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Adam Smith, Communitarian

Why today we need The Theory of Moral Sentiments more than The Wealth of Nations.
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Legend has it that at the age of four, Adam Smith was kidnapped from his Scottish home by a traveling band of gypsies. A gentleman passing the gypsies on the road noticed the crying baby and alerted town officials, who rescued young Adam hours later. Of this near tragedy, Smith’s 19th-century biographer John Rae sardonically commented that it was very fortunate because Smith “would have made … a poor gipsy.”

This story is where Jack Russell Weinstein begins a fascinating examination of Smith’s moral philosophy. He is convinced that in a way Smith’s philosophy continues to be held hostage by political pundits and intellectuals on the right and the left. In his academically rich study, Weinstein argues that the significance of Smith’s sweeping exploration of human virtue has been eclipsed by countless oversimplified readings of his economics. Weinstein believes, however, that in the modern world of diversity and multiculturalism it is Smith’s moral philosophy that we need more than his economics.

Ever since 1776, the first year of its publication, The Wealth of Nations has proved more popular than Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s emphasis on free markets, his colorful metaphors like the invisible hand, and his farsighted expectations for the industrial revolution have made Wealth of Nations essential reading in our market-based, technologically-driven world.

This favoritism for Wealth of Nations has made Smith a “widely misunderstood” thinker, according to Weinstein. Smith is too often positioned as the godfather of “unfettered markets, libertarian governments, interactions solely for the purpose of satisfaction, and atomistic cosmopolitanism.” What has been lost is Smith’s “clarion call for personal relationships” as the basis for human society and his advocacy for a functioning pluralism—though Smith did not use the term—that is at the heart of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Adam Smith’s Pluralism is the first volume in a trilogy Weinstein intends to write on Smith. Here he proposes a “Smithian shift” in contemporary liberal theory, emphasizing Smith’s key principle of sympathy and his efforts to find a method of achieving harmony in the disparate motives and passions of individuals. The book pays particular attention to the roots of Smith’s moral philosophy found in the works of Thomas Hobbes, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, and David Hume. With this context and his own mastery of Smith’s writings, Weinstein hopes to rescue Smith’s moral philosophy from a host of abductors and put it to work for the 21st century.

After briefly bemoaning the deformation of Smith’s philosophy at the hands of political pundits, Weinstein offers a critical assessment of previous literature on Smith. Many scholars have investigated what is known now as the Adam Smith Problem, which pits the altruism of Theory of Moral Sentiments against the self-interest of Wealth of Nations, demanding from Smith’s thought a singular, overarching cause to explain human action. This oversimplified perspective, Weinstein contends, fails to see Smith’s promotion of “multiple motives,” which Smith believed were not only “essential” for society but also consistent with human nature.

Weinstein also takes issue with philosophers like John Rawls and Alasdair MacIntyre who, in their different ways, “badly misrepresent Smith.” For Weinstein, however, the greatest impediment to a thorough appreciation of Smith’s moral philosophy is the specter of Immanuel Kant. Weinstein points to Kant as an unfortunate addition to liberalism’s intellectual framework:

many of liberalism’s shortcomings are the product of its Kantian foundation. The conceptions of autonomy and universal reason that Rawls and others build on do not allow for complex notions of identity, political consideration of affection for individual persons, the importance of subjectivity, the emotions in moral and political commitments, and variations in human reason.

Assertions like this alone make the book worthwhile. To appreciate Smith fully, Weinstein rightly suggests, we must dispose of Kant’s quest for singularity and uniformity and, following thinkers like MacIntyre, acknowledge the permanent reality of differing moral traditions.

Much of the book is spent illustrating Smith’s appreciation for the kind of variety and depth in human nature and reason that is absent from the Kantian tradition. Smith, Weinstein argues, did not bifurcate the human faculties of reason and emotion, which is why any attempt to develop a single Smithian motivation for human action is erroneous. Reason and emotion are too interlinked in the human condition to be separated. This is why Smith distrusted any logical or analytical approach to human society that demoted emotion and intuition to a second or third tier of experience. Weinstein explains that for Smith, far from emotions being the antithesis of reason, they regularly “initiate, are the consequence of, and are often indistinguishable from reason.”

The complexity that Smith sees in human reason flows over into his study of human society. Smith refused to accept the cynical view of human nature propounded by Hobbes and Mandeville. Yet he was also a moral realist who acknowledged human vice and vanity, which were at odds with an equally evident inclination toward virtue. Following from this, in a particularly insightful portion of the book Weinstein completely discredits any purely economic reading of Smith. He contends that “life is not a marketplace” for Smith. Instead, “it is often familial, pedagogical, spiritual, and natural; it is only sometimes commercial.” Competition and self-interest were means to an end, not ends in themselves. Rather, Weinstein sees the healthy notion of harmony as the most dominant ideal running through Smith’s philosophy.

Weinstein builds upon Smithian harmony, explaining that while life is not always commercial, it is always communal. Community, in turn, derives its lifeblood from “imagination,” because imagination creates the capacity for sympathy. Unlike Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, Smith “presumes human difference” as a necessary and inherent aspect of civilization, rejecting the Kantian ideal of “noncontextual normativity.” Smith recognized that cultural, temporal, and social differences shaped norms and values, making it impossible to create a single, all-inclusive norm of human behavior. This is why sympathy is so important. It offers a means that is natural to the human condition—our desire to commiserate with our fellow man—to bridge the gap between our differences.

Smith believed that “political society is not derived from a social contract,” according to Weinstein. Instead, society is a natural expression of what it means to be human. The state of nature for Smith is one of community, and the ultimate questions related to human society are questions of morality and virtue, not economics and politics. Thus, a broad, morally robust education rooted in a particular community is essential to forming sympathetic individuals. While Smith did not idealize the role of education—it could not completely eliminate human selfishness and vanity—he believed it had the power to “direct vanity to proper objects” and to “convert competing passions into a harmonious character.”

The role of language is an essential component of Smith’s moral philosophy because it is the fundamental connection between the individual and the community. In his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Smith expounded on the virtue of both poetry and prose, which “provide the capacity for exchange and agreement” in different contexts of human relations. It is in the sections of Adam Smith’s Pluralism on the importance of language that Shaftesbury’s influence on Smith shines through the strongest, particularly with Shaftesbury’s stress on language as a vehicle for unifying “the good and the beautiful.”

Language is so basic to Smith’s moral philosophy that toward the end of the book Weinstein feels compelled to contend with Michel Foucault and the postmodern critique of the discontinuity between language and reality. Though interesting, this chapter is something of a belabored effort, as Weinstein’s examination finishes with the same stalemate as everyone else who contends with the postmodernists. In Weinstein’s words, “Smith may have nothing to say” to them, “but they, in turn, have no means of refutation.” Web issue image

Adam Smith’s Pluralism is a refreshing study of Smith, but it is not without its problems. Weinstein neglects the relevance of Smith’s metaphysics, dismissively referring to “whatever the metaphysics that underlie Smith’s system.” Further on, in an attempt to assure the reader that Smith’s pluralism can transcend its Judeo-Christian heritage, he asserts, “there appears to be no divine revelation for Smith.” If this is true, it is neither self-evident in Smith nor evident in Weinstein’s analysis. Nor does Weinstein address such obvious influences on Smith’s metaphysics as Isaac Newton’s natural theology, which is essential to Smith’s baseline understanding of a created order in both the moral and physical universe.

If this were another exposition of Smith as the grand economist, then the neglect would be acceptable. But Smith’s principle of sympathy is rooted in metaphysical assumptions about human nature and society and their purpose in absolute reality. Without this foundation, the argument for sympathy as a compass for morality, as well as a mediator of competing motivations, loses much of its potency. The liberal who embraces Smith’s sympathy but refuses to deal with his metaphysics must do so either arbitrarily—sympathy being as good a guiding principle as any other—or, as Steven D. Smith has argued in The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, surreptitiously, smuggling in certain beliefs about human nature without explanation or defense. Either way, the options are quite pale and shallow.

Nevertheless, even without Smith’s metaphysics, this is an invigorating reorientation of liberal theory. There are striking similarities to Burke’s moral imagination, which is particularly evident in Weinstein’s analysis of the intersections of beauty, language, and moral choice. Weinstein rescues Smith’s moral philosophy from its economically obsessed captors will prove an extraordinary blessing for conservative and liberal alike.

David J. Davis is assistant professor in history at Houston Baptist University and author of Seeing Faith, Printing Pictures: Religious Identity During the English Reformation.



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