on July 24, 2001
To truly understand Adam Smith's economic masterpiece "The Wealth of Nations", one must understand its moral foundation. Without Smith's essential prequel, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments", the more famous "Wealth of Nations" can easily be misunderstood, twisted, or dismissed. Smith rightly lays the premise of his economics in a seedbed of moral philosophy -- the rights and wrongs, the whys and why-nots of human conduct. Smith's capitalism is far from a callous, insensitive, greed-motivated, love-of-profits-at-any-cost approach to the marketplace, when seen in the context of his "Moral Sentiments." [Note: This book is a "page for page reproduction" of a two volume edition published in 1817, which is reflected in my pagination references.]
Smith's first section deals with the "Propriety of Action". The very first chapter of the book is entitled "Of Sympathy". This is very telling of Smith's view of life, and his approach to how men should conduct their lives. "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." (p 1:1). Later Smith asserts that this "sympathy, however, cannot, in any sense, be regarded as a selfish principle." (p 2:178)
This propriety of conduct undergirds all social, political and economic activities, private and public. When Smith observes that "hatred and anger are the greatest poisons to the happiness of a good mind" (p 1:44) he is speaking not only of interpersonal relationships but of its moral extensions in the community and world. Smith treats the passions of men with clinical precision, identifying a gamut of passions like selfishness, ambition and the distinction of ranks, vanity, intimidation, drawing examples from history and various schools of philosophy. He extols such quiet virtues as politeness, modesty and plainness, probity and prudence, generosity and frankness -- certainly not the qualities of the sterotypical cartoon of a capitalist robber-baron. Indeed Smith is contemptuous of the double standards employed by cults of celebrity: "The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers...of wealth and greatness" paying lip-service to wisdom and virtue, yet Smith oserves, "there is scarce any man who does not respect more the rich and the great, than the poor and the humble. With most men the presumption and vanity of the former are much more admired, than the real and solid merit of the latter. It is scarce agreeable to good morals or even good language...that mere wealth and greatness, abstracted from merit and virtue, deserve our respect." (p 1:79) Tragically, the wealthy celebrity foists a dangerous pattern upon the public, "even their vices and follies are fashionable;and the greater part of men are proud to imitate and resemble them in the very qualities which dishonour and degrade them." (pp 1:81-82) For Smith, wealth is not the criteria of real success. He laments the political-correctness of his day: "Vain men often give themselves airs...which in their hearts they do not approve of, and of which, perhaps, they are not really guilty. They desire to be praised for what they themselves do not think praiseworthy, and are ashamed of unfashionable virtues....There are hypocrites of wealth and greatness, as well as of religion and virtue; and a vain man is as apt to pretend to be what he is not, in the one way, as a cunning man is in the other." (p 1:82) Smith, the moralist also warns that taken too far such trendy fashions of political-correctness can wreck havoc on society: "In many governments the candidates for the highest stations are above the law; and, if they can attain the object of their ambition, they have no fear of being called to account for the means by which they acquired it. They often endeavor, therefore, not only by fraud and falsehood, the ordinary and vulgar arts of intrigue and cabal; but sometimes by the perpetration of the most enormous crimes...to supplant and destroy those who oppose or stand in the way of their [supposed] greatness." (p 1:83)
With such salient observations Smith embarks in a survey of vices to avoid and passions to govern. He describes virtues to cultivate in order to master one's self as well as the power of wealth. These include courage, duty, benevolence, propriety, prudence and self-love [or as we would say, self-respect]. He develops a powerful doctrine of "moral duty" based upon "the rules of justice", "the rules of chastity", and "the rules of veracity" that decries cowardice, treachery, and falsity. The would-be-Capitalist or pretended-Capitalist who violates any of the rules of moral duty in the accumulation of wealth and power in or out of the marketplace is a misanthrope who may dangerously abuse the wealth and position he acquires. Smith describes a moral base rooted in sympathy not selfishness as the basis for an economic system which has been labeled Capitalism. The real Capitalist operates without purposely harming other men, beasts or nature; in this sense capitalism is more a stewardship than an insensitive, mechanistic mercantilism or a crass commercialism. This book is a vital component to any reading of "The Wealth of Nations". "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" is the life-blood or soul of "The Wealth of Nations". Without "Moral Sentiments" one is left with an empty, even soulless, economic theory that can be construed as greedy and grasping no matter how much wealth may be acquired.
on May 4, 2002
Those who are looking for an answer to the age old question, 'Why should we be moral?' will be, in a sense, disappointed by this book. Smith from the get-go, shifts the question. Instead he asks, 'Why ARE we moral?' Subtle difference? It's bigger than you may think.
Smith takes our moral nature as a given. Humans are born with an innate capacity for sympathy. We identify others as like ourselves and unless otherwise provoked, do not want to hurt others. We also have an innate desire for esteem. We learn early that treating others kindly gains us admiration in the same way that we naturally admire kind people. This is the core of Smiths thesis and from here he puts examines these principles across an array of human behaviors. Why do we tell truths when we could tell undetected lies? Why would we do kindly to others even if esteem of peers is not gauranteed? Why would some die for their family members or their country?
Probably the trait Smith admires most is prudence; the art of knowing what is and is not appropriate action both in our subjective judgement and that of an imagined 'impartial spectator.' The prudent person is able and willing to put herself in the context of other people. 'Although an action seems justified to me, would others see it that way?' 'Would satisfying small desire X of mine be an obstacle to other's fulfillment of larger desires?'
It goes on from there. Smith puts these ideas well to the test going through scenario after scenario. Because of this, I would say this book should be shelved in psychology, not philosophy as it simply tries to give an account of the way we think. Thus the philosopher looking for a forcefully stated, internally consistent and completely reasoned 'moral system' will not find it in these pages. Smith takes us only so far but when asked 'Why do we have these inclinations to be moral and gain esteem,' he simply answers that it is in our nature. This may be the best answer we can hope for, but it will leave some philosophers unsatisfied.
Regarding the length, IT IS TOO LONG!! With a good editor, 200 pages could've easily been cut. I would even say that the last section, examining flaws in existing moral systems is not necessary and can be skipped. Aside from length, it is a joyful read, though. Smith is an excellent writer and certainly better than Hume, Locke and others of the day. As a conclusion, those looking to bridge the chasm in the 'Wealth of Nations' between Smiths simultaneous advocation of free trade and his disdain for unchecked greed in all it's forms...look no further than "Theory of Moral Sentiments."
The Wealth of Nations was a book, about how to create wealth in a society. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is a book about how society conducts itself. Smith examines the how and why, of people`s approach to life. Smith believes people are inherently social. This desire to fit into society, drives the individuals actions. Smith refers to the impartial observer. The indidvdual looks to the impartial observer, for a guide to proper conduct. The individual realizes his actions will be judged by society. The results will directly affect the persons lifestyle. The impartial spectator is used as a guideline, which measures the reaction society will have to any particular individual action. Thus the impartial observer, helps the individual make the best possible descision.
Smith is well read and a student of philosophy. Smith examines many Stoic and Epicurean teachings. He then contrasts the different approaches to life. Smith also discusses the writings of people such as Cicero and Hume. All of these many different sources are combined, into what Smith believes is a sound approach to life.
All in all, this was a very interesting book. Smith`s writing style, can at times be somewhat winded and dry. But over all, this was definitely worth reading.