Adam Smith’s Reconstruction of Practical Reason

Review of Metaphysics 58 (1):81 - 116 (2004)
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Abstract

IN THE LAST PART of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith puts his theory in a class with those of his contemporaries Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, namely, the systems that make sentiments the principle of approbation. Despite recognizing important differences with both of them, he thinks that since he has placed the origin of moral sentiments in sympathy, and in particular the fact that we are able to enter into the motives of the agent and get pleasure from finding them appropriate to their cause, sentiments are the foundation of his theory of morals. Many of Smith’s commentators, in fact almost all of the most important studies over the last few years, reaffirm the author’s self-description. However, my aim in this paper is to challenge this view by showing that Smith’s system can also be plausibly seen as a theory of practical reasoning, and in some important aspects very similar to Aristotelian ethics. Surprisingly few scholars have seen this parallel. Laurence Berns, Samuel Fleischacker, Charles Griswold, and Gloria Vivenza are the latest exceptions, identifying several points of coincidence between Adam Smith and Aristotle’s ethics. None of them, however, has tied all these similarities under a unified interpretation, such as the one I propose here: The basic analogy between these theories, and the source of those particular coincidences, is the operation of practical reason. Moreover, and besides the common elements with Aristotle’s ethics, Smith’s reconstruction of practical reason simultaneously announces some of the main features of modern accounts of ethics, such as impartiality and universality as preconditions of moral judgment. The integration of these ancient and modern elements in a single coherent theory allows Smith’s TMS to overcome the insufficiencies and paradoxes of both these traditions, and it constitutes one of the most interesting and challenging proposals of modern ethics.

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María Alejandra Carrasco
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Citations of this work

Will the Real A. Smith Please Stand Up!Matthias P. Hühn & Claus Dierksmeier - 2016 - Journal of Business Ethics 136 (1):119-132.
Adam Smith, Anti-Stoic.Michele Bee & Maria Pia Paganelli - 2019 - History of European Ideas 45 (4):572-584.
Adam Smith: Self-Command, Practical Reason and Deontological Insights.Maria A. Carrasco - 2012 - British Journal for the History of Philosophy 20 (2):391-414.

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