chapter  2
13 Pages

Sympathy and justice in Theory of Moral Sentiments

The nature of the relationship between Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and Wealth of Nations (WN) has absorbed scholarly interest virtually from WN’s first publication in 1776. There appeared to be a disjunction between a “sympathetic ethic” (TMS) and an economics of selfishness (WN). By the mid-nineteenth century, critics of the German Historical School had named the issue Das Adam Smith Problem (hereafter, DAS Problem).2 In my reading of TMS and WN, I argue that, although most critiques of DAS Problem are misreadings of Smith, there nevertheless is a genuine Adam Smith Problem. The problem derives from Smith’s separation of distributive justice from commutative justice, and the consequences of that separation for Smith’s theory of society. How the separation happens is the subject of this chapter, and its significance for understanding WN is the subject of the next chapter. Winch’s comment on the relationship between TMS and WN represents a view now common: that, though WN does not discuss the concept of sympathy so central to TMS, both works share concepts of prudential self-interest and the role of government in protecting property.3 In my view, however, the two works are not merely compatible but essential for each other, because the broad work that they accomplish together is to complete the process of reconfiguring how justice was conceived, a process begun by secular natural law theorists like Hugo Grotius in the preceding century.4 Smith completed the movement of the secular natural law theorists’ attempts to separate distributive justice from commutative justice. Smith accomplished this in TMS by removing distributive justice from

the province of government – and thus from politics and public deliberation as well – by assigning its functions to two interconnected natural processes: (1) the natural sources of moral judgment in human psychology; and (2) the functions of social control that emerged from interactions among people who not only have wants of their own but also desire the approval of others. By the mid-eighteenth century, when Adam Smith took up his teaching and writing, a long process of gradually shifting the duties of distributive justice from the church to civil authority had been heavily influenced by the arguments of the secular natural law theorists that only commutative justice really counted as justice. The two pressing questions were (1) the problem of a moral social order, or how morality and social stability could be maintained in the face of the increasing pressures of the pursuit of self-interest in an expanding market economy, and (2) how the sovereign – the state – should manage its affairs, including its duty of managing distributive justice. Adam Smith answered those questions in TMS with a theory of moral psychology that led to a natural, selfregulating civil society, which greatly furthered the separation of commutative from distributive justice and removed the latter from the duties of the sovereign. Smith completed this process, as I shall argue in the next chapter on WN, by assigning the practical duties of distributive justice (material provisioning) to a naturally self-regulating market.5 This did not, however, fully account for distributive justice. The central theme of TMS is Smith’s view of the natural psychological dynamics of sympathy in moral judgment. More accurately, TMS is a socialpsychology, in that the individual psychological process of sympathy and judgment is always situated in social context; this means not merely that more than one person is involved, but that judgment occurs within a framework of specific time-and-place norms of appropriateness – within, in other words, an actual social context. For Smith, the desire for approval leads one, through a natural ability (i.e., sympathy), to imagine how people might judge oneself and hence to control one’s behavior. Thus, moral judgment is always socially situated. The necessarily social nature of moral judgment led Smith to a theory of how moral judgments interact in a way that enables society to persist. In arguing that some moral judgments – specifically those concerning protection of person, reputation, and property – were more important than others because of their greater claim on sympathy, Smith participated in the reconfiguration of how justice should be understood. Commutative justice became, for Smith, the only real justice. Commutative justice is concerned with rendering to everyone what belongs to her, and so comes to include fairness in exchange, property, and so on.6 For Smith, commutative justice was, therefore, the province of government and law, while matters of distributive justice – what one was due as a member of a community – was relegated to persuasion and the social controls of approval and disapproval. Smith’s relegation of distributive justice to civil society was only possible because Smith’s theory of moral judgment cast civil society as a natural system whose central gyroscope was its set of norms of appropriateness – in rhetorical terms, its system of decorum.