Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment

Adam Smith (1723—1790) is best remembered today as the celebrated author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), who defined the workings of market economies and defended principles of liberty. To his contemporaries, particularly his fellow thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith was recognized first for his profoundly original contributions to moral philosophy and natural jurisprudence.

In an important new book, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, Charles Griswold, professor of philosophy at Boston University, challenges readers to look again at Smith’s work in its entirety. He argues that the enthusiasm with which Smith has been adopted as a pioneering economist has not been balanced by careful study of Smith’s full teachings. Griswold seeks to redress this imbalance by providing a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of Smith’s moral and political philosophy as it appeared in Smith’s first published work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

Until recently, The Theory of Moral Sentiments has been overshadowed by The Wealth of Nations. Yet, in terms of Smith’s overriding wish to articulate a theory of society that described the ethos of the commercial culture that evolved in eighteenth-century Britain, The Theory of Moral Sentiments is in an important sense Smith’s integral text. In its pages, Smith describes a moral vision that serves as the best guarantor of civility in commercial society. This vision is based on the cultivation of virtue, the “bettering of our condition,” and permits individuals to overcome selfish impulses that many believe permeate commercial culture. The necessary tools for the cultivation of virtue include impartiality, sympathy, and reason.

Smith was well-aware of the potential risks involved in advocating commercial activity, should motivations for it be reduced to avarice or love of luxury. By developing what Griswold calls “an achievable notion of virtue” available to nearly all responsible individuals, Smith provides an innovative means for overcoming vulnerabilities in human nature that often lead to corruption and social disorder. Smith’s arguments in favor of the possibility of widespread moral and social improvement include the pursuit of such “fundamental goods” as reputation, health, and property. Furthermore, his moral vision extends ideas of aristocratic excellence to members of the merchant and trading classes of society.

Griswold’s analysis of Smith’s thought occurs on a number of levels. Griswold places his book in the context of a continuing historical and philosophical discussion about the nature of the Enlightenment and modernity. He focuses readers’ attention on Smith’s defense of liberal moral and political views, with special reference to Smith’s treatment of ancient philosophers, particularly Plato, Epictetus, and the later Roman Stoics. Griswold examines Smith’s use of rhetoric and method with a view to illustrating how Smith formulated his arguments in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Readers are then prepared to move on to a discussion of the mechanisms through which virtue is cultivated: sympathy, selfishness, imagination, and passion–all of which Smith deemed central to human life.

It is one of the strengths of Griswold’s work that he confronts the complexity of Smith’s thought directly, particulary concerning these very mechanisms, for none of them are completely reliable guides in and of themselves. For example, as Griswold points out, sympathy permits an individual to reflect upon the consequences of a given action based upon the amount of pleasure or pain it may cause another. The virtuous person avoids taking action that will result in negative consequences, for he does not wish to be seen as selfish or unruly. In this instance, feelings of sympathy restrain self-interest. In other circumstances, however, feelings of sympathy may actually be motivated by self-love or vanity, in which case, sympathy does not contribute to virtue. Smith believed human beings are naturally inclined to view themselves as others see them. The manner in which we behave is directly related to how our actions will be perceived by others.

This “spectatorial vision” was one of the unique facets of Smith’s moral system. From it, Smith developed his notion of the Impartial Spectator, the ultimate arbiter of conduct that rivals the Invisible Hand as one of Smith’s most original creations. The Impartial Spectator could not be swayed by emotional impulses on moral questions. Griswold explains that Smith relied on the combination of the following facts to define the Impartial Spectator: “We view ourselves through the eyes of others; we learn to distinguish between praise and blame actually given and that which ought to be given; we praise and blame others, and thus, ourselves, with qualities we take to be praise- or blame-worthy; we thus become capable of viewing ourselves through the eyes of an ‘ideal’ other (an impartial spectator).” Conscience, in turn, is the “internalized impartial spectator.”

Conscience could be a useful and necessary tool in human life, Smith acknowledged, but is susceptible to confusion, for it comes from “mortal extraction.” Griswold notes that Smith’s understanding of conscience highlights his “acute sense of the dangers of corruption inherent in the interplay among social morality, conscience, rules, and religion.” Smith recognized that social institutions, including religious ones, could contribute to “the evolution of conscience,” but that such encouragement could also lead to religious fanaticism.

As Griswold expands his discussion of the application of Smith’s moral thought to practical life, readers are guided through Smith’s treatment of justice, commerce, and religion. Smith ordered the destruction of his lecture notes and unfinished manuscripts upon his death; therefore, his lectures on religion are lost. Griswold adds to current discussion about Smith on religion in terms that take readers beyond the traditional identification of Smith as a deist. This is particularly helpful to those interested in how matters of faith, liberty, and conduct intermingle.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments went through six editions in Smith’s lifetime, and this eminent thinker spent his last years refining the final version of the book. There is a certain poignancy to the fact that Smith concluded his life’s work where it began–with the study of human morality.