Smith and Christian Virtue
Gordon Graham (2010)


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

Is Adam Smith’s ‘wise and virtuous man’ a Christian? Given Smith’s famous commendation of David Hume ‘as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man’, the simplest answer seems to be ‘No’. Smith’s description of Hume, after all, gave offense in some quarters precisely because it seemed to commend in the highest terms a man known to be a skeptic about the fundamentals of the Christian religion.

Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue suggests that this simple answer is too simple. This is because, on Hanley’s account, a Christian virtue – beneficence – plays a key role in the character and formation of the wise and virtuous man. To understand this contention it is crucial that we distinguish between beneficence and benevolence. The trajectory of moral development that Smith describes in TMS is one in which by stages the self is transcended. The natural psychological energy that individuals display in seeking their own interests is gradually transformed. First, magnanimity — the pursuit of great accomplishment — displaces a simple pursuit of personal welfare. In turn the self-promotion inherent in the aspiration to greatness is itself checked by insight into, and impartial concern for, the interest of others. At this point benevolence finally eliminates egoism. Yet by itself, benevolence does not amount to more than an unfocussed will for the universal well being of mankind. The trouble with such a will, however laudable, is that it cannot be acted on. This is a deep problem because, Smith tells us,

Man was made for action, and to promote by the exertion of his faculties . . . changes in the external circumstances of himself and others . . . He must not be satisfied with indolent benevolence, nor fancy himself a friend of mankind, because in his heart he wishes well to the prosperity of the world. (TMS II.iii.3.3)

The general disposition to benevolence, then, must realize itself in active beneficence, that is to say, actually doing some good, and not merely willing it to be done. The move is critical for the completion of Smith’s moral theory, and according to Hanley, it invokes a distinctively (though not exclusively) Christian virtue. What makes beneficence Christian? Hanley identifies two features. First, benevolent people cannot relinquish the ambition of doing good on a universal scale, and rest content with doing whatever good they can in the contingent circumstances of life, unless there is some reason to suppose that this limited beneficence is part of, or contributes meaningfully to the universal good that the truly benevolent person wills. It is thus a necessary presupposition of acting beneficently that the good of humanity as a whole is nonetheless taken care of. This implies that beneficence must locate itself within a providential cosmos.

The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society. . . He should therefore be equally willing that all those inferior interests should be sacrificed . . . to the interest of that society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director. (TMS VI.ii.3.3)

Acting beneficently thus implies the acknowledgement of an absolute obligation to act for the good of the whole, alongside an acknowledgement of our relative impotence in this regard. It induces, accordingly, a certain kind of humility by which even the most energetic and successful person ‘has a full sense of the merit of other people’. Herein, Hanley contends, ‘lies . . . the reason why Smith’s concept of beneficence, and indeed his concept of the wise and virtuous man can properly be said to be Christian’(ASCV p. 200). At its heart is a concept of human equality, not the formal equality of modern rights theories, but a deep equality built into human nature – the kind of equality that arises from, and is expressed in the belief that ‘God has, in creating man, “created him after his own image” (p.201).

The first of these maneuvers – making divine providence a presupposition of intelligible moral action – is strongly reminiscent of Kant, of course , though perhaps for Smith it is psychological rather than rational necessity that forges the connection. Some element of both seems indispensible to me, but in any event I have no inclination to dispute the general contention. Let us agree that in the absence of what used to be called ‘divine government’ the duty of beneficence is hard to make intelligible.

Hanley’s second contention is more interesting, perhaps because discussions of Kant have made the first point reasonably familiar. Again, I have no inclination to dispute it. In my estimation, the equal moral worth of human beings is an idea that secular morality clings to avidly, and which nevertheless, it has great difficulty making any sense of. Nietzsche was right , in my opinion. If we are not equal in the sight of God because there is no God, then (in Smith’s terms) magnanimity without the check of beneficence is the highest ideal we can aspire to.

Yet, even if we agree both that these two contentions are crucial to Smith’s moral theory, and substantially correct in their own right, there is nevertheless an important gap between the wise and virtuous man and the devout Christian. I shall leave aside here the interesting issue of sin and atonement. In the sixth edition of TMS Smith, famously, deleted a paragraph that expressly addresses these topics. Hanley makes a very good case, as it seems to me, for thinking that too much has been made of this deletion, and that a lot of the language of sin is in fact retained in other parts of TMS. A more important factor, in my estimation, is Smith’s evident antipathy to certain religious practices. To put the matter simply, it seems to me that the wise and virtuous man can have no use for the ritual acts of worship that are characteristic of religion, including the Christian religion. Chief among these are prayers of confession, penitential acts and sacramental rituals. At a minimum, Smith is skeptical about the value of ‘the public and private worship of the deity’, at least in some of its forms.

To compare . . . the futile mortifications of the monastery to the ennobling hardships and hazards of war; to suppose that one day, or one hour, employed in the former should, in the eye of the great Judge of the world, have more merit that a whole life spent honorably in the latter is surely contrary to . . . all the principles by which nature has taught us to regulate our contempt or admiration. (TMS III.2. 35).

In this passage Smith is more circumspect than Hume, and does not expressly denounce ‘the monkish virtues’, but its negative tone seems to me unmistakable. The ultimate explanation for this, I shall suggest, lies with his conception of action. When, in the passage quoted earlier, Smith says that ‘man was made for action’ he immediately identifies action with bringing about change. The distinguishing feature of ritual action is that it seeks to realize the unchanging. It thereby acknowledges both the necessity and the futility of action. Beneficence distinguished from benevolence in the way that Smith distinguishes it, might be brought within the scope of ritual action, and thereby establish its character as a fully religious virtue. But within Smith’s conception of action, it must remain a moral virtue. As such it can be construed as having freed itself from unnecessary theological baggage, and welcomed for this reason. Alternatively, for just the same reason, it could be regarded as having been reduced to a poor substitute of the real thing. I incline to the second of these constructions, though clearly this is not the place to defend such a claim. Either way, Smith conception of ‘beneficence’ falls notably short of the traditional Christian version.