Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant: On markets, duties, and moral sentiments

Forum for Social Economics 39 (1):53-60 (2010)
In this essay, I explore the parallels between the two perspectives Smith takes in The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and two types of duties described in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Many people who familiar with Kantian ethics know chiefly of the perfect duties which rule out immoral behavior absolutely, and draw the conclusion that his is a formal, demanding, and cold ethical system. The same things have been said about Smith's description of the operation of the market economy and the invisible hand in The Wealth of Nations. While Smith did say that the market economy could operate if all agents were motivated by pure self-interest, that would only be a minimally satisfactory social order, just as if all people followed only Kant's perfect duties. Society would function, to be sure, but no one want to be a part of it. But Kant's imperfect duties mandate that persons adopt certain attitudes toward others-such as helping others when we can-and act in accordance with those attitudes whenever possible. A person who follows Kant's perfect and imperfect duties is therefore not simply abstaining from harming others, but rather he is actively helping them, and thereby contributing to a truly harmonious society in a positive way. I see this as a direct parallel to Smith's discussion of benevolence in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is also neglected by those with think of Smith only as the father of economics and a proponent of laissez-faire principles. While Smith held that the economy can function based on self-interest alone, he felt that sympathy for one's fellow human beings, and the benevolent feelings generated thereby, are necessary for society in the broader sense to prosper-in much the same way as Kant's imperfect duties.
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