Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days. I also encountered his ideas regularly in my undergraduate studies in moral philosophy.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

adam smith_s grave in canongate kirkyard, edinburgh, scotland, 2017 amy cools

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who not an expert on Smith’s life and thought. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are, and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and his book The Infidel and the Professor – with Russ Roberts for EconTalk

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen for The Atlantic

The Real Adam Smith – by Paul Sagar for Aeon

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

 

O.P. Recommends: Is a Universal Basic Income too Utopian to Work?

The Moneylender and his Wife by Quinten Massijs (detail), public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I recently listened to Jack Russell Weinstein’s interview of historian and author Rutger Bregman with a great deal of interest, and the discussion is so rich in detail I plan on listening to it again soon. The interview, available as a podcast, explores the question “Is a Universal Basic Income too Utopian to Work?” As you may know, I’m very interested in the topic of basic income, in the philosophical and in the practical justifications for providing at least a minimum living to everyone, regardless of perceived merit. I agree with Weinstein that Bregman makes a very convincing case that a basic income is not only economically feasible; it’s practical, it’s just, and it’s the right thing to do. I very much encourage you to listen, I think you’ll learn some very surprising things!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford, and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy. And, I think there are enough people promoting his Wealth of Nations as, like, the best thing ever; you can find plenty to read about that on the internet.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who is by no means an expert. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are (including himelf, he’s an excellent and compelling writer), and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen, Jun 9, 2016 for The Atlantic

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: O.P. Recommends: Why Radio’s Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship with Guests Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine

Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine, image via Why? Radio podcast website

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

I was recently thrilled to discover Why? Radio‘s podcast. It’s about time I did, since it’s eight years and more than 100 episodes in. Thanks for the share, Laura of Bismarck, ND!

For the 100th episode this February, host and creator Jack Russell Weinstein interviews Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, journalist, writer, and feminist extraordinaire; and Suzanne Braun Levine, first editor of Ms. magazine, author, and authority on feminism and gender issues. The topics covered in this episode are summarized in the title ‘Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship‘. Weinstein is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota and created the IPPL radio show and podcast Why? Philosophical discussions about everyday life for very similar reasons I created Ordinary Philosophy, as you can see from the subtitle…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

 

O.P. Recommends: Why Radio’s Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship with Guests Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine

Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine, image via Why Radio Podcast website

Gloria Steinem and Suzanne Braun Levine, image via Why? Radio podcast website

I was recently thrilled to discover Why? Radio‘s podcast. It’s about time I did, since it’s eight years and more than 100 episodes in. Thanks for the share, Laura of Bismarck, ND!

For the 100th episode this February, host and creator Jack Russell Weinstein interviews Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, journalist, writer, and feminist extraordinaire; and Suzanne Braun Levine, first editor of Ms. magazine, author, and authority on feminism and gender issues. The topics covered in this episode are summarized in the title ‘Feminism as Philosophy, Politics, and Friendship‘. Weinstein is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota and created the IPPL radio show and podcast Why? Philosophical discussions about everyday life for very similar reasons I created Ordinary Philosophy, as you can see from the subtitle.

My readers may often wonder why my philosophy/history of ideas blog and podcast are at least as devoted to the life and ideas of activists and civil rights leaders as they are to philosophers and theorists. Steinem sums up a conviction I share near the beginning of the interview: ‘To be part of any social justice movement is probably to be on the forefront of philosophy’. Social justice movements are founded on ideas that have not yet been understood and accepted widely enough to be embodied in law and social practice. Many activists, then, can be understood as philosophers in the public square, and activism as philosophy in action. They are part of the same noble tradition, forcing us to consider uncomfortable questions and raising our consciousness, as Socrates’ gadfly questions, awakening his fellow citizens from their ‘dogmatic slumbers‘. I’m also gratified to hear Steinem cite Louisa May Alcott as one of her earliest influences, as she was for me; the story of Alcott’s principled stand at Frederick and Helen Pitts Douglass’ wedding is among my favorite examples of philosophy in action, a perfect demonstration of the right way to think and act towards our fellow human beings.

Steinem also challenges the way that second-wave feminism is often characterized as a middle-class white movement. She points out that polls revealed that black women, especially in the early days of the movement, shared feminist and civil rights convictions in far greater proportions than any other group, and were more likely to demonstrate their convictions through action; it’s just that they were not recognized in the media nor did they have the opportunities that white women, as well as white and black men, had to rise to leadership positions. Steinem shares an anecdote from her participation in the March on Washington, in which a black woman in the crowd angrily points out that not a single black woman was chosen to address the crowd from the stage, which illustrates this paradox.

Women are still expected to wear ‘feminine’ clothing that pushes, pulls, and presses their bodies into fashionable shapes, sometimes painfully, and to wear heavy makeup and crippling and uncomfortable shoes in order to be considered well-dressed and sexy, especially for public figures. The problem is not necessarily these fashions themselves, it’s that women are generally required to adorn themselves this way in order to achieve their goals. Photo exhibit at Women’s Rights Historical Park, Seneca Falls, NY.

I also love what Braun Levine says about being a ‘tomboy’ as a young girl; she says it shows she was on the ‘wrong path’. She wasn’t saying that she was wrong to want to play with the boys and wear pants, to the contrary. I interpret her statement as her commentary on how we’ve long divided healthy, active pursuits such as sports and wanting to wear clothing that permits bodily freedom into the category ‘boy’, and daintiness constrained in clothing and shoes that limit bodily freedom into the category ‘girl’. It was only with the hindsight and wisdom made possible by her own evolving consciousness, which she, in turn, awoke in her readers, which made her realize that these ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ qualities, instincts, and preferences, are universal human ones. People of all genders, or of none depending on how you describe it, love to be very physically active or they don’t, like to wear constrictive and elaborate clothing, makeup, and shoes or don’t, and so on.

This wonderful discussion about the history and evolution of feminism, as Steinem and Braun Levine experience it, wraps up with an exchange with two budding activists, eleven-year old Faith and Adina. What a great way to show just how influential these two women are and how the young are moving their cause forward and applying it to the modern world!

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!