December 25, 2013


Adam Smith, Communitarian : a review of Adam Smith's Pluralism by Jack Russell Weinstein (DAVID J. DAVIS, December 19, 2013, American Conservative)

To appreciate Smith fully, Weinstein rightly suggests, we must dispose of Kant's quest for singularity and uniformity and, following thinkers like MacIntyre, acknowledge the permanent reality of differing moral traditions.

Much of the book is spent illustrating Smith's appreciation for the kind of variety and depth in human nature and reason that is absent from the Kantian tradition. Smith, Weinstein argues, did not bifurcate the human faculties of reason and emotion, which is why any attempt to develop a single Smithian motivation for human action is erroneous. Reason and emotion are too interlinked in the human condition to be separated. This is why Smith distrusted any logical or analytical approach to human society that demoted emotion and intuition to a second or third tier of experience. Weinstein explains that for Smith, far from emotions being the antithesis of reason, they regularly "initiate, are the consequence of, and are often indistinguishable from reason."

The complexity that Smith sees in human reason flows over into his study of human society. Smith refused to accept the cynical view of human nature propounded by Hobbes and Mandeville. Yet he was also a moral realist who acknowledged human vice and vanity, which were at odds with an equally evident inclination toward virtue. Following from this, in a particularly insightful portion of the book Weinstein completely discredits any purely economic reading of Smith. He contends that "life is not a marketplace" for Smith. Instead, "it is often familial, pedagogical, spiritual, and natural; it is only sometimes commercial." Competition and self-interest were means to an end, not ends in themselves. Rather, Weinstein sees the healthy notion of harmony as the most dominant ideal running through Smith's philosophy.

Weinstein builds upon Smithian harmony, explaining that while life is not always commercial, it is always communal. Community, in turn, derives its lifeblood from "imagination," because imagination creates the capacity for sympathy. Unlike Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, Smith "presumes human difference" as a necessary and inherent aspect of civilization, rejecting the Kantian ideal of "noncontextual normativity." Smith recognized that cultural, temporal, and social differences shaped norms and values, making it impossible to create a single, all-inclusive norm of human behavior. This is why sympathy is so important. It offers a means that is natural to the human condition--our desire to commiserate with our fellow man--to bridge the gap between our differences.

Smith believed that "political society is not derived from a social contract," according to Weinstein. Instead, society is a natural expression of what it means to be human. The state of nature for Smith is one of community, and the ultimate questions related to human society are questions of morality and virtue, not economics and politics. Thus, a broad, morally robust education rooted in a particular community is essential to forming sympathetic individuals. While Smith did not idealize the role of education--it could not completely eliminate human selfishness and vanity--he believed it had the power to "direct vanity to proper objects" and to "convert competing passions into a harmonious character."

The role of language is an essential component of Smith's moral philosophy because it is the fundamental connection between the individual and the community. In his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Smith expounded on the virtue of both poetry and prose, which "provide the capacity for exchange and agreement" in different contexts of human relations. It is in the sections of Adam Smith's Pluralism on the importance of language that Shaftesbury's influence on Smith shines through the strongest, particularly with Shaftesbury's stress on language as a vehicle for unifying "the good and the beautiful."

Some years ago, waiting at the bottom of the local ski hill for our kids, I was talking about the national debt with a friend who happens to be one of the nation's leading economists. He was quite worked up about the size of the debt until I asked him what difference it made in purely economic terms, to which he replied : "None!"

"Then why does it bother yopu so much?"

"It's just unsightly!"

Reason is small beer compared to aesthetics.

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Posted by at December 25, 2013 9:57 AM

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