chapter  1
9 Pages

Adam Smith and the idea of morally constrained rationality

Economics is the scientific study of human activities aiming to produce

and distribute wealth, explicitly goods and services that help people to

survive and do well. The study of the phenomena of wealth was for a long

time connected with the seeking of the best way of social governance and

with the finding of solutions to the vital problems of every society. Histori-

cally, the development of social sciences is marked by the emancipation of

the social endeavour from ethics, in the general movement of the Enlight-

enment. In that crucial period of the second half of the eighteenth century

it was acknowledged that interfering in the evolution of societies was logi-

cally following the objective knowledge of social laws. Observation and

explanation became an autonomous and self-sufficient goal for all social

thinkers who wanted to deal scientifically with social problems. While,

thus economic phenomena such as production and commerce in a mone-

tized economy were present since at least the eighth century BC, political

economy emerged as a scientific discipline only around 1750, after the

stage of commercial capitalism was completed and the significance of eco-

nomic processes became autonomous and widely visible. What is more

significant from our point of view, is that political economy followed his-

torically a great social transformation, as Karl Polanyi has emphasized

long ago, “a change in the motive of action on the part of the members of

society: for the motive of subsistence that of gain must be substituted”

(Polanyi 1944: 41). Adam Smith’s work arrives at the edge of the new era

of the emancipated economic discourse.