20 Pages

The standpoint of morality in Adam Smith and Hegel


In evaluating a change of orientation in recent scholarship on Adam Smith and taking his cue from the so-called ‘Adam Smith Problem’, Stephen Darwall proposed a reading of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as ‘sympathetic liberalism’ (Darwall 1999). On this view, Smith’s moral sentimentalism in its distinctive difference from David Hume’s and Francis Hutcheson’s and in its proximity to some Kantian concepts, lays the foundation, via a theory of jurisprudence, for his political and economic liberalism. The ‘Adam Smith Problem’ famously regards the apparent incompatibility between Smith’s sentimentalist virtue ethics and his seemingly egoistic libertarian economics.1 The problem, formulated for the first time at the end of the nineteenth century, dominated the scholarship until a few decades ago. Recently, it has been dismissed as an utter misunderstanding2 but it continues to inspire historical studies dedicated to placing Smith’s moral theory in the context of the history of moral philosophy (exploring his ancient Stoic sources, his debt to the Renaissance humanistic idea of virtue, his relation to Rousseau, and his anticipations of Kant) as well as systematic inquiries which, like Darwall’s (also Brown 1992/3; Fitzgibbons 1995; Griswold 1999; Muller 1995), aim at establishing the link between the sentimentalist ethics of the Theory and the economic ideas of the Wealth of Nations – a link that Smith himself never explicitly discussed. In this essay, I address the question of the relationship between Smith’s

ethics and his economic views from an indirect historical perspective. I frame this problem as a chapter of the history of the reception of Smith’s thought in German nineteenth-century philosophy taking as a case in point Hegel’s interpretation of Smith in his Philosophy of Right (1986c [1821]). Starting with Georg Lukacs’ pioneering work on the ‘young Hegel’ that saw in Smith the ‘turning point’ of the evolution of his social and political thought, Hegel’s early interest in Smith’s economic liberalism (and more broadly in the Scottish Enlightenment) has been the topic of several important historical works (Lukacs 1948; Riedel 1969; Waszek 1988, 1995).3 There is, however, no contribution – either historical or systematic – on the impact that Smith’s ethics and the Theory may have had on Hegel. My present aim is to offer some suggestions in this direction, thereby rec-

tifying the dominant view according to which Hegel valued Smith exclusively

for his economic ideas – in particular, for his analysis of the division of labour in society, for his insights into the mechanisms of the market, and generally for his ‘political economy’. Hegel was familiar with these ideas from a careful early study of the Wealth of Nations.4 From at least 1803/4 onwards5 he integrates them into his political philosophy in various ways until Smith’s lasting influence crystallizes in the crucial concept of ‘civil society’. Hegel introduces this concept for the first time in 1817/18 in his Heidelberg lectures on political philosophy (Hegel 1983) but he gives it final systematic form only in the 1821 Philosophy of Right (Riedel 1962; Waszek 1995). Opposing the widespread view that limits Hegel’s appreciation of Smith to the political economy of the Wealth of Nations, I argue that Hegel was well aware of the deep interconnection between moral philosophy and economics in Smith’s thought. The Theory of Moral Sentiments was translated into German in 1770 and was well known to writers such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller, among others, as well as being reviewed in important philosophical and literary journals of the time.6 Hegel comments on this work in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1986d). My present argument, however, will not be historical but systematic. I suggest that in his presentation of ‘civil society’ in the Philosophy of Right Hegel transforms or translates Smith’s economic ideas along with his sentimentalist ethics. The context of Hegel’s notion of ‘civil society’ provides the systematic connection between the two. Hegel’s explicit mention of Smith’s (along with Say’s and Ricardo’s) ‘political economy’ at the outset of the ‘System of Needs’ is often underlined and commented on (1986c [1821], hereafter R; §189 Remark). However, that the development of the structures of civil society also makes room for a type of morality that deeply resonates with Smith’s moral theory – with his idea of sympathy and the impartial spectator – and that such morality sustains the articulation of the economic activity of civil society are two points curiously but consistently missed by interpreters. Here I shall frame the discussion of Hegel’s idea of a morality proper to civil society as if he were responding to and appropriating Smith’s moral philosophy. This interpretive ‘speculation’ is not meant to support a historical claim but to achieve three results. First, it rectifies a systematic issue regarding the structure of civil society in Hegel and the role that (a certain type of ) morality plays in it; second, it discloses the broader concerns that lead Hegel to mention Smith’s political economy in this sphere; and finally, it confirms from an indirect Hegelian perspective some contemporary readings of Smith’s sentimentalist ethics. In discussing this connection, I will establish two claims, one on the rela-

tion between ethics and political economy, the other on the specific character of Smith’s moral theory. First, I contend that for Hegel civil society is the sphere in which the economic relations among individuals are made possible and sustained by a morality based on ‘sentiments’ such as sympathy, resentment and justice. This, I submit, is Hegel’s appropriation and transformation of Smith’s doctrine in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. To put this point in

a different way, I claim that Hegel sees Smith’s Theory and his Wealth of Nations – his sentimentalist ethics and his political economy – as two interconnected and interdependent aspects of modern civil society.7 Ultimately, I suggest that viewed in Hegel’s perspective the ‘Adam Smith Problem’ is not a specific problem of the interpretation of Smith’s philosophy but is the chief problem of modernity itself – an issue to which Smith gave voice like no other philosopher before. Second, I claim that at the level of ‘ethical life’ within the structures of civil society Smith’s Theory appears to Hegel as a valuable concrete alternative to Kant’s too abstract morality. On Hegel’s view, within ‘ethical life’ it is the virtues and duties of Smith’s sentimentalist ethics, not those of Kant’s formalistic deontology, that shape the life of individuals as economic agents and citizens of the modern world. While Kant’s position, on Hegel’s interpretation,8 does not differ substantially from the abstract neutrality of an ‘ideal observer’,9 Smith’s theory is fruitful precisely because it is a moral position developed from within social life – it is, properly, a moral ‘standpoint’. It is a moral position that has nothing to do with detached and disinterested impartiality and has all to do with the possibility of endorsing sympathetically, as it were, the standpoint of the agent. Read in this way, the value that Smith’s sentimentalist ethics displays for Hegel over Kant’s morality may help us illuminate an important aspect of Smith’s philosophy, confirming Darwall’s attempt to distance Smith from ‘impartial spectator’ positions such as Hume’s and Hutcheson’s. Unlike Darwall, however, who points to Smith’s anticipation of Kantian themes, I shall insist on the proximity between Smith’s moral theory and Hegel’s in opposition to Kant’s.10

Significantly, such proximity in my view is due precisely to the necessary link between morality and economics.11