Adam Smith was a Scottish moral philosopher with noteworthy contributions to political economy relating to how individuals make the market economy and free trade. However, at the core of his thinking, he was driven by a moral conviction to find how to improve society in a just way.
He is considered the father of modern economics, but remember he was a Professor of Moral philosophy. His economics ideas and prescriptions had a moral philosophical basis.
Adam Smith was part of the Scottish enlightenment. The enlightenment was based on the idea that individual action with a high degree of political and social liberty creates a just society. People acting on their own enlightened self-interest bring society to an equilibrium level which social engineering or government action could never achieve, in fact, to try to do so would be counterproductive.
Adam Smith’s two works were: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).
There is a clear evolution of the philosophy of Adam smith from this early writing’s to his latter
In his Theory of Moral sentiments – human action is weighed heavily on the human emotion of sympathy, compassion, and empathy. Sin Qua non (Sympathy) – was the center of Smith’s initial moral thinking. It was a desire to see our feelings “echoed in other people” (Adam Smith). We do things in order to be liked.
We should strive to be loved and to be lovely – Smith TMS
We as social creatures want to follow a moral path so we as a species would continue and survive. Geneticists today, believe this altruism is programed into our DNA, so the human race can survive. Smith concluded though observation the same. This desire to be liked keeps us in check, and in one sense is our moral compass. We though self awareness check to see how we are in relation to others.
In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (I.i.1.1) Adam Smith writes:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it.
Wealth of Nations contrasts the above and see human motivation based on enlighten self interest. That is interest that is tempted by prudence or awareness of others in a sympathetic way. Smith believed that this principle comes from us from the wombs” ( Wealth of Nations II.iii28). It is innate. Therefore, you need to understand the philosophy of Adam Smith in the context of both his works or you will make inaccurate assumptions about this theory. It is not selfish greed, but an innate interest that drives us towards doing works unconsciously for the greater good under the veil of satiating our need for happiness and greater utility.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
Like Plato Smith tried to answer the question: “is there a true altruist”. I believe yes, (like Smith) because it is the way we act out our self-interest that determines who we are.
I believe Smith was driven by a true belief in the goodness of individuals coupled with an altruistic desire discover a way government and individuals could interact in a political and economic way that would be society as a whole to equilibrium that maximizes the happiness of the individual. Although the Theory of Moral Sentiments was his first book, he revised it later in his life. It was the book he started with and continued to come back to. He does say she should pursue wealth and fame, in fact, be believed these things would corrupt us. His two works see like a dichotomous paradox. However, they are not if you understand his philosophy as a whole.
An eccentric Professor of Moral Philosophy
Smith was thinking about the individual and their well being. As a professor and head of moral philosophy at University of Glasgow, there is no way Smith was anything but a conscious thinking, good human being. Russ Roberts calls him the Jane Austen of economics. His simple life, endearing eccentricities and all (talking to himself, his imaginary friends as well as his absentmindedness), was dedicated to thinking about how humans could maximize happiness and live and moral life.
Often people decree free markets and all they stand for as the root of all evil, with greed being basis. Similarly, on the other side, people use Adam Smith’s works as a Bible to take self-interest to a level that Smith would have opposed.
The middle ground is correct. Adam Smith was looking for a positive enlighten solution to help nations develop and lessen suffering among people. His philosophy was rigors and although lacking in certain aspects was essentially correct.
He develop Hume’s philosophy of utility and applied it to economics.
Adam Smith Religious views
Smith was raised as a moderate Christian and in the Church of Scotland. In his scholarly writing he made reference to Great Architect of the Universe. It is argued and I agree that his writings were to find the natural order and harmony of the Great Architect of the Universe in moral philosophy and political economy. His writings were an inherent theology.
Four academic understandings of Smith’s Wealth of Nations developing from Theory of Moral Sentiments
- The political approach – The key social virtue of justice was stressed with the government’s role limited to balance morals and economics in an optimal way for society. (J.W. Danford 1980, Knud Haakonssen 2006)
- The economic approach – Represents economic thinking and the issues with government intervention. Morals are not a central theme. (James E. Alvey 1998, WD Grampp in 2000). References I recommend for the economics of Smith are: Markets and morals and Ethics in the market
- The moral approach -It was his moral philosophy that guided his economic and political views. (Charles L. Griswold 1999, Ryan Patrick Hanley 2011) I recommend Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment
- The principle approach – Moral, economic and political philosophy of Adam Smith could be distilled down to one idea, the invisible hand (Mehta 2006) Principles in Smith’s Economics
- Good and evil fascinated Smith. He overturned the idea that morality was something that was objective, rather he said it was something that was inside ourselves. Smith lectures early in this career, “How do human beings develop a sense of morality” This is why I believe the moral approach is the most accurate interpretation of Smith if you examine his works in totality.
If you read Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment by Charles L. Griswold you will see a convincing argument that Smith was a moral and ethical philosopher first. The time of the enlightenment with Hume, Burke, Kant, and Hegel, was a time of passionate interest in morality, religion and truth, this went well beyond the thinking of such earthy temporal thoughts as government and economics.
Many people have dragged the idea of the free market, and even the good name of Adam Smith through the mud recently. It is trendy to say that capitalism does not work fully.
In a nutshell, Adam Smith’s lived a life of virtue and intellectual pursuit. Perhaps a Deist and at least a man of ethics and a man of the enlightenment, Smith tried to explain why some people are rich and others are poor. He wanted to explain the reason for poverty, and suffering caused by a material lack.
His books contained nothing about greed or materialism. Adam Smith’s works do not praise the virtue of selfish like Ann Rand’s books. Smith is very different than Rand but the two get lumped together.
Rather the works of Smith is about the role of work is in our society. Work is about adding value to others. Our work is our service to other people. Smith’s work was not about greed, but rather it was simply a discourse on the causes of wealth and poverty, and a prescription to alleviate the suffering caused by the lack, written between the lines.
Recommendations on how to help the world, starting with yours
Adam Smith believed, when everyone acts on their own enlightened self-interest, society as a whole benefits. Everyone gets more pie. When government has more control people will suffer more and get poor. People should work to contribute to others and they will reap rewards themselves as will society.
This means poverty can be alleviate for society in aggregate when people realizes that each person has the ability to contribute to society. He believed men are good in nature. Read more about this on Adam Smith and work
I live in Eastern Europe and I see what the government does to people. My recommendation is if you are feeling sorry for others and want to help them, read the books of Adam Smith. If you feel bad about your personal economic situation in life, read Adam Smith. Contained in his books was nothing about greed or malice, only goodness towards humanity.