Stoic.




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