August 9, 2010


Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson: review: As Nicholas Phillipson's biography shows, Adam Smith may have led the quietest of lives but the life of his mind was another matter altogether (Noel Malcolm, 01 Aug 2010, Daily Telegraph)

Phillipson is particularly good at analysing the influence on Smith of other major thinkers – especially his charismatic teacher at Glasgow, Frances Hutcheson, and his brilliant and faithful older friend, the philosopher David Hume. Both of these had reacted against what they saw as the excessive rationalism of previous theories about politics and morality – the idea that the state was founded on a purely rational 'contract’, or that ethics could be reduced to a rational calculation of self-interest. In Hume’s view, these things could better be explained in terms of custom, habit, a natural convergence of interests, and a general approval of 'utility’. Smith’s theory of 'moral sentiments’ took a further step in the same direction, analysing moral behaviour in terms of how we empathise with others, and how we wish to be empathised with in turn.

This whole account of human psychology, in which passions make all the running and what we call rational judgment is really an exercise of the imagination, is – as Phillipson shows – fundamental to the theory of The Wealth of Nations. The crude modern caricature of Smith’s theory is that the pursuit of self-interest promotes, automatically, the general good; but Smith was acutely aware that the 'self-interest’ people pursue is often an imagined good, the product of mere imitation and the desire to be admired.

Much of Smith’s work, indeed, was aimed at explaining why European societies had not attained prosperity as fast as they rationally should have done. There were many culprits: stupid landowners who thought that getting more land was more important than improving the productivity of the land they already had; merchants who persuaded governments that protectionism would benefit the whole nation; and governments that did almost anything (especially waging expensive wars) other than maintaining 'easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice’.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 9, 2010 6:05 AM
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