Adam Smith on Teleology and the Stationary State: A Rejoinder

By Alvey, James E. | History of Economics Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Adam Smith on Teleology and the Stationary State: A Rejoinder


Alvey, James E., History of Economics Review


In his original article Kleer claimed that Smith's teleological system applies to his economics. In my reply I stated that this system is incompatible with Smith's view of the inevitable emergence of the stationary state because in this state the 'ends of nature' were not satisfied. In his reply Kleer responds in various ways. Three points should be highlighted from these responses.

The first issue is definitional. For Kleer, a short 'Smithian' definition of an 'end' is suitable for ordinary discussions: an 'end' is a thing (say procreation) which is desirable in itself--its increase is always desired. The full definition of an end, however, is required in discussions of the stationary state: an 'end' is the quantity of a thing which emerges from a constrained-maximisation calculation (Kleer mentions an ecological constraint in this regard). Thus the end of procreation is an actual number of human beings: a number which is the maximum achievable subject to land scarcity. If this is a valid notion, Smith's teleological system, at least theoretically, may be coherently combined with a stationary state.

Is there any foundation for this notion of 'an end' in Smith? A fundamental piece of evidence for Kleer's view is Smith's statement that the 'allwise Being' directs nature so as to produce 'the greatest possible quantity of happiness' (Smith [1759] 1976, VI.ii.3.2). Thus far, I am not convinced by this evidence. The context of the quotation given above seems to me merely to suggest that 'at all times' God seeks to maximise happiness; there is no mention of God being limited by any constraint (ibid). To be convincing, Kleer would need to provide a more precise account of Smith's view of 'an end.' At present, it seems more like Kleer's understanding of an end rather than Smith's.

The second issue is: which ends do we evaluate? …

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