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Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics, and Culture

Author(s):Evensky, Jerry
Reviewer(s):Fayazmanesh, Sasan

Published by EH.NET (January 2007)

Jerry Evensky, Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xi + 331 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-85247-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sasan Fayazmanesh, Department of Economics, California State University, Fresno.

Books dealing with the history of economic thought generally fall into two categories. One, which is relatively rare, critically examines the writings of past economists in order to construct new theories, theories which might save economics from the doldrums in which it often finds itself. The other, which is quite prevalent, tries to offer an interpretation of the writings of a long-gone worldly philosopher, along with hundreds or perhaps thousands of past interpretations. The interpretation usually is intended to be different from the previous ones and tries to show where others might have gone wrong. Jerry Evensky’s Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy definitely falls into the second category. It is yet another interpretation of the relationship between Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN).

The work is divided into three parts: 1) “On Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophical Vision,” 2) “On the Place of The Wealth of Nations in Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophical Vision,” and 3) “On Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophical Vision and Modern Discourse.” The first part deals mostly with Adam Smith’s “vision,” that is, the nature of Smithian human nature and the instrumental role of political institutions and religion in the evolution of mankind. The second part is on the “progress of opulence.” More specifically, the role that WN plays in Smith’s moral philosophy is examined in this part. The last part tries to situate Smith’s moral philosophy in modern economic discourse. In particular, theories of Gary Becker — representing the Chicago School — Amartya Sen, and James Buchanan are analyzed in light of Smith’s “vision” in this part.

What differentiates Evensky’s work from previous ones? Generally speaking, interpretations of Adam Smith’s writings, and particularly the relation between the TMS and WN, fall into two major categories, depending on the ideological inclination of the analyst. Those admiring laissez faire — and belonging mostly to the orthodox or marginalist school — seem to approve of the self-loving, greedy, and merchant-minded man of WN. Those less sanguine about laissez faire — and belonging mostly to the heterodox economics — usually admire the virtuous, benevolent, and empathic man of the TMS. In most cases there is no bridge between the two Smithian men. That is, Smith’s two works usually are seen to be quite different in aims and arguments; and interpreters either choose this or that work. But these are not the only interpretations. Less frequently, we see a third interpretation, one that tries to provide a bridge between different Smithian actors (see, for example, Athol Fitzgibbons, “Adam Smith’s Theory of Human Nature,” in Evolutionary Economics and Human Nature, edited by John Laurent, 2003). According to this interpretation, there is no real difference between the two men; they are one and the same. To put it differently, the third interpretation implies that Smith’s TMS and WN are well integrated and arguments presented in one do not contradict the other.

Evensky’s Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy falls in the third category. He, too, tries to reconcile the two works of Adam Smith; and he, himself, acknowledges the redundancy of this attempt (p. 26):

For more than two centuries, scholars have studied and offered rich analyses of economic, political, social, legal, religious and moral dimensions of Smith’s moral philosophy, and some have explicitly focused on the connections between various dimensions, such as moral and economics (Young, 1997) or law and economics (Malloy, 1994). If this is the case, if so many scholarly and rich analyses of Smith’s works and their connection have been written for more than two centuries, then why write another book?

Evensky’s answer to the above question appears in the next sentence: “However, for Smith, the whole is much greater than any one connection or of the sum of these parts.” Thus, it seems, the differentia specifica of Evensky’s interpretation of Smith’s moral philosophy is that it concentrates on the whole (p. 26):

The whole is what he finds in history. By examining the course of humankind’s history Smith develops his understanding of how these particular parts interact in a general dynamic evolving system…. His is a simultaneous system in which all dimensions — social, political, and economic — are codetermined and constantly co-evolving. Thus to fully appreciate Smith’s moral philosophy, it must be examined through the general frame he used to represent that dynamic simultaneous system: the natural selection/evolution/limit frame. This interpretation of Smith’s “whole” as a “dynamic simultaneous system” involving “selection/evolution/limit frame” appears to be what Evensky’s interpretation of Smith is all about. The notion of “selection/evolution/limit” is, of course, the result of reading Adam Smith after Charles Darwin. That is, following Darwin, Smith’s conjecture concerning four stages of history is interpreted by Evensky as “Smith’s analysis of natural selection and evolution through stages,” which ultimately converges to “an ideal limiting case: ‘the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice'” (pp. 11-12).

To the fans of Adam Smith, especially those opposed to the purely orthodox reading of WN, Evensky’s attempt might appear convincing. To skeptics — who believe that Smith’s works, particularly WN, not only are not fully integrated but are full of the contradictions, illogical arguments, ambiguities and prejudices of nineteenth-century European writers — Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy is yet another attempt to gloss over Smith’s limitations. It is also another effort to make Smith’s archaic theory of history appear respectable by a Darwinian reading of it.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is the Chair of the Department of Economics at California State University, Fresno. His latest book is Money and Exchange: Folktales and Reality (Routledge, 2006).

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII