Sympathy and moral horizons in Wealth of Nations
Justice and natural systems In the previous chapter I argued that in TMS Smith is engaged in the project of detailing which aspects of justice need to be consciously articulated and enforced by human effort and which can safely be left to the operation of autonomous natural systems.2 In TMS he argued that the natural desire for approval and the psychological operation of sympathy create a positive motive for cooperative behavior. Therefore, TMS can be viewed as establishing a social-psychological basis for the natural emergence and self-regulation of civil society. In the process of making his argument in TMS, Smith distinguished “real justice” from beneficence, a move I described as separating commutative justice from distributive justice, assigning the first to law and the second to individual acts of benevolence. I also pointed out that Smith made a reservation in his theory of justice by making a place, though vaguely defined, for a certain minimum of propriety. The ultimate effect in TMS was to make a distinction among three separate realms: (1) civil society, organized and maintained around the social-psychological dynamics of sympathy and moral judgment; (2) an adequate social stability organized around observance of law (and of a certain minimum of propriety that remains ambiguous); and (3) the practice of virtue, the highest of which is benevolence, in private life. My argument about these separate realms is that distributive justice, understood as what one is due as a member of a community, pervades each of these realms, albeit possibly in different and conflicting forms. This chapter demonstrates that WN continues Smith’s project, begun in TMS, of identifying autonomous, self-regulating social systems. In WN, Smith argues that the principle of prudential self-interest, under the right conditions of competitive markets – and right conditions include the right decorum – can do the best possible job of providing for the material provisioning of society. In doing so, Smith satisfies distributive justice’s essential duty of providing for material subsistence that was alluded to but left undeveloped in TMS. Smith accomplishes this task in WN by describing the operation of an economic system in which markets simultaneously (a) generate the greatest possible abundance of wealth and (b) provide for adequate distribution to serve the community as a whole.