12 January 2010

Smith's TMS and WN

GMU economist Pete Boettke asked recently, "What reasons would you postulate as to why [Adam Smith's] The Theory of Moral Sentiments came to be under-appreciated in ethics and philosophy, and the interpretation of The Wealth of Nations came to be constrained and distorted in economics and political economy?"

This is an interesting question to raise. I responded to his question on his blog, but I thought I would re-post my thoughts here as well. Here is what I wrote:


You're asking a few different questions, Pete. One is why TMS's influence faded and was eclipsed by WN. Another is what the connection between the two books is. A third is why people thought--and some still think--that there is a tension between the books.

Several things combined to explain the phenomenon addressed in the first question. I'll mention two: one philosophical, one psychological.

The philosophical explanation is that philosophers came to see TMS as lacking in a serious way, namely in providing a bona fide source of moral normativity. TMS looks for all the world like an empirical investigation into the mechanisms that give rise to moral judgments and into the factors that account for three phenomena: (1) the fact that all (or almost all) human beings transition during their lives from amoral infants to highly moralized adults; (2) the fact that all (or almost all) human societies generate a rough consensus about wherein morality consists; and (3) there is a significant overlap among the respective moral consensuses various human societies adopt.

The problem is that, irrespective of whether Smith's proposed explanations of these phenomena are correct, it's not clear that Smith provides any way for people to critize moral orders. If our moral judgments arise the way Smith describes, as the unintentional results of people attempting to serve their ends in the company of others, then that seems to reduce moral judgments to the status of mere strategems. It makes them hypothetical, rather than categorical, imperatives. And moral philosophers like their categorical imperatives. (Remember, too, that Kant was about to come onto the scene, and his attempt to ground categorical moral imperatives--partly in response to Smith's (and Hume's) challenges--came to dominate moral thought. Smith's program is very different from Kant's in its aims and methods, and thus Smith's program came to be seen as alien, not really moral philosophy at all. It was thus relegated to other disciplines like psychology or anthropology, or to the dustbin of history.)

The psychological reason, at least for the latter half of the 20th century in the British and American world, is that Smith is associated with a political and economic order that the vast majority of academics find distasteful, even morally repellant. It is psychologically very hard to separate the two. It's like asking people to consider whether Mein Kampf has any redeeming literary virtues. As a result, most people will not even read, let alone seriously consider, anything Smith wrote. Moral philosophers who are interested in the "Smithian" program would rather read Hume than Smith, since Hume is not associated with capitalism. (Humanities scholars who work on Smith must constantly combat the initial "why on earth would you work on HIM?" question, before getting people even to consider any substantive issues.)

A quick thought on why people might think there is a tension between TMS and WN. WN does not mention TMS; it does not discuss the "desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments" or the "impartial spectator"; it does not mention any of the cardinal virtues TMS described; and in the Index Smith prepared for WN, it identifies "self-love" as "the governing principle in the intercourse of human society." Moreover, there is none of the theological language in WN that was present in TMS. It's almost as if two different people wrote the books--a curious fact since Smith was revising them side by side throughout most of his adult life.

In a book of over 1000 pages, one would think there might be some discussion of the connection between Smith's only two books. Indeed, one might expect that there would be a deep and extended "conversation" between the two books. Alas, there is none of that.

That doesn't mean the two books don't go together or can't be reconciled. But it does mean, I think, that it's not simply foolish (as some claim) to suggest there might be an interesting tension here.

--Jim Otteson


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