Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle and Adam Smith on Justice: Cooperation between Ancients and Moderns?

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle and Adam Smith on Justice: Cooperation between Ancients and Moderns?

Article excerpt


Sympathy in Smith. The most wide-spread, but ill-informed opinion about Adam Smith, based on his reputation as the founder of modern economics, makes him out to be a Social Darwinist for whom the most important form of human interaction is competition. In fact, the most important principle in Smith's moral psychology is what he calls sympathy, broadly understood as fellow feeling: the imaginative placing of ourselves in the situation of another, representing to ourselves what we would sense, think, and feel were we in his or her situation. We not only conceive some idea of what the other is experiencing, but in a weaker degree also feel something like it; for to conceive or imagine that we are feeling something "excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception."(1) Mutual sympathy, a sense of a "correspondence of the sentiments of others with our own,, seems to provide a distinct pleasure of its own: grief can be alleviated and mirth and joy enlivened by being sympathetically shared. Teaching, for example, would lose much of its relish, if one could not enter into and enjoy the feelings good students have in being introduced to important and exciting ideas - ideas that may no longer be that exciting in themselves for their teacher. Sympathy then, the key notion in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, provides the foundation for Smith's understanding of natural sociality: society, or association, proves to be an association in morality.

The Wealth of Nations, which for the most part considers human behavior insofar as it is governed by "the desire of bettering our condition" and "the propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another" was first published in 1776.(2) The first edition of the more comprehensive The Theory of Moral Sentiments was published in 1759, when Smith was the professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. The last years of his life were spent preparing the sixth edition, which was published in 1790 some weeks before his death.

The chief motive for the pursuit of riches and place, according to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is the honor and attention that they naturally draw to their possessors; the chief gratification of those possessors lies in their sense of how others sympathetically think and feel about the joys and exultations naturally connected with their situation. The other side of this coin is the depression felt by the visibly poor and unfortunate as they sense the effect of the presence of their miseries on others. "It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty" (1.3.2). While recognizing this disposition to admire, almost worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise or neglect their opposites, as a natural and necessary psychological engine of social order, at least for any relatively civilized or prosperous society, Smith faces the difficulty that it "is, at the same time, the great and the most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments" (1.3.3,4.1.8-10).


Fellow-feeling in Aristotle. Near the beginning of his treatment of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle speaks of philanthropia, literary affection for humanity, as the human manifestation of a natural affection for members of their own species running through almost all animals (1155a12-29;cf.1161b3-8). The Rhetoric provides a more general argument.

Since what is according to nature is pleasant [cf. 1369b33-1370a25], and things that are akin are natural to each other, all things that are akin and alike are for the most part pleasant, as human to human, horse to horse, youth to youth .... And since everything like and akin to oneself is pleasant, and each self feels this most of all in relation to himself, all men are fond for [or lovers] of themselves more or less, because all such relations [that is, likeness and kinship] belong most of all to oneself. …

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.