Journaltalk - Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists

Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists

About this article

  • Deirdre McCloskey
Volume Number 40
Issue Number 1
Pages 43-71
Publication year 2008

Flag this article

Flag this article for moderation.

Close this.

About History of Political Economy

Publisher Duke University
Grouping social sciences
Categories Smithian Political Economy, Ethics, Philosophy

Flag this journal

Flag this journal for moderation.

Close this.

Add a comment to this discussion.


  1. In the opinion of Deirdre McCloskey Adam Smith was the last virtue ethicist. McCloskey bases this claim on the fact that in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith identifies five distinct virtues. Identifying a limited number of distinct virtues places Smith in contrast to some of the leading figures in enlightenment virtue projects, e.g. Kant and Bentham. In fact McCloskey believes that Smith’s conception and enumeration of the virtues is strikingly similar to that found in the work of Thomas Aquinas who identified seven.

    McCloskey rightly identifies that something is missing in Smith’s selection of the five virtues. Smith did not include two of the transcendent virtues, faith and hope, frequently found in medieval ethical systems. While McCloskey spends time speculating as to why Smith omitted faith and hope, it is important to put these virtues in context. McCloskey uses Aquinas as her source for the count of the virtues and it is important to look there to see if there is any particular order in which the virtues were ordered. In the Summa Theologica Aquinas says “faith is first among the virtues” (II-II q. 4 a. 7 s. c.). Further, he says, other virtues can only precede faith accidentally and those other virtues precede faith in the sense that they remove obstacles to faith.

    For Aquinas then there is a structure of the virtues that McCloskey seems to have completely missed. McCloskey attempts to explain Smith’s exclusion of the virtue of faith as an enlightenment era attitude against religion seems lacking. If McCloskey is trying to show Smith’s more ancient roots, she should also investigate the question of final causality that would have played an important part of any account of virtues for ethical writers like Aquinas. For those authors picking up from where Aristotle left off, there would have been some level of agreement concerning the final end of human action, or at least agreement that there is a final end for man that is part of his very nature. Smith, however, seems to have been influenced by his friend David Hume about the idea of causality—for Hume cause and effect is determined by proximity in time of the occurrence of events and there is as a result no final cause. If Smith accepted this then it is an easier explanation for rejecting faith then enlightenment religious sentiment as faith, for Aquinas, focused on the final end of man. That is, McCloskey skips out on the deep questions arising out of the virtue of faith and the structure it plays in the totality of the virtues as interpreted by Smith. She does this to the detriment of an otherwise interesting article.

    posted 22 Sep 2010 by Steve Kunath

  2. This sharp polemic from Deirdre McCloskey seeks nothing less than a revolution in our ethical thinking. Her interpretation of Smith’s own ethical views, persuasive in itself, is more importantly a springboard for her own. Smith, McCloskey argues, would have rejected the default ethical position of modern economics – “prudence-only” or “Max U”, where value commitments are mere tastes and the only conversations that make sense between people are those gunning for a Pareto improvement. Nor is modern economics the only discipline to measure “what is moral” solely on one dimension: Kant focused on justice (duty) and some modern theologians solely on altruistic love. McCloskey rejects all such reductionist systems as unsuited to the complexity of human life.

    By contrast, Smith was an exponent of “virtue ethics”, an ancient approach grounded in Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas that McCloskey also describes as “virtue pluralism.” Instead of a single yardstick for goodness – such as utility for Bentham – most Western thinkers up to the eighteenth century would have guided themselves by the “pagan” or cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, courage and temperance as well as the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love. No ethical numeraire reduces the virtues to a a common yardstick; ethical deliberation, for individuals and society, becomes an open-ended process of discussion and debate when it is more useful to call an action “intemperate” or “prudent” than merely “morally wrong.”

    The claim in the article most likely to grate on many readers is that human beings need “transcendence,” the qualities associated with hope and faith (though not, in McCloskey’s view, the exclusive domain of religion). She rightly warns us that transcendent commitments have a way of creeping back into individuals and societies even if they outwardly banish God: Science, Nature, or the pursuit of wealth will perhaps fill the void, or worse the darker forces of nationalism and socialism. For individuals to find the needed – and socially healthy – sources of transcendence is a rather large problem that McCloskey no more than nods to, although arguably she did her duty just by pointing it out. How is a secular, liberal, multiracial society to match the passion of ethnic and religious chauvinism? In the contemporary world illiberal forces often seem more passionate than the defenders of pluralist tolerance. The deficit doesn’t seem to be made up by mild associations like McCloskey’s own “progressive Episcopalianism,” admirable though they otherwise are.

    I think that words from Smith himself suggest a solution, if we keep in mind McCloskey’s definition of hope as having “a human project.” In his discussion of Colbert in the Wealth of Nations, Smith places the ur-mercantilist in tension with “the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice”. By replacing “plan” with “project,” we create an open-ended agenda accessible to all citizens committed to the liberal polity. Suitably re-energized, and in conjunction with the ‘little platoons’ of society, that ought to provide enough transcendence for a lifetime – as it did for Adam Smith himself.

    posted 22 Sep 2010 by Chris Martin

  3. McCloskey faults the project of the Enlightenment philosophers, Smith included, for neglecting two of the seven virtues of Thomas Aquinas: hope and faith (though she does claim these were smuggled in through the back door of their philosophies). I must admit to being puzzled about what use a secular moral philosopher should have for either virtue, both of which being explicitly based in religion.

    McCloskey describes hope and faith as two sides of the same coin, the forward-looking imagination and backward-looking imagination, respectively. Without hope, she tells us, there can be no ‘human project.’ Without faith, no ‘human identity.’ They do not, she asserts with no further explanation, ‘have to be theological.’ She implies that without hope as an independent virtue, suicide would be our only recourse, and without faith as an independent virtue, we would forget our identities. She claims that this makes the two virtues intelligible in secular terms, but as I can make no sense of any of it, I have to disagree.

    The ability to carry on projects that will bear fruit in the future does require a kind of simple “hope” that one’s plans will succeed. However, surely if this is all that hope consists of, skepticism must be a coequal virtue, otherwise the wasting of resources on impossible projects would be laudable and proper. And neither hope nor skepticism is an independent virtue, as hope could be described as prudence plus courage in imagination, and skepticism, prudence plus temperance in the same. Indeed, to an atheist, praying for eternal life perfectly fits the idea of “wasting resources on an impossible project.” I can understand hope as an independent virtue only in a specific theological context. The ancient pagan virtue ethicists also distrusted hope as a virtue, pointing out that hope adopted as a stable habit of mind would lead to continual bitter disappointment.

    With regard to faith, to twist it into a secular virtue when its commonplace meaning is the belief in a religion is to do violence to language and reason. McCloskey attempts to describe a physicist’s assumption of the orderliness of the universe as piety and faith (a faith slipped in stealthily whenever an Enlightenment philosopher refers to Nature), but it is nothing of the sort. She uses this poor argument against Rosalind Hursthouse’s reasonable contention that religious piety is “based on a complete illusion” from an atheist’s point of view and then rolls on to blame our uptight refusal to recognize the existence of hope and faith as independent virtues in Western philosophy for the rise of Bolshevism, Hitler, and “all our woe.” Despite violating Godwin’s law here, she declares her position defying two centuries of philosophy evidently correct, and “warmly recommends” her own flavor of non-secular hope and faith.

    McCloskey points out another way God allegedly sneaks in the back door in Smithian moral philosophy: through the idea of an impartial spectator. She claims: “The impartial spectator…is not merely [a behavioral observation] about how people develop ethically. [It is a recommendation.]” This assertion stands in baffling contradiction to much of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which painstakingly describes a positive process of an individual judging the propriety of actions he observes or proposes to undertake with recourse to sympathizing with an imagined impartial spectator. TMS is not a long harangue from “an urbane resident of Edinburgh…hopeful for a rather better society, loving sweetly the imagined result” exhorting its readers to follow a system of virtues. It is principally a description of a positive system of moral philosophy: how we in fact judge the propriety of actions, not how we ought to. Though Smith often lets his values and opinions leak through to color the text, to an extent unfashionable among modern philosophers but charming in this case, the meat of the book is about how humans act, not how Smith believes they should.

    posted 22 Sep 2010 by Brian Bedient

  4. To judge McCloskey’s paper in terms of Smithian virtue, I think that she ought to be praised for bringing uncommon judgment and insight to the analysis of Smith’s mission as a moral philosopher, and vision as a social scientist. The goal of rescuing Smith from the purely economic and modern point of view is worthy and relevant still today. Her recognition of his shared perspective with the virtue ethicists of ancient and medieval times and her argument that he can only be understood through this prism are valuable and largely correct.

    However, I believe McCloskey falls somewhat short of the ideal in terms of her argument simply because the comparison cannot be stretched as far as she seems to hope. If Adam Smith was a virtue ethicist, he was a virtue ethicist of a very different kind than his ancient or medieval predecessors. And though there are important differences between Aristotle and Aquinas, it is clear that in significant ways, these two are closer to each other than either is to Smith.

    An important division between Smith and his predecessors is the way he sees virtue cultivated. For Aristotle and Aquinas, we discover virtue by examining man’s end, or ultimate purpose, and then by discovering the types of habits which will lead to the fulfillment of that end. Though these habits may be similar in kind to Smithian virtues, they are approached by way of reason rather than observation. Smith, in contrast, has very little to say about the content of man’s nature, other than that we are inclined (perhaps in universal agreement) to praise some actions and blame others. Smith seems to remain agnostic about whether this is an end in the mode of Aristotle, or merely a consequence of natural forces.

    Smith’s departure from Aristotle, and his adoption of enlightenment epistemology, makes McCloskey’s argument slightly misleading. And this does become especially apparent, as the previous comments have pointed out, when she attempts to make a place for hope and faith in Smith’s enlightenment virtue system. Here I agree with Steve Kunath that McCloskey is mistaken in her appeal to Aquinas. For to Aquinas, faith and hope are very specific theological virtues, both forward looking, and both connected specifically with man’s end in an exclusively Christian sense. They are not the secular-friendly virtues McCloskey would make them.

    And it is only in this very theological sense that faith and hope can exist as “primary colors,” as McCloskey defines Smith’s five essential virtues. Brian Bedient is right is to classify McCloskey’s versions of faith and hope as secondary virtues. The hope for a better future that Smith envisions is substantially different from Aquinas’ hope for the mercy of God. While I think Smith does indeed have every intention of recommending virtuous existence (rather than merely providing a descriptive account of human action), I believe that faith and hope as they existed in earlier virtue ethics have no place in his work. The faith and hope which appear in McCloskey’s article are of an entirely different kind, and do not need to be added to Smith’s list of primary virtues.

    posted 05 Oct 2010 by John Robinson

  5. The point has been made in preceding comments that Smith did not seem to discuss the virtues of faith and hope in TMS. As has also been noted, McCloskey’s defense of those two virtues in a secular setting of modern liberal society leaves much to be desired. I argue is that Smith was not a virtue ethicist in the Christian tradition but in the classical tradition.

    Before Christianity, ancient philosophers developed a set of four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. It was only later, particularly by Aquinas and the schoolmen, that the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity were added to make a set of seven virtues. McCloskey argues that Smith includes charity along with the four cardinal virtues in his system of ethics while leaving out faith and hope. I think a better reading of Smith is that he adopts the four cardinal virtues but treats charity (which he mostly calls benevolence) differently. In this way he is following the ancient tradition of the stoics more closely than the Christian tradition of Aquinas.

    Smith is clearly sympathetic to the ideas of the Stoics, though he argues they take their principles too far (TMS 272-293). We can see evidence of Smith’s stoicism in how he treats poverty and wealth, what he considers to be necessary for happiness, and how men should bear with misfortune or good fortune. In all these cases, it is the life of the mind, the tranquility of the soul, that is most important; not external circumstances. His description of how the beggar by the side of the road has the security that kings are fighting for is an argument for the superiority of philosophy, not material circumstances (see Thomas Martin’s forthcoming essay on Diogenes & Alexander the Great). All that being said, Smith does take exception to the stoic philosophy that men should not care one bit about their external circumstances (TMS 292). But his objection is a minor exception to only the strictest form of stoicism.

    TMS is filled with references to benevolence. Smith believes that benevolence is one of the key attributes of human sympathy as well as a praiseworthy motivation for action. He describes Nature and God as promoting the whole system of mankind for the purpose of universal benevolence. But Smith doesn’t think of benevolence as a virtue like he does fortitude or temperance. He criticizes moral systems that say benevolence is the only important virtue (Hutcheson), and he criticizes systems that suggest benevolence is irrelevant (Mandeville), but in his own system he treats benevolence as a goal, a good end; not a manner of behavior.

    McCloskey is right to argue that Smith was critical of one virtue systems, having a more complex and developed system of virtues himself. But I think she is wrong to focus on Aquinas and the seven virtues, minus two. Instead, a better reading of Smith considers how much he admired the ancients, not only the stoics but Plato and Aristotle too. It is from them that he takes the four cardinal virtues and incorporates them into his own views of why men have sympathy with each other and how they should live so as to be most happy and productive. Benevolence is the over-arching end, just as Plato talked about “the Good” or the stoics talked about the benevolence of God. It is not simply the most convenient of the three theological virtues that Smith adopted for his theory of moral sentiments.

    posted 12 Nov 2012 by Paul Mueller

  6. Deirdre McCloskey’s article, “Adam Smith, Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists,” is a well-reasoned piece that seeks to dispel the notion that Adam Smith was primarily an economist. As she states in the opening sentence (I love writers who get to the point), “Smith was mainly an ethical philosopher.” Her article traces the line of ethicists from Plato to Smith who believed that seven primary virtues (justice, fortitude, prudence, temperance, benevolence, faith, and hope) provide the foundation for all morality. Where Smith based his economics in his philosophy of ethics, McCloskey shows how modern economists have largely forsaken this connection, forgetting the tie that economics (presented in Smith’s Wealth of Nations) must maintain with ethics (presented in his Theory of Moral Sentiments). In fact, the ethical side of Smith, represented by TMS, was largely forgotten until relatively recently.

    Ms. McCloskey is well-qualified to write a piece on Adam Smith the philosopher, instead of Adam Smith, the economist. Of course Adam Smith WAS really a philosopher: his job title at University of Glasgow circa 1760 reads “Professor of Moral Philosophy.” McCloskey’s position description is similarly expansive at University of Illinois, Chicago: “Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication.” She is, like Smith, evidently a polymath.

    Most economists today approach Adam Smith from one of two angles. Either he was (1) a free-market capitalist, originator of the “Invisible hand” and early opponent of mercantilist voodoo; or (2) a free-market capitalist and author of The Wealth of Nations (WN), who also wrote a book of philosophy (TMS), which is probably brilliant, but contains language and concepts foreign to (and apparently inconsistent with) WN, and thus to be avoided.

    McCloskey sees no inconsistency between Smith’s two great published works. She sees no need to jettison the moral reasoning of TMS in order to focus on the economic insight of WN. Indeed, she sees Smith’s ethical philosophy as foundational to his economics, and urges present-day economists to make a similar connection. Smith she sees as primarily an ethicist (like the other former virtue ethicists: namely Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas), whose moral thinking drove his economic thinking. Divorcing the moral aspect of Smith’s thought (as modern-day economists do when they ignore TMS) rends WN, leaving it devoid of its context and true meaning. Similarly, such a divorce rends modern economics from a sure foundation, leaving it amoral, adrift on a sea of maximum utility.

    posted 14 Nov 2012 by Todd Peckarsky

Log in to Journaltalk to discuss this article!

Don’t have a Journaltools account? Sign up now.


Log in to Your Account

Member login

feed Jt Article Discussions

31 Mar

Christianity Changes the Conditions of Government
Trygve Hoff's Appeal to Ragnar Frisch: Four Letters from 1941
Classical Liberal Think Tanks in Greece, 1974–2024
Classical Liberalism in Russia
Revisiting Hypothesis Testing with the Sharpe Ratio
What Is the False Discovery Rate in Empirical Research?
Journaltalk: Opening the journals to civil voices everywhere!

All contents © 2024 by Daniel Klein unless otherwise attributed. All rights reserved.