Moral Sentiments of our capitalist friend Adam Smith

In an earlier post, I referred to Adam Smith’s work, Theory of Moral Sentiments. It was suggested that Scottish philosopher would not be happy with the current state of his capitalist experiment in the new world. Smith wrote of the gluttony of the rich producing products domestically which creates an excess for the peasant to acquire thereby fulfilling the needs of a given community. According to Smith, the rich are,

“They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species” (IV.I.10).

However this “gluttony of the rich” to which Smith refers does not operate in a vacuum. Those in this community, rich or peasant, should model proper moral sentiment. Adam Smith saw the “invisible hand” of capitalism intrinsically connected to proper moral behavior. Moral behavior that has regard for others in his community. He writes,

Proper resentment for injustice attempted, or actually committed, is the only motive which, in the eyes of the impartial spectator, can justify our hurting or disturbing in any respect the happiness of our neighbour. To do so from any other motive is itself a violation of the laws of justice, which force ought to be employed either to restrain or to punish. The wisdom of every state or commonwealth endeavours, as well as it can, to employ the force of the society to restrain those who are subject to its authority, from hurting or disturbing the happiness of one another….A sacred and religious regard not to hurt or disturb in any respect the happiness of our neighbour, even in those cases where no law can properly protect him, constitutes the character of the perfectly innocent and just man; a character which, when carried to a certain delicacy of attention, is always highly respectable and even venerable for its own sake, and can scarce ever fail to be accompanied with many other virtues, with great feeling for other people, with great humanity and great benevolence. It is a character sufficiently understood, and requires no further explanation. (Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part V- Of the Character of Virtue, Section II.- Of the character of the individual, so far as it can affect the happiness of other people)

It is clear from Moral Sentiments that the current status of capitalism was not the capitalism envisioned by Adam Smith. It seems that capitalism of the twenty-first century, particularly in U.S., has a virus. Ironically, the virus of capitalism finds its origins in something Americans proudly embrace: “rugged individualism.” However, now “rugged individualism” has shed virtue and become “everyman for himself.”


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