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5.0 out of 5 stars Smith's moral theory actually inspires moral conduct itself., November 21, 1998
This review is from: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol.1) (Paperback)
This book, the first published by Adam Smith, was very favorably received when it was first appeared in 1759. Within a few generations, however, it was largely neglected due to various turns taken in moral philosophy. Smith's approach is to paint the moral aspect of living in vivid colors, so that it literally inspires virtuous conduct. But in doing so, Smith never preaches; instead, he illustrates the beauty of virtue even over the practical advantages of living as though one were an "Ideal Observer" or spectator. This perspective plays a large role in his work, for according to Smith the moral perspective, and indeed conscience itself, is largely a function of adopting the point of view of the "person principally concerned" in morally relevant situations, and subsequently sympathizing with the perspective of the various parties involved. Sympathy for Smith is not soft-heartednes (nor headedness), but is instead identification with the motives and feelings of the parties involved. The volume includes one part devoted to an examination of the history of ethical theory, interpreted through the lense of Smith's own sentimentalist theory. One thing that should be noted about The Theory of Moral Sentiments is that it goes a good way in correcting the impression that Smith was a laissez-faire capitalist, and indeed the sentiments expressed here make it clear that the popular conception of Smith as first and foremost an economist concerned with automatic regulation resulting from an "invisible hand" (a phrase used only twice in all of Smith's writings, as explained by the editors in the excellent introduction to this volume), do not mesh well with the historical facts. He was a professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, and is reputed to have declared himself most proud, not of his most (and justly) famous, The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but of this book instead. Indeed, his headstone reads, "Here Lies Adam Smith, Author of The Theory Of Moral Sentiments and of The Wealth of Nations." The book's major shortcoming is its ultimately unsatisfying appeals to human nature at junctures where people clearly have disagreements. Smith's defense of retributive justice is an example, for today we might well see ourselves as involved in a struggle to move beyond such a conception of what constitutes appropriate behavior, despite the natural propensity that we may have toward it. Despite its age, this book will inspire and challenge people now struggling with moral dilemmas, and the comparatively confusing moral climate of our own time. It is good to see it in print, and it is good to see moral philosophers and others beginning to discuss its significance once again. I recommend it highly.
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