Book Review #3

25 Feb

Adam SmithThis is one half of a review. I had intended to read two books in tandem, and report on both. Unfortunately, the vagaries of digital rights management, the politics of Kindle and Adobe, and three different computers frustrated my best plans to explore Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments with Ryan Hanley’s Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue as a guide.

For many years, rightly or wrongly, [Adam] Smith has been famous as a founding father of capitalism. In recent, at least in academic circles, he has also emerged as one of capitalism’s earliest and most trenchant critics; as several recent works have noted, Smith himself anticipated several of the ills that capitalism’s critics continue to insist upon today. But what has not yet been sufficiently emphasized is that Smith in his own name set forth a sustained and developed remedy for the ills he diagnosed. The articulation of this remedy, I want to argue, in fact constitutes the principal intent of one of the most disputed aspects of Smith’s corpus, namely the revisions to the sixth edition (1790) to The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In particular I want to suggest that the sixth edition’s entirely new Part VI, “Of the Character of Virtue”, was intended by Smith as a remedy for the challenges he identified with the advent and progress of commercial society and indeed contains Smith’s most direct effort to fulfill the mandate implicit in his own insistence that the amelioration of society’s moral defects is indeed “an object worthy of serious attention”. Smith’s study of virtue in Part VI thus represents at once his mature answer to what he considered the primary question in moral philosophy – wherein does virtue consist? – as well as his considered response to the ills of commercial corruption that he himself so powerfully articulated.

According to Hanley, Smith, as a proponent of capitalism, nonetheless identifies numerous ways capitalism hobbles its practitioners, through restlessness, mediocrity, and indifference to others, among other ills. Smith then offers a virtue ethics based on the education of a person from self-loving, anxious, mediocre being about prudence, followed by magnanimity, and finally the Christian virtue of beneficence. This three-stage evolution seeks to reconcile wealth with virtue. Smith accepted the evils he reported in An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations as a political economist as facts, not as normative statements.

What was most satisfying about Hanley’s account, though, is how he brings Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s system into Smith’s intellectual orbit. Hanley’s account of the Smithian capitalist is far more appealing than, say, Charles Dickens‘ caricature of Ebenezer Scrooge. If only Rousseau had not been so excessive, so paranoid, so absolute, many admirers have lamented over the centuries, the ills he diagnosed in contemporary society might find remedies. Smith engages Rousseau and provides the remedy. Both start from the same condition: man is a social being corrupted by a degenerate sort of self-loving into a being acting only in the warped contact of others like him. Humans are good; society debilitates them. Rousseau could not find a solution other than solitude or a complete revision of man through a new society. Smith takes the middle ground by a dialectical process in which the ills of each stage in a person’s education becomes the base for the next stage. Smith takes humans as active beings, not contemplative philosophers.

What I would have preferred in Hanley’s account was less of the setup required to prove that we should take Section VI seriously and more of the diagnosis and the remedy. Of course, I missed the chance to read Smith for his argument. Still, more Smith and less academic politics would have convinced anyone why they should plow into dense philosophical text. Dealing with capitalism is a very intimate, pressing issue. A more intimate guide is an interesting prospect.

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