Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Adam Smith's Ethics and the "Noble Arts" (1)

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Adam Smith's Ethics and the "Noble Arts" (1)

Article excerpt

Abstract Adam Smith's character-based ethical system lays the foundation for his vision of the social and economic good. Within this system, the arts perform a critical role. Smith's essays "Of the Imitative Arts" and his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres are useful companions to The Theory of Moral Sentiments in analyzing the mechanisms whereby literature and the arts excite moral development. The arts stretch the boundaries of imagination and perspective, stimulating self-awareness and self-reflective growth. When combined with rational thought, decision-making takes place through an internal dialogue in which this wider perspective weighs upon one's "impartial spectator" and becomes the background for action. According to this view, the arts provide positive externalities for society and should be encouraged through public policy. The arts promote a conversation that becomes part of the common goods of society, including that of science.

Keywords: Adam Smith, arts, ethics, morals, moral imagination

The poets and romance writers, who best paint the refinements and delicacies of love and friendship ... are, in such cases, much better instructors than [the ethical philosophers] Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus (Smith 1982a: 143).


The Wealth of Nations (1981 [1776]) is Adam Smith's most popular work, but it is well known that Smith himself had higher regard for The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book that explores the wellsprings of human happiness and virtue. (2) There is virtue in markets, yet Smith would be appalled by a world that holds wealth above human connections, a world of markets unsupported by a social undergarment of moral fabric. Yet how is it that society imparts--from one generation to the next--the moral foundations for right action? Can morals be taught? Should mass education focus on distilling the wisdom of the great ethical philosophers? The quote from Smith's Moral Sentiments above suggests an alternative: for pragmatic and thoroughly dependable reasons, moral development is stimulated best through immersion in the arts.

Adam Smith, the master builder of models in both economics and ethics, was thus as thoroughly comfortable drawing his lessons from Hamlet as from Hume. Like the creator of a patchwork quilt, he dapples in dramas, dabs in novels, dusts in some poetry, and bellows opera. It is not simply that Smith likes and employs the arts. Rather, Smith's arts and his morals are "two halves of one system" (Bryce 1983: 19). Smith finds the arts essential for the task at hand--understanding and molding human conscience.

The use of the arts in teaching economics and business students has received growing attention across a number of disciplines and for different reasons. The American Economic Association, for example, devoted a large ballroom session at its 2002 annual meetings to the subject of "Mysteries and Classic Literature for Teaching Economics." In The Literary Book of Economics, Michael Watts (2003) introduces economists to the great literature and drama from which an economic narrative can be uncovered. The Journal of Economic Education, The Journal of Management Education, The Journal of Business Ethics, The CPA Journal, and other outlets have likewise devoted considerable space for articles discussing the use of literature, drama, films, documentary videos, music, and even cartoon animation. (3) What is it about the arts that makes them so germane for pedagogical inquiry? It is not simply that the arts are entertaining, for that quality obliges little moral or intellectual consideration (games of ping pong are entertaining, yet not reflective). Nor is it sufficient justification that they appeal to students' intuitive interests. The arts, Smith argues, have the capacity to stimulate deep emotional involvement. According to Smith's moral sentiments model these emotional tags--in conjunction with rational thought--become a catalyst for personal insight and even moral transformation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.