The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

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Smith, Adam
Ian Crowe - 05/17/12
Lifespan: (1723–1790)

Adam Smith was, and saw himself as, both a scientist and a philosopher. As a scientist, he was an acute interpreter of natural phenomena; as a philosopher, he sought to uncover an intelligent pattern through the systematization of his material. His beliefs regarding moral philosophy and political economy are to be found not only in his famous Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth of Nations (1776), but in posthumously published material on jurisprudence, belles-lettres, and the history of science. Taken together, these works indicate how an advanced commercial society may reconcile natural liberty with ordered justice through the application of historically rooted principles that combine a belief in an unchanging human nature with an acceptance of dynamic social change. Consequently, Smith offers some pointers on how conservatives might resolve tensions deep within their own tradition—how to conserve essential values while accepting needed change, and how to defend principles while avoiding ideology.

Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, on the east coast of Scotland, in 1723 and studied at the University of Glasgow (1737–40) and at Balliol College, Oxford (1740–46). On returning to Scotland from Oxford, he lectured on rhetoric in Edinburgh “under the patronage of Lord Kames,” until his appointment, in 1751, as professor of logic at Glasgow. The following year, he was elected professor of moral philosophy there, a position he held for eleven years, during which time he achieved fame with the publication of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. In 1764, Smith took up a position as tutor to the duke of Buccleuch and in the same year traveled to France, where he met Voltaire and leading Physiocrats such as Quesnay and Turgot. It was at this time that he began the work that was eventually published in 1776 under the title An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. From 1777 until the year of his death, in 1790, Adam Smith held the position of commissioner of customs, in Edinburgh, but he never published a third, projected work on the history of jurisprudence.

Smith’s analytical system, which shows the strong influence of the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and of the new school of “philosophical” history in particular, is a powerful response to the problem of the lacuna between empirical fact and binding principles of law that also shaped the work of scholars such as David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and Thomas Reid. In his claim that the human faculty of imagination brings coherence to diverse empirical facts and sensations, and in his methodological combination of inductive and deductive techniques, he steers clear of the skepticism of Hume and the egoism of Mandeville, on the one hand, and of the more sharply metaphysical doctrines of natural law and a passive belief in Providence on the other.

The key to understanding the workings of this imaginative faculty lies in the basic human impulses that, Smith observed, shape both our moral and our material existence. The strongest of these impulses is sympathy—a complex, instinctive referral to “the other.” In Smith’s thought, the sympathetic instinct may be found at the root of both the development of moral awareness and the material well-being deriving from an appreciation that one’s own needs (or self-interest) require cooperation and integration with the needs of “the other.” These two branches are covered, respectively, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, and it is important to remember that they have a common, philosophical-scientific root. We should also keep in mind that Smith had not completed this systematic and integrative analysis at the time of his death.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments places Smith firmly among the thinkers, such as Hutcheson and Hume, who emphasize the role of aesthetics and the natural human passions in the shaping of principles of moral philosophy. In the way he links sympathy, imagination, and ambition, however, he moves beyond his contemporaries in two main respects. First, in developing the “sympathetic” link between the impartial spectator and the individual conscience, he injects an objective quality of imagination into the impulse of sympathy (in which sense Smith might be seen as a “philosopher of the normal,” a term used by Dr. William Campbell to describe the political economy of Wilhelm Röpke). Secondly, his treatment of the motive of “self-love” reveals a subtle combination of utility and benevolence that passes between Hutcheson’s reliance on a separate moral sense and Bentham’s utilitarianism. Both of these concepts, conscience and self-interest, reveal the powerful influence of Stoicism on Smith’s thought, and are vital in appreciating how Smith linked the natural and the moral—motive and judgment—within his system.

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