- Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment
For over a century, scholars have been vexed by the so-called "Adam Smith problem," which concerns the relationship between the two works which Smith published during his lifetime: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) in 1759, and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN) in 1776 (citations are to the Liberty Classics reprints of the Oxford University Press editions). Many have regarded them as discordant: while TMS is apparently concerned with classical ethics, WN seems to assume that humans are basically egoistic, although they can be directed toward the public good by means of the "invisible hand." It is tempting to view Smith as a transitional author: TMS is the swan song of virtue ethics, whereas WN is a pioneering work in a new tradition of political economy.
Griswold challenges this temptation in this brilliant study, arguing that Smith had a coherent and integrated philosophical viewpoint encompassing TMS, WN, and other surviving writings. Griswold views Smith as offering a virtue ethics and "throwing in his lot with the ancient moralists" (65). He argues, "We cannot grasp Smith's diagnosis of and therapy for the modern age without devoting considerable attention to his analysis of the virtues (especially the virtue of justice) as well as to the theory of the emotions, of the impartial spectator, and of sympathy" (20). Smith tried to reconcile a traditional ethics with modern skepticism and the new values associated with commercial society and religious secularism. Griswold's book illuminates a wide range of themes in Smith's moral philosophy: his view of rhetoric, method, and system underlying TMS (chapter 1); sympathy and self-interest (chapter 2); moral psychology and the theory of the impartial spectator (chapter 3); Smith's skepticism and reservations about philosophy (chapter 4); virtue theory (chapter 5); justice (chapter 6); the relationship between TMS and WN (chapter 7); and nature versus artifice in ethics (chapter 8). The epilogue critically discusses whether Smith's moral theory falls into subjectivism, and whether [End Page 439] Smith goes too far in excluding philosophers such as Socrates from ordinary moral discourse.
A brief review cannot do justice to Griswold's compelling interpretation, and I shall focus on his solution to "the old problem of how the moral theory and the political economy mesh" (21). Griswold argues, "Smith sees himself as synthesizing an ancient view about the nature of virtue with a modern approach to the problem of the source of moral value. Consequently the moral psychology (especially the notions of sympathy and the impartial spectator) and the virtue theory must be understood in light of each other" (181). Further, "The virtue theory is the moral foundation of Smith's political economy, political theory, and 'natural jurisprudence.' Hence the virtue theory is closely tied to his doctrine of liberty as well as to his views about the pursuit of wealth. However 'ancient' the virtue theory may in some respects be, Smith combines it with a modern view of the social and political institutions appropriate to virtue" (ibid.). With impressive erudition Griswold argues that "taken together . . . TMS and WN form complementary parts of a larger whole" (265), and that Smith thinks "the virtues of a free and commercial society" may be defended on the basis of views espoused in WN: skepticism of state interference in economic and social matters, anti-utopianism, and the doctrine of the invisible hand (21). Yet WN does not place blind faith in laissez faire but advocates social justice, compulsory public education and greater taxes on the rich (254, 264, 359).
Has Griswold, then, finally solved the Adam Smith Problem? There remains the problem that WN apparently neglects central themes of TMS: sympathy, the impartial spectator, and benevolence. In TMS virtue has distinctive components: "Concern for our own happiness recommends to us the virtue of prudence: concern for that of other people, the virtues of justice and beneficence" (TMS 262). These constitute perfect virtue: "The man who acts according to the rules of perfect...