In the European intellectual milieu of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a movement sought, in the words of T. D. Campbell, ‘to establish a theology which was independent of revelation and a morality which was independent of religion’ (Adam Smith's Science of Morals, London: Allen & Unwin, 1970). Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) constitutes a contribution to this movement (TMS, IN: Liberty Fund, 1759/1984). Smith published the book in April of 1759 while holding the Chair in Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. The philosophers and social thinkers in Smith's intellectual circle warmly received TMS. David Hume wrote a glowing review of it in May of 1759, referring to Smith as a ‘very ingenious writer’. He also sent a copy of the book to Edmund Burke. In September of 1759, Burke penned a letter to Smith praising the book. Further, in a remarkable review of TMS, Burke – known for his own literary gifts – referred to Smith's elegant and eloquent prose as ‘rather painting than writing’. The book went through six editions during Smith's lifetime, the last one in the year 1790, when Smith died. Any book with that pedigree must be a tour de force. Ryan Patrick Hanley's slim book shows that TMS is indeed an extraordinary treatise in moral philosophy. Hanley provides a concise and incisive analysis of this great intellectual legacy of Smith.
In TMS, Smith delves deeply into human nature and discovers the principles that govern our behavior. He identifies the efforts aimed at ‘bettering our conditions’ as ‘that great purpose of human life’. In his other book, The Wealth of Nations (WN), published in 1776, Smith describes ‘the desire of bettering our condition, a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into grave’ (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1776/1981, p. 341). Hanley is convinced that Smith can help us realize our great purpose and live a better life. His confidence rests on his own experience. In the introduction to his book, he writes, ‘I know my own life is better for the years I've lived with him [Smith]’ (3). However, other than academics like Hanley, few people take the time to read an eighteenth-century tomb on (of all subjects) moral philosophy, which is a daunting task. Hence, Hanley has written Our Great Purpose to make TMS accessible to the public. It consists of twenty-nine short chapters packed into only 138 pages. Each chapter analyzes a theme of TMS. Although Hanley does not survey the whole work, the reader comes away with a good understanding of Smith's moral philosophy.
Hanley appropriately devotes the first chapter of Our Great Purpose to ‘self-interest’ and the second chapter to ‘caring for others’. Here, we learn that Smith's principle of self-interest is quite different from selfishness that is devoid of regard for other people. Indeed Smith believes that, in addition to having an innate desire to advance their own interest, humans naturally care for others. That we ought to be free to look after our own well-being and care for others, one might add, is central to Smith's moral and economic philosophy. In his public lectures at Edinburgh University in 1750, Smith stressed the danger that authorities pose by restricting freedom and disturbing ‘nature in the course of her operations in human affairs’. He further argued that ‘All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel … to support themselves, are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical.’ To avoid this abyss, he noted, ‘requires no more than to leave [nature in … human affair] alone and give her fair play in the pursuit of her ends that she may establish her own designs’ (Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1793/1982, p. 332). Smith later characterized a free society as one in which ‘every man’ would ‘pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice’ (WN 664). Notice, however, Smith demands that members of such a society observe justice (which he defines as avoiding harm to others), treat people as equals and respect their liberty. Hence, the practice of freedom is subject to substantial restrictions.
In addition to explicating self-interest and benevolence, Hanley covers numerous other themes in TMS, virtually all of which revolve around ‘living a better life’. What ‘lies at the heart of the project of living life well’, Hanley tells us, is to strike ‘the right balance’ between egoism and altruism, traits that are implanted in our nature (21). Furthermore, he interprets Smith as saying that we have a proclivity to overvalue what we lack and undervalue what we have. The awareness of this proclivity and the attempt to avoid it contributes to happiness. Smith declares, ‘Happiness consists in tranquility and enjoyment’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 40). While elaborating on this statement, Hanley observes, ‘[H]appiness lies in not getting a certain thing but being a certain thing’ (41). He then explicates Smith's prescription for living a happy life. The list includes ‘do less’ (avoid over-burdening yourself), spend time with friends, be at peace with yourself, and develop a healthy mind. While this is commonsense advice, one would have to exert much effort to practice them effectively. Smith believes that admiration for (almost worshiping) ‘the rich and powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition’ is ‘the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 44). Here, one might add, Smith regards the rich as naturally selfish and rapacious, yet ‘without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society’ (TMS 184–185). Thus, we may be grateful for the unintended consequences of their actions but ought to resist the corrupting tendency of admiring them.
The list of what we should do to live a better life continues. We must practice moderation and develop self-command. ‘Hatred and anger’, Smith tells us, ‘are the greatest poison to the happiness of a good mind’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 56). The key to all of the above is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. As Smith notes, ‘The wise and virtuous man directs his principal attention to the first standard; the idea of exact propriety and perfection’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 105). Further, the attainment of perfection, Smith contends, is a ‘slow, gradual, and progressive work’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 107). For Smith, the development of virtue is a bottom-up process and does not require, as Hanley aptly puts it, a ‘revelation or philosophical genius’ (108). TMS makes it clear that Smith is a virtue ethicist, eschewing the application of moral rules in human conduct. Smith writes that ‘The general rules of almost all the virtues … are in many respects loose and inaccurate, admit of many exceptions, and require so many modifications, that it is scarce possible to regulate our conduct entirely by a regard to them’ (TMS 174). This passage, indeed the whole of TMS, distinguishes Smith's approach to moral behavior from that of the teleology and deontology branches of ethics, a point made by Deirdre McCloskey (see ‘Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists’, History of Political of Political Economy 40(1) (2008): 40). Smith's approach, notwithstanding, Immanuel Kant, who formulated the Categorical Imperative and a rule-based system of ethics, expressed a favorable view of Smith's treatise (see editor's introduction, TMS 31).
Hanley sheds much light on the theme of wisdom and virtue by analyzing Smith's views on Socrates and David Hume. Smith praises Socrates for his ‘heroic magnanimity’ and ‘dazzling splendor’ but he also chastises him for ‘excessive self-admiration’ and self-delusion in having ‘secret and frequent intimations from some invisible and divine being’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 118–119). Smith writes of Hume, by contrast, that he ‘never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 127). Here, we might add, Hume, as a thoroughly secular philosopher, never claimed to have conversed with invisible beings. When Hume was on his deathbed, Smith wrote, ‘Poor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any Whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God’ (Correspondence of Adam Smith, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987, p. 203). After Hume died, Smith noted, ‘Upon the whole, I have always considered him … as approaching as nearly to the idea of perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 125). The proviso ‘as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’ implies that we can develop virtues without ever attaining absolute perfection. It also means that even virtuous people (like Hume) might commit errors and have faults.
Smith notes that his depiction of Hume as the paragon of wisdom and virtue ‘brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’ (quoted in Hanley, p. 126). In Smith's intellectual circle, most (if not all) thinkers regarded Hume's position on religion and God as blasphemous and were offended by his remarks. Quite crucially, Smith did not share Hume's views on religion and God. In fact Smith saw some utility in religion and embraced Deism. Hanley suspects that Smith anticipated the adverse reaction and abuse but expressed his views on Hume anyway because he ‘wanted to teach us something about wisdom and virtue’ (126). Moreover, Smith shows us it is possible to ‘celebrate all that he and his friend shared in common even in the face of real disagreements that might lead lesser people to break all ties to each other’ (129). In short, Smith is telling us that we should have ‘respect and toleration’ for views different from our own. This is a reasonable explanation. In addition to the disagreement on God and religion, Smith disagreed with Hume on certain economic and social issues. On monetary theory, for example, Smith criticized Hume for having views that bordered on mercantilism (Lectures on Jurisprudence, Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, p. 507).
There is one issue that in the context of Hanley's book requires comment. There is longstanding criticism of Hume for his statement that Africans are ‘naturally inferior to the whites’ (quoted in Ibram X Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, New York: Bold Type Books, 2017, p. 95). Since Smith praises Hume for his wisdom and virtues, it is crucial to note that he did not share Hume's views on Africans. Consider that in the early part of WN (34–36) Smith attributes the underdevelopment of Africa not to race but to the adverse geographical conditions that have thwarted extensive commerce and division of labor, which Smith believes are crucial for economic development. Relevant to our discussion, Smith also mentions non-African nations whose development has suffered from the same adverse geographical conditions. His views on Africans is evident from a passage in TMS where he states that a black person ‘from the coast of Africa’ possess a
degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving. Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished. (TMS, 206–207)
This passage clearly shows that Smith expressed markedly different views on Africans than those apparently held by Hume. Perhaps Smith, by praising Hume, affirms that one may strive to acquire wisdom and virtues while holding faulty views. As noted above, Smith's statement about Hume (following his death) included the proviso ‘as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’. On this statement, Hanley rightly observes, ‘[W]e may be flawed and frail but we can aim high and Hume's example shows us how’ (125).
Smith's view on Hume sheds light on the complexity of human nature, endowed with seemingly contradictory traits. Hanley's book is an illuminating source for the identification and understanding of these traits. It brings to light certain fundamental insights in Smith's masterpiece The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I believe Hanley's book Our Great Purpose should be required reading for all college students. It has the potential to help them live a better a life.