Response to Roundtable
Ryan Patrick Hanley (2010)


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

Adam Smith calls “duties of gratitude” the “most sacred” of the duties derived from beneficence (TMS 3.6.9), and I’m compelled to admit that in composing this reply I feel these duties keenly. I’m very grateful to the editors of the Art of Theory for sponsoring this forum and for their interest in my work. I’m also deeply grateful to our five commentators who have traveled so far – from departments of history, theology, philosophy, political science and English – to be part of this roundtable on Smith’s ethics. Their participation testifies to their own generosity and to Smith’s cross-disciplinary attraction.

The reply that follows addresses our five discussants serially. Doing so, I hope, will keep it as short as possible and also reflect the organization of the book. Its second half begins with Smith’s study of prudence and commercial virtue, then turns to his study of magnanimity and classical virtue, and concludes with his study of beneficence and Christian virtue. A similar division can be seen in the themes on which three of the commentators have chosen to focus – perhaps proof positive that a division of labor can work spontaneously! (WN 1.2.1) In that spirit in what follows I focus on Catherine Labio’s comments on prudence, Fredrik Albritton-Jonsson’s on magnanimity, and Gordon Graham’s on beneficence, before concluding with a reply to Fonna Forman-Barzilai’s comments on perfectionism.

Let me begin though with Aaron Garrett’s comments. Garrett, somewhat differently from the other four commentators, focuses on a theme that is more a focus of the first part of the book than the second. As Garrett notes, there I argue that seen from the familiar tripartite division of contemporary moral philosophy into deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics, Smith is better understood as a representative of the latter rather than the two former camps. Now that claim, I think, isn’t in disaccord with Garrett’s claim that Smith’s virtue ethics is something quite different from the virtue ethics of either Aristotle or Hursthouse. That seems wholly right to me – and indeed one of my hopes for the book is that those attracted to virtue ethics but not fully satisfied by either ancient or contemporary versions of such might be moved to engage Smith’s eighteenth-century alternative.

Garrett’s comments thus remind us of the need to be cautious in applying contemporary labels to historical thinkers. Yet they also illuminate the benefits of a different sort of label. Smith scholars have long debated how best to define his substantive ethical positions. Many have inclined to see him through the lens of Stoicism, and in response others have argued that this label does more to obscure than to clarify his many debts, which much excellent scholarship has shown to have included ancient Epicureanism and Aristotelianism and modern Newtonianism and Humeanism. Smith’s synthesis, we can now say with reasonable assurance, was thus broad – and it is precisely for this reason that if we must have a label for Smith, we do best simply to adopt that of “eclectic” as invoked in Garrett’s conclusion.

In the first place, the term recalls another ancient school remarkably influential in the eighteenth century but largely forgotten today: the ancient Eclectics, who flourished in Alexandria in the period between Augustus’ rise and Rome’s fall, and who are the subject of one of the longest and most striking entries on the history of philosophy in the Encyclopédie. Smith himself invokes the Eclectics in a key passage in TMS, introducing them as the ancient counterpart to none other than Francis Hutcheson. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the “eclectic” approach to moral theory – in which elements of one school are synthesized with elements of another – seems to me to capture the heart of Smith’s own ethics, dedicated as it is to an attempt to synthesize commercial, classical and Christian virtues.

Catherine Labio begins by noting that she identifies less with the optimism I find in Smith than the “hard-nosed pessimism” of certain of his critics. This position of course has much to commend it and deserves forthright engagement. Smith himself testifies to the value of such engagement in his own generous engagement with the pessimism of Rousseau, among others, which enabled him to conceive a means of transcending pessimism and legitimating the sober optimism to which he inclined. That said, I think that there are further resources in Smith that can help to mitigate “melancholy realism.” Smith’s study of prudence is a case in point.

Labio herself wonders whether prudence might be “of greater consequence to agricultural or pre-commercial societies” than to commercial ones. Many would argue just the opposite, however; as Deirdre McCloskey has suggested recently and compellingly, a principal failing of the economic science of which Smith is so often heralded as a founding father is its celebration of “Prudence Only,” leading to a view of man as a mere rational utility-maximizing machine.1 The worry on this front is that the champions of commercial modernity not only reduce the whole of virtue to prudence, but they also reduce prudence itself to a mere tool of instrumentality – an attenuated virtue that little resembles Aristotle’s view of phronesis as an individual’s capacity “to deliberate beautifully about things that are good and advantageous for himself, not in part, such as the sort of things that are conducive to health or to strength, but the sort of things that are conducive to living well as a whole.”2/sup>

Smith, I think, was well aware of the temptations that might lead us to turn away from such a vision, and his own study of prudence – and particularly his distinction between superior and inferior prudence – aims to restore within commercial modernity the emphasis on “living well as a whole” characteristic of the Aristotelian perspective. And while attending to this may not alone be sufficient to cure the melancholy realism of the pessimist, it can, I think, absolve Smith of the charge that it was his conscious intention, as Labio suggests, to define “an ethical system that is only applicable to commercial societies and thus makes it difficult to distinguish morality from expediency.”

Fredrik Albritton-Jonsson’s comments are equally stimulating and deserving of greater elaboration. I found especially valuable his reminder of the “material foundation of moral corruption” that lies beyond the psychological concerns on which my book is largely focused. In this vein I was particularly struck by his suggestive comments on the way in which these material attractions attract the “wandering eye” – indeed it strikes me that there is an excellent paper (at least) to be written on the way in which material attractions corrupt not simply our moral psychologies, but the perspicuity of the very eye of the spectator.

But for now I focus on the question of magnanimity. Jonsson rightly raises a crucial question: how exactly are Smith’s concerns regarding magnanimity to be instituted in practice? In response, he suggests further attending to Smith’s political context. This seems to me exactly right, and my reasons for so thinking are perhaps best introduced by the prescient observation of another commentator on my work. At last year’s APSA, Iain McLean noted that in his study of Robert Burns’ physical copy of the 5th edition of TMS, currently housed at Glasgow University Library, he discovered only a single annotation: next to the key passage in which Smith insists that the affairs of all governments tend to be directed by those who have worked their way up the ranks from lower station (TMS, an unknown hand wrote the single word “Dundas.”

It is a prescient and clever remark, one that suggests an intimate connection between the normative moral theory of the Scottish Enlightenment and its efforts to shape the sensibilities of the political and landed elites. In this sense, Smith’s perspective accords with a more general, widespread conviction concerning the properly civic function of education which was central to the Scottish Enlightenment – and particularly evident in the unjustly neglected educational treatises of George Turnbull, David Fordyce, and Henry Home, Lord Kames – and which deserves more attention than it has received.

I’m also deeply grateful to Gordon Graham for his stimulating comments on Smith and Christian beneficence. His allusions to certain parallels between Kant and Smith are extremely suggestive, and while some excellent work has been done on this front (especially by Sam Fleischacker), much more remains to be said about this engagement. But here I concentrate on Graham’s main claim: namely that the fundamental difference between Smith’s “wise and virtuous man” and the “devout Christian” is the former’s “antipathy to certain religious practices.” This is hardly a claim I’d dispute; Smith’s well-known antipathies to the “futile mortifications of a monastery” more than prove Graham’s point (TMS 3.2.35).

At the same time, there may well be a danger in allowing Smith’s antipathy to one type of religious practice to stand for his understanding of religion as a whole. Smith scholars have long tended to focus more on his critiques of orthodox practice rather than his more positive treatment of what he calls “the natural principles of religion” (TMS 3.5.13). Yet attending to such, I think, is crucial to understanding both Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment as a whole. Smith’s reference to religion’s natural principles locates him in a largely overlooked but central debate within the Scottish Enlightenment over the nature of what they were prone to call “true religion,” the meaning of which deserves more careful scrutiny than it has thus far received. Like Graham, I suspect in the end that such an inquiry will not lead us back to Christian orthodoxy. Yet it may be valuable insofar as it may well lead us to something quite distinct from both the empty deism or ostensible atheism that has for so long been associated with the Enlightenment’s engagement with religion.

Finally, it’s a great pleasure to have a chance to respond to Fonna Forman-Barzilai. I’ve benefited tremendously from both our long-standing friendship and her own excellent recent book on Smith, and the connections between it and her comments here will be evident to those who have had the pleasure of reading both. The most important of these is her emphasis on “perfectionism.” This isn’t a term that I myself much use, but I imagine it could mean at least two different things. On one hand it might refer to a system dedicated to the achievement of perfection. Or it might refer to a system founded on an image of perfection. Smith would have to be seen as an advocate of only this second sort of “perfectionism.” I couldn’t agree more that he “never expected the mass of mankind to become wise and virtuous” (and indeed I can’t think of any serious thinker from Aristotle to Nietzsche who did!). And I’d even go further: not only does he reject the possibility that everyone might achieve perfection, he also rejects the possibility that anyone might achieve perfection; perfection, after all, is a standard which “no human conduct ever did, or ever can come up to” (TMS; cf.

So exactly what work is perfection then doing in Smith’s ethics? Perfection is important to Smith, I think, not because he sees it as an end state to be achieved, but because it provides an ideal with which we can each dialectically engage in our own efforts at self-improvement. This seems to me to be the reason why he consistently refers to perfection not as a state but as an “idea” (TMS; cf. 6.3.25-26) – and one, moreover, chiefly valuable for the guidance it gives to those who are “are most sincerely labouring after perfection, and endevaouring to act according to the best principle which can possibly direct us” (TMS 3.6.12).

Appreciating this may also help us on another front. If perfection in practice isn’t the end of Smith’s ethics, what is? As Forman-Barzilai notes, the peak figure in Smith’s ethics is the wise and virtuous man. But who is this wise and virtuous man, and in what exactly does his excellence consist? Smith’s claim is that his excellence lies in his capacity to balance his awareness of his excellence with a full embrace of the decency and dignity of others – a balance that preserves him from temptations toward “insolence” to others and ensures that he is “at all times willing to promote their further advancement” (TMS 6.3.25). Elsewhere Smith is even more explicit in fleshing out what this might look like, telling us that wisdom and virtue are chiefly valuable in their capacity to promote “providing meat, drink, rayment, and lodging for men, which are commonly reckoned the meanest of employments and fit for the pursuit of none but the lowest and meanest of the people” (LJA 6.20-21).

Now this is a rather remarkable redefinition of wisdom and virtue. In the first place, I would think it exonerates Smith from the charge that his ethical peak aspires to stand “somehow outside and above the tangle of the human drama,” or that Smith championed “perfectionist virtue…at the expense of practical morality.” In sharp contrast, Smith’s vision of virtue is important precisely because it aspires to synthesize these two categories. Indeed in Smith’s virtue ethics, “moral perfection” and “practical morality” are neither two categories in tension nor even two different things, as it is precisely the reconciliation of “moral perfection” and what Forman-Barzilai here calls “social coordination” that Smith aims to effect in claiming that it is precisely that which “constitutes the perfection of human nature” which “can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions” (TMS Indeed if we were to swap the coordinating conjunction “and” for the coordinating conjunction “or” in Forman-Barzilai’s title, I think we’d have Smith exactly right!

Now some – especially those invested in the distinction between “ancients” and “moderns” – might still not be satisfied. Forman-Barzilai nods in this direction at times, calling Smith a “quintessentially modern thinker” who sought to cultivate a “modern, practical morality,” so that “moderns could get along reasonably well.” But I confess that I find this heuristic unsatisfying for a number of reasons. Some are theoretical; in the end I’m not sure that the ancient-modern dichotomy doesn’t do more to obscure than to illuminate what makes either antiquity or modernity worthy objects of study for contemporary political theorists.

Other reasons are historical. I couldn’t agree more that we should aim to provide “a faithful, historical interpretation of Smith.” But that such a reconstruction would point away from “perfectionism” and towards “bourgeois virtue” is to my mind by no means obvious. I think a careful survey of eighteenth-century Scottish moral and political thought would in fact reveal almost exactly the opposite, and show that so far from rejecting perfectionism, the language of the pursuit of the beautiful and noble conceived teleologically constitutes a (if not the) principal strain of moral discourse in the Scottish Enlightenment. The lines of transmission of this discourse are, to be sure, complex; one would want to begin by disaggregating the line that begins in Glasgow with Hutcheson’s “New Light” synthesis of ancient Stoicism and Ciceronianism with moderate Presbyterianism, from the line that that begins contemporaneously in Edinburgh with the Rankenian Club’s embrace of Shaftesbury and culminates in Aberdeen with Thomas Reid.

Yet as a matter of history it ultimately seems more accurate to say that Hume’s antipathy to perfectionism was more the outlier than the norm in the Scottish Enlightenment. And while a great deal remains to be done to uncover this discourse and Smith’s connections with it, those who aspire to trace these connections couldn’t do better than to begin with Forman-Barzilai’s important book, which is sure to become an essential point of departure for those aspiring to understand Smith’s ideas in context.

Adam Smith’s friend Ben Franklin once counseled against replying to critics on the grounds that precious time is better spent “making new Experiments, than in Disputing about those already made.”3 There’s much to commend such a view! Yet the two ends might not be necessarily exclusive, as a critical look back can often help to propel a useful step forwards. Such, at any rate, has been my hope, and I’m deeply grateful to our commentators for generous and stimulating comments that do so much to remind us of all the work still to be done on Smith and the Scots.

  1. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 6.5, 1140a25-28; trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2002).
  3. Franklin, Autobiography, in Benjamin Franklin, Writings, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay (New York: Library of America, 1987), 1454.