The Theory of Moral Sentiments: Adam Smith’s Timely and Timeless Classic

2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of Adam Smith’s masterful treatise on ethics, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith, primarily known today for his hugely influential 1776 work on political economy, The Wealth of Nations, was a professor of moral philosophy. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is stunningly relevant today.

Whereas The Wealth of Nations featured the “invisible hand,” the metaphor that dominates Moral Sentiments is “the impartial spectator.” The “spectator” represents one’s conscience—one’s ability to perceive the divinely ordained objective standard of right and wrong.

In Smith’s view, conscience is both a divine spark in mankind and also the product of reason. Indeed, Moral Sentiments (like western civilization itself) is a synthesis of Greek Stoic philosophy and Christian thought.

The genius of Moral Sentiments lies in its clear, thorough explanation of the necessary preconditions for social harmony. Smith cites three cardinal social virtues: prudence, justice, and beneficence. Indeed, as we survey our discordant, divided society today, we can see that many of our problems stem from confusion about these three virtues. Smith, in spite of writing his book so long ago, provides the solutions to today’s most vexing social problems.

By “prudence,” Smith means the practical steps that a person takes to provide for his own needs and wants. For able-bodied adults to shun this basic responsibility is self-destructive and antisocial.

Smith’s second social virtue, justice, is “the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice” of society. As essential as it is, though, justice “is entitled to very little gratitude” because “it does no real positive good” and “is … but a negative virtue” that “only hinders us from hurting our neighbour.”

Smith is right. We don’t feel gratitude to others for not killing or robbing us, because they are simply refraining from what they ought never to do. Yet when people do not refrain from infringing our basic rights, society disintegrates. Thus, the irony that just behavior is at once the virtue that is least deserving of praise, but most indispensable for society’s health.

Smith’s third social virtue, beneficence, deserves the highest approbation, for it represents the greatest good that one can do beyond the call of duty. Beneficence, though, is never a duty. More specifically, it may be one’s duty to God as a practicing Christian, but it can never be made a legally compulsory duty to one’s fellow man. Here Smith illuminates the essential difference between law and gospel that still confuses and divides Christians today.

In Smith’s words, “Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment; because the mere want of beneficence tends to do no real positive evil.” “Beneficence … is less essential to the existence of society than justice. Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it.” Beneficence “is the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports [society].”

Government force may only be used to enforce justice (i.e., to restrain or punish those who would infringe the rights of others) but not to enforce prudence or beneficence. A government that would presume to compel citizens to work (or threatens to lock up citizens who prefer not to purchase health insurance) violates the very rights it is supposed to protect. So does a government that compels the redistribution of property from some citizens to others, because such deeds would violate the necessary and fundamental principle of justice.

Meddlesome do-gooding—the pseudo-charity whereby A and B use governmental force to bestow unearned benefits upon C that are paid for by D—is unraveling the fabric of society today. When one looks to Washington, one sees that Smith has captured with uncanny accuracy the mentality and spirit of present-day social engineers, central planners, and redistributors of property: “The man of system … is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. … he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”

The political reformer manifests “the highest degree of arrogance.” He seeks “to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong.” He “fanc[ies] himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth, and [believes] that his fellow-citizens should accommodate themselves to him.”

This attitude leads to “the madness of fanaticism” among the political leaders of radical reform, while the mass of followers are “intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of the ideal system, of which they have no experience, but which has been represented to them in all the most dazzling colours in which the eloquence of their leaders could paint it. Those leaders themselves, though they originally may have meant nothing but their own aggrandizement, become, many of them, in time the dupes of their own sophistry.”

Indeed, I don’t believe it is possible for any current book analyzing contemporary America to surpass Adam Smith’s classicTheory of Moral Sentiments in terms of lucid insight and timely (and timeless) wisdom.