16 Pages

Smith’s anti-cosmopolitanism


Smith’s idea of ‘sympathy’ in The Theory of Moral Sentiments [1759] is often invoked in literatures seeking to assert humanitarian duties towards distant strangers, and is often mis-characterized as compassion or care, rather than the ‘fellow-feeling’ Smith meant by it. Smith also had something to say about the scope of our beneficence – he spent an entire section of Part VI in the Moral Sentiments reflecting on the ‘foundation of that order which nature seems to have traced out for the distribution of our good offices’ – but what he does say there rubs hard against lay cosmopolitan interpretations of his thought (Smith 1976, TMS VI.ii, 218-37). On the whole, Smith’s orientation to the proper scope of moral concern was remarkably narrow from a cosmopolitan perspective. Indeed, he seemed to agree with Isaiah Berlin’s assertion above when he claimed that the cosmopolitan project, as it was articulated by the ancient Stoics, ‘endeavours to render us altogether indifferent and unconcerned in the success or miscarriage of every thing which Nature has prescribed to us as the proper business and occupation of our lives’ (TMS VII.ii.1.46, 292-93). Smith once refers with trepidation to ‘the very suspicion of a fatherless

world’ (TMS VI.ii.3.2, 235) but I argue here that Smith’s moral universe ultimately looked like something very close to this. This may seem a provocative claim on its face, given the ubiquity of providentialism in Smith’s thought, and given his emphasis on sympathy and its unifying role in human experience. Nevertheless, I argue that Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is systematically anti-cosmopolitan – and I piece together his view of the world, what we might think of as the ‘international realm’, as (1) deeply conflictual (without law or oversight); (2) remarkably lacking in beneficence (literally, without sympathy, in the generic sense of that term), and (3) fundamentally pluralistic morally (without a grounding in universal truths, without a summum bonum).1