Happy Birthday, Helvétius!

Claude-Adrien Helvétius, born on January 26th, 1715, is often credited with being a father of utilitarianism, or at least, for planting its philosophical seeds. Also an uncommonly egalitarian thinker for his time and place, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, perhaps filled with a tincture of some sort from time to time: Helvétius was the son and grandson of very wealthy physicians who ministered to royalty. Through these connections, Helvétius was appointed to a lucrative post as a tax collector and grew very wealthy when he was relatively young. By the time he was thirty-six and newly married, Helvétius had tired of courtly life, and retired to a country estate to take up a life of letters and scholarship.

The first published fruit of his study and writing was his famous philosophical work De l’esprit (Of the Mind). After it came out in 1758, it created an uproar at the University of Paris, among the clergy, among other philosophers, and at the court; on more than one occasion, it was publicly burned. To keep himself out of trouble, Helvétius was forced to publicly renounce the book. But as it is with so many things, all the controversy sparked intense public interest, and De l’esprit became one of the most widely read books of his time. And what exactly was it about the book that caused so much consternation? Salonnière, intellectual, and consummate letter-writer Madam du Deffand quipped that this was due to Helvétius putting into writing what everyone was already secretly thinking but not allowed to say.

More specifically, Helvétius’ controversial ideas include the notion that all animals, human beings included, form their mentalities from sensation and experience (thereby implicitly challenging religious concepts of the soul); that all actions we call right or just, wrong or unjust are ultimately the result of self-interest (though self-interest is so often bound up with our conception of ourselves as part of larger groups, such as nations, religious communities, tribes, and so on, so that self-interest and the interests of others can become virtually indistinguishable); that the passions are both the ultimate disguisers of truth while simultaneously providing the necessary drive to seek it at all; and that all human motivation consists of seeking the most pleasure and avoiding the most pain. The latter is a central tenet, in some form or another, of utilitarianism, and was developed into more comprehensive philosophical and ethical systems by those fathers of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Helvétius also had a theory of education and human aptitude that’s refreshingly egalitarian to modern sensibilities. He believed that everyone is just as capable of great learning and achievements, but that the only reasons people don’t equally achieve are either because they don’t care to, or because they were not taught well. While Helvétius did not have the benefit of later studies in psychology and the social sciences which reveal the picture to be more complicated than that, he did make the case that everyone could and should be able to develop themselves according to their interests and potential, and that the positive transformative power of education for individuals and societies is nearly boundless.

After Helvétius’ death on December 26, 1771, his widow, Anne-Catherine, never remarried. She spent much of her time hosting a famous salon; some years ago, I visited the place where she welcomed the erudition, wit, and flirtation of Benjamin Franklin (who was a special friend and admirer), Thomas Jefferson, Condorcet, Napoléon, and other luminaries, and shocked John and Abigail Adams.

Learn more about the sophisticated, free-thinking, and well-read Helvétius at

Claude-Adrien Helvétius ~ NNDB

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715—1771) ~ the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715 – 71) ~ by David Pearce for Utilitarianism.com

Claude-Adrien Helvétius: French PhilosopherEncyclopaedia Britannica

Enlightenment ~ by William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Helvétius appears in sect 2.2, ‘Ethical Theory‘)

Grand Illusions ~ Claude-Adrien Helvétius on passion blinders, republished in Lapham’s Quarterly

Madame Helvétius and Ben Franklin ~ at Rodama: A Blog of 18th Century & Revolutionary French Trivia

Salonnière Madame Helvétius ~ by Kristen O’Brien for The Salonnière blog

See also the works by Helvétius available online at the Internet Archive

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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

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