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Adam Smith in Context: A Critical Reassessment of Some Central Components of His Thought

Author(s):Montes, Leonidas
Reviewer(s):McNamara, Peter

Published by EH.NET (September 2004)

Leonidas Montes, Adam Smith in Context: A Critical Reassessment of Some Central Components of His Thought. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xii + 186 pp. $69.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-4039-1256-4.

Reviewed by Peter McNamara, Department of Political Science, Utah State University.

Leonidas Montes’s Adam Smith in Context has two virtues: first, it provides a useful, concise account of the unwieldy and rapidly increasing literature on Adam Smith and, second, it presents the author’s own views on Smith which, while not entirely original, constitute a thoughtful fine-tuning of the so-called civic humanist approach to Smith. The book is in two unequal parts. The first and larger part discusses Smith’s moral theory. The second part of the book is an analysis of Newton’s influence on Smith’s economic methodology. Montes follows Quentin Skinner’s interpretative approach which emphasizes reading texts in their historical context. According to Montes, the classical influence on Smith has been a neglected context. This dimension of his book makes a nice contrast with Gloria Vivenza’s recently translated Adam Smith and the Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) with which Montes has many disagreements, some small, some large.

Montes begins with the Adam Smith Problem: the suggestion that there is a conflict between Smith’s moral theory based on sympathy and his economic theory based on self-interest. While many influential Smith scholars have viewed it as a “pseudo-problem,” Montes (fortunately) takes it seriously. He provides a very welcome account of the emergence of the problem in Germany in the nineteenth century that shows the connection between the beginnings of the German Historical School of economics and the identification of the Adam Smith Problem. Both, it turns out, grew out of a reaction against British policies and British ideas, particularly the free trade doctrines that Smith did so much to establish. Smith and Britain were caricatured as single-minded advocates of self-interest. On this basis, Smith’s moral theory seemed anomalous. Montes believes that the usual way of dispatching the Problem — by distinguishing “sympathy” from “benevolence” and pointing out that sympathy is the mechanism by which moral judgment takes place and thus not in conflict with self-interest — is too quick and, somewhat paradoxically, concedes too much to the terms of debate established by the original proponents of the Adam Smith Problem.

To make his point, Montes reviews three critical elements of Smith’s moral theory. First, Montes argues that sympathy is not simply a means for making moral judgments. It is also a motive for moral conduct because the very act of sympathizing involves an imaginative leap on our part into someone else’s situation. It is as much a disposition to act as it is a means of rendering moral judgment. As a motive, it reflects our fundamentally social nature. The second element of Smith’s moral theory that Montes dwells on is self-command. Montes draws attention to the pivotal role self-command plays in Smith’s overall account of the virtues. It is not only one of the Smithian cardinal virtues, it is also a prerequisite for the performance of the other virtues. Montes begins with a discussion of the general background to Smith’s account of the virtues. He argues that Smith should be seen in light of the classical tradition in which there was a close link between virtue and manliness. According to Montes, this connection lives on in Smith’s language, in his moral theory, and in his policy prescriptions. With regard to this last area, Montes revisits the militia versus standing army debate and tries to show that while Smith favored a standing army he saw the moral merit of a militia’s contribution to citizen virtue. The discussion of self-command is closely tied to the third of Montes’s main points about Smith’s moral theory: Smith’s account of propriety makes him proto-Kantian rather than utilitarian or proto-utilitarian. Propriety is a judgment of moral good made with reference to the intention behind an action and without reference to the consequences. A key example cited by Montes is Smith’s claim that we approve of the heroic valor — the self-command — of a soldier even if his cause is unjust; that is, regardless of consequences of the action. These accounts of sympathy, self-command, and propriety lead Montes to argue repeatedly against the idea that Smith’s thought bears any simple relation to the crude Robinson Crusoe individualism of later economists.

This observation prepares us somewhat for the abrupt shift in the last part of the book to questions of economic methodology. Specifically, Montes asks: was Smith a Newtonian? Montes believes he was but not for reasons scholars usually give. According to Montes, Smith was not a proponent of a mathematical-deductive method and he was certainly not a proponent of an embryonic form of Walrasian general equilibrium theory. The passages usually cited to support this view are in Montes’s opinion largely metaphorical. Smith was, however, a Newtonian in the deeper sense that like Newton he wished to uncover the pieces of the connecting chain that links together events — “the real structures underlying phenomena” (p. 149). In this Montes sees a connection between Smith and his own preference for “critical realism” as an approach in economics.

One might find many areas of disagreement with Montes’s reading of Smith both from within the interpretative approach he uses and from without. Let me just raise one question with regard to Smith’s moral theory. One feature of it which Montes does not explore is the potential hazard that lurks in Smith’s analysis of sympathy, self-command, and propriety. Take the example of the admiration we feel for someone who is a hero in a bad cause. Is there not something perverse about this? Was not Smith aware of this problem? Consider also Smith’s belief that we sympathize with the rich and the great, regardless of their moral character, and for this reason defer to them. Both examples point to the way in which sympathy is, perhaps, a motive but not a moral motive. I wish Montes had dealt more explicitly with such issues. But, at the least, his useful book helped me to think about them and a host of others one finds in the complex thought of Adam Smith.

Peter McNamara is author of Political Economy and Statesmanship: Smith, Hamilton and the Foundation of the Commercial Republic (Northern Illinois University Press, 1997) and editor of The Noblest Minds: Fame, Honor, and the American Founding (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient