Adam Smith symposium: Smith as virtue theorist?

Lynne Kiesling

Increasingly I agree with Deirdre McCloskey that over the past 120 or so years economics has moved further away from incorporation of the importance of the Bourgeois Virtues into our analyses of economic decision-making and economic growth. Indeed, I claim that ignoring the effects of virtue on individual decision-making is one of the factors underlying the static, obsolete, and counter-productive aspects of economic regulation (and am in the process of molding that into a coherent argument and analysis). That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy reading Adam Smith so much; as a polymath he synthesizes moral philosophy, psychology, and political economy. I also enjoy reading the works of several Smith scholars, some of whom I have the pleasure of knowing personally and whose work I have found incredibly useful in working on my recent paper on mirror neuron neuroscience and Adam Smith’s concept of sympathy.

The Art of Theory, a new “political philosophy quarterly” founded and edited by a group of graduate students (how cool is that?), contains an excellent roundtable discussion of Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue, a wonderful and thought-provoking book from Smith scholar and political theorist Ryan Hanley. Ryan’s lead essay for the roundtable is an excerpt from the book, and it presents his analysis of Smith as a virtue theorist who saw the benefits of commercial society (“its capacity to maximize opulence and freedom and especially its capacity to maximize the opulence and freedom available to the poorest and weakest”), but recognized its darker consequences (“the propensity of commercial society to induce and exacerbate such psychological ills as restlessness, anxiety, inauthenticity, duplicity, mediocrity, alienation, and indifference to others”). The essay also delves into analyses and comparisons that engage the philosophy literature (Aristotelian conceptions of virtue, republicanism, civic virtue, etc.) in ways with which I have little experience. Still, even if you are not a Smith scholar or a philosopher, I think the essay will provoke your thoughts and challenge your preconceptions about Smith and his ideas.

The roundtable essays touch on a range of aspects of the main argument. In particular I recommend the essay from Fonna Forman-Barzilai; her recent book Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy was one of the most valuable secondary resources I used in working on my Smith/mirror neuron paper. Fonna’s commentary on Ryan’s lead essay focuses on some aspects of Smith’s overall project that she wants to make sure don’t get overlooked in Ryan’s focus on Smith as virtue theorist (and in particular his focus on the Section VI that Smith added to Theory of Moral Sentiments when he revised it shortly before his death in 1790). I think if you are new to Smith, or at least new to Theory of Moral Sentiments, her essay will give you some insights to think about.

My recommendation: Read Theory of Moral Sentiments, McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues, and this roundtable as companion pieces to develop your ideas about the roles that virtue and morality can, do, and should play in our economic decision-making and in the social institutions that shape and structure our interactions in civil society. Even if you’re not an academic or not an economist, if you are interested in social systems more generally you are likely to find things here that will interest you and provide a lot of learning. That’s been my experience at least!