Smith as Virtue Ethicist
Aaron Garrett (2010)


This comment is from a roundtable on Ryan Patrick Hanley’s Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue.

In Adam Smith and the Virtue of Character, Ryan Hanley argues that Adam Smith was deeply aware of the ills of commercial society. Like a number of philosophers following Shaftesbury (including two of his greatest influences Hume and Hutcheson) Smith sought to provide virtues appropriate to a modern commercial society. Unlike Hume or Hutcheson and following Rousseau, Smith highlighted the importance of the ills of commercial society and, Hanley argues, tried to ameliorate some of them by offering a normative virtue ethics centered in the 6th edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This was in response, in part, to problems arising from the growth of commerce so acutely described in the Wealth of Nations.

Other authors — notably Emma Rothschild, Charles Griswold, and Samuel Fleischacker — have drawn attention to the dark side of the Wealth of Nations, to Rousseau, and to the relationship between WON and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hanley also does an excellent job in drawing this, but differently and freshly. The book is rich so I will focus on one disagreement, whether or not it makes sense to think of Smith as a virtue ethicist. That I will focus on a disagreement should not be seen as a sign of lack of admiration for the book – it is the habitual practice of philosophers!

Hanley argues that Adam Smith is best understood overall as a virtue theorist. He takes “virtue theorist” in the contemporary sense of a normative moral theory distinct from utilitarianism and Kant inspired deontological theories. On this account, virtue theory gives us an alternative normative justification that stresses the possession of certain virtues as intrinsically desirable and also contributing to a good life or welfare. Virtues answer the questions “What do I want to be” – i.e., a person who possesses certain virtues – and contribute to a flourishing life.

Hanley is aware that there is a problem with describing an eighteenth-century theory with twentieth-century distinctions — in this case virtue theory as distinct from Kantian-inspired deontology and utilitarianism. He suggests that since utilitarianism and deontological theories had important representatives who were contemporaries of Smith it is not wholly anachronistic. Smith was aware of normative utilitarian justifications from Hume and Hutcheson and duty centered justifications in Butler and many others.

First, virtue talk was pervasive in the eighteenth-century. Kant had a doctrine of virtue, and nearly every British author from Robert Boyle to Shaftesbury to Butler and Hutcheson and Hume all wrote extensively about virtue. No one, as far as I know, laid out a virtue theory in the way we might find in Rosalind Hursthouse for example. This is a consequence of the difference between using virtues within a normative moral theory and a normative virtue theory. A normative virtue theory asserts that what we ought to do has a special (even exclusive) justifying connection with virtues. This is not, for example, because possessing certain virtues results in the greatest happiness or it allows us to discharge our rationally secured duties more effectively. This is rather because virtues are desirable in and of themselves, we want to be the sort of person who has these virtues, and possession of the virtues leads to a flourishing life (whatever that means).

Hanley claims that Smith is normative virtue theorist. Part of Hanley’s warrant for this claim is that Smith criticizes Hume’s utilitarianism. It is important that Smith’s disagreement in TMS is not with utility as such but with Hume’s tendency to ignore the importance of the sense of beauty in making judgments concerning utility, i.e., the use of utility as an exclusive justification. For example, my desire to own an elaborate mechanical watch is motivated by its beautiful design, not just because it is a useful device with which to tell time.

So utility is not the sole motivation. But this should not be seen to imply that Smith rejects utility. Smith himself makes use of utilitarian justifications (in the sense of Hume and Hutcheson) and deontic moral justifications (in the sense of Butler) throughout the TMS. In his discussion of fortune, Smith argues that there is a good reason for the irregularity of our sentiments, i.e. that although we tend to morally evaluate actions on the basis of intentions we are irregular in our appraisals and this has useful consequences for society in general. There are parallel arguments in his discussion of justice.

As to deontology case Smith gives us a doctrine of duty that is central for his normative ethics and involves obeying general rules because they are approved of as right not because they are individually expeditious. Duty is connected with the virtues, in particular self-command. But that it is connected with virtue, and that virtues might be important to discharge the duty, does not make it a normative virtue theory insofar as the do not justify it. Consequently it seems to me Smith relies on all three normative justifications in different contexts.

Much of Hanley’s case rests on his interpretation of the role of Book VI of the TMS. I agree that Smith criticizes Hutcheson’s Christian utilitarianism in VI.ii.3, and that he suggests a more central role for virtue in his moral theory than in the earlier editions. I also think Hanley’s thesis is plausible that the importance of virtue was brought home to Smith by WON. But even here Smith stresses that “the great disorder in our moral sentiments is by no means, however without its utility,” (TMS VI.iii.30). And, I find the idea that there is a progress of different types of virtue and moral justification unconvincing.

Instead it seems to me that Smith, like Butler and Hume, was interested not in advocating for a particular normative theory but in showing that a proper appraisal of the human frame limits the roles of different types of normative justifications – utility in justice, duty in relations to others, virtue in private exercise (this is just a rough rubric). In fact the purpose of TMS VII, is to show that accurate psychology negates cleaving solely to one or another school of normative justification.

Smith in the end may have realized that he underemphasized virtue in the earlier editions of the TMS, and this may have been in response to Rousseau and WON. This may have been because he misjudged the role of virtue and its importance was brought home to him by empirical research in the WON. But this makes Smith a scientifically minded eclectic, one willing to change his theories and rebalance on the basis of psychology and the study of society, not a virtue ethicist in the Aristotelian mold.